If you’re on Bay Area roads and see the headquarters of Levi Strauss, Facebook, Pixar or PayPal,  you instantly associate them with their products and services. When you see the sign for Abilities United, a non-profit based in Palo Alto, the connection isn’t as obvious.

“A lot of people in the community drive by here twice a day, but if you don’t have a family member or loved one that has a disability, you don’t know,” says Steve Schmidt, team manager of hardware program management in the Microsoft’s HoloLens group, and an Abilities United board member. Schmidt has a young family member with a disability, and chooses to contribute his time, talents and funds to help others with differences.

Abilities United may not be a household name, but the organization has made a deep and long-lasting impact. The organization has been a fixture of the community on the Peninsula for more than 50 years, and helped 65,000 people during this time. Services are available for clients from birth through adulthood and inclusive preschool and swimming lessons that are offered to all.

Abilities United envisions a world where people of all abilities learn, live, work, and play together. Programs are designed to raise awareness and acceptance of people with disabilities within the overall community by assisting participants to be active within it.

 A lifetime of services

Abilities United’s mission is to advance advocacy, inclusion, and independence for children and adults with disabilities. About 75 percent of Abilities United participants have developmental disabilities—like Down syndrome, autism, or epilepsy—and the remaining 25 percent have learning or physical disabilities.

Therapy, education, training, and support are available at all stages of life. “If you join us as an infant in early intervention, or if you are a preschooler, a school age child, or an adult we have a service that can benefit people of all ages and abilities” states Charlie Weidanz, chief executive officer.

Participant Tracey Jarrett, a graduate of Palo Alto High School and a Taft College, has her own apartment and a full-time food services job at Stanford University. When she was born with Down Syndrome in the early 1970’s, her parents were advised to place her in an institution—an idea they firmly rejected. Tracey began receiving services from Abilities United as an infant and has been a lifelong participant in educational, therapeutic,  recreational, and social programs. Her mother, Laurie, has this advice for parents of a child with Down Syndrome: “Contact Abilities United right now. It will be the best thing that ever happened to you and your family.”

Abilities United’s main site is in Palo Alto, but those who benefit from services may live or work far from the city. Individual therapy, respite care, aquatics programs and many other activities happen in homes and other community locations. “I like to say we’re airport to airport,” says Weidanz. “We pretty much cover the 101 corridor between SFO and San Jose.”

In 2007, Abilities United pioneered their community connections program to promote more inclusion and help participants develop personal and employment skills. “Our participants go out every day into the community” explains Weidanz. “If they’re not ready for employment, they’re going out to volunteer at local businesses or nonprofits. … The community gets a chance to be included and we get to be included in the local community. That’s really great.” Ninety entities now ask for Abilities United participants to help with projects.

Employment services are available to support participants to find and keep a job they love. “We go to employers and say that we know that you like to have a diverse work environment. We can make that happen for you,” explains Soheila Razban, vice president of programs. “And we always get a really positive response because we do have talented and skilled people.”

 Values drive success

A combination of strong values power Abilities United’s staff and board to make it a dynamic and successful organization. “One of the things that does set us apart is our constant look at how we can be innovative,” Weidanz notes. Recent examples include a program that allows all participants to take college courses, and a partnership with Stanford students to design an assistive tool to help participants with limited mobility create artwork independently. Abilities United’s spirit of innovation is also directed internally; in 2008, the staff and board went through a rebranding process, changing its name, logo and other elements to reflect its updated identity.

Razban has been part of the evolution at Abilities United for close to 20 years. “It’s never good enough for us,” she says, speaking of the organization’s strong culture of continuous improvement and collaboration. Both Weidanz and Razban credit employees for participants’ success. “The dedication is just unbelievable,” says Razban. “It is not just a job for anybody; it’s like a life mission.”

Weidanz also values the dedication of their board of directors: “They don’t just show up once a month for a board meeting,” he explains. “In fact, when the board chair interviews prospective board members, she lays it right out there that, “We expect 12 to 15 hours a month of your time.’” The board closely tracks metrics established in annual planning retreats, and all members participate in subcommittees. “We’ve got a pretty diverse board as far as skill set and experience,” Schmidt observes. “There’s always something new I can learn and a new perspective.”

 Best possible life

Schmidt has always had a passion for helping others, but says that when he was looking to become deeply involved, “I didn’t really even know where to start.” After he participated in Microsoft’s Community Leaders Program, the citizenship team introduced Schmidt to several organizations, and he was drawn to Abilities United. “I felt like I could jump in here,” he explains, “and not only bring my skill sets and provide service and help the organization, but also learn in the process.”

As a board member, Schmidt is inspired by seeing that someone receiving support from Abilities United has the opportunity to live their best possible life, saying that each participant “has an amazing ability to contribute to society, to get satisfaction out of life, to make a contribution, and they just need a chance to prove themselves.’”

Schmidt appreciates that Microsoft contributes $25 for every hour he volunteers, matches his donations and sponsors Abilities United’s major fundraising events. “For the past two years, Microsoft has sponsored a table at the Authors Luncheon, and sponsored the Aquathon. I’ve spoken a number of times on campus about Abilities United specifically, and also to say, ‘Hey, as a board member, here’s what I do. There’s no reason that all of us can’t have some involvement in our community!’”

If you support Abilities United’s mission, do your best to appreciate and recognize the importance of including people of all abilities in your life, and check out ways to help at abilitiesunited.org. Steve Schmidt invites you to attend the Authors Luncheon in November to hear from leading writers, and to join him in the friendly competition of the annual Aquathon held every September.

View the original Microsoft Catalyst article