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Stafford Family: Abilities United has been a blessing
Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Peyton  attends Abilities United’s Milestones Preschool Pre-K program. He was diagnosed with Regressive Autism just after his second birthday. The first 15 months of his life were amazing – he was a very happy, alert baby and was very talkative and social. Between 16 and 19 months, he lost all of his speech except for the word “Ha”, became very introverted and wanted to spend all his day lining things up. His diagnosis confirmed our fears. My husband has a 17 year old cousin who is Classically Autistic. She was diagnosed at birth, but at that time, there were not as many options for therapy. Early Intervention was not available back then so she was not given the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to live independently. So much has changed in the 15 years between her diagnosis and Peyton’s, and we are so thankful for the advances in early diagnosis, early intervention and therapy.

Peyton started Early Intervention, Speech Therapy and Occupational Therapy within two months of his diagnosis. I enrolled in a study at the Stanford Psychiatry Clinic on Pivotal Response Therapy. We started intensive one-on-one Behavioral therapy called ABA 10 months after his diagnosis, and by his third birthday, Peyton was talking, had great eye contact, and was social! He qualified for a social skills group and minimal speech therapy through our school district and we enrolled him at Milestones preschool. We also enrolled him in the Abilities United Therapy Clinic’s social skills group for 3-4 year olds.

These past 15 months at Abilities United have been such a blessing for our family. I describe Milestones preschool as an inclusive program in a loving environment with an exceptional staff that will work with your child and prepare them for life. This is what they have done for us. Peyton moved up to the Pre-K program in May and is expected to be mainstreamed into public Kindergarten next Fall. I have involved myself more into the Abilities United community. It’s a small sign of gratitude for this wonderful agency. This past summer I took a leadership role in the Children’s Development Services Parent and Staff Association and participated in the recent Aquathon. Peyton and my husband had such a great time swimming in the event!

I was lucky to have been able to stop working in order to focus on Peyton and get him the therapy he has needed to get where he is today. All of the therapy and interventions have given me back my son and has opened the door to a life full of possibilities for him. If you had asked me two years ago what I imagined Peyton’s life to be like, I would have painted a pretty dark picture. But, with all the progress he’s made in just these two years, I now am more optimistic and see great things in his future. I see him having lots of friends. I see him playing sports, possibly even as a team captain! I see him graduating high school and college. I see him falling in love and having a family of his own. But, most of all, I see him happy and seeing people for who they are, rather than whatever disability or developmental delay they may have, and I credit our time at Abilities United for that.

Written by Leslie Stafford and presented at the Abiliities United 50th anniversary celebration on April 25, 2013.

Tracey and Laurie Jarrett: Abilities United is a lifeline
Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The wonderful progress that has been made over  the years both by Abilities United and its clients could not have happened without the efforts of many parents in the community. A great example is Laurie Jarrett.


In 1973, Laurie learned that her baby daughter Tracey had Down Syndrome. “I was in shock,” says Laurie.   “Tracy started in the infant stimulation program when she was four months old. The agency (Abilities United) was an absolute lifeline for me; Tracy was learning and so was I.”


“All the literature for Down Syndrome at that time emphasized very low expectations,” says Laurie. “That just did not sit well with me.  I raised Tracy with the same expectations I had for my other two daughters. That was all reinforced at the agency as well.”


Through what is now Abilities United, Tracy became involved with swimming and then Special Olympics.  She would continue swimming at Abilities United for years. After going through the public school system, Tracy again re-engaged with Abilities United in 2002, which led to a job a local movie theater. “She worked there for five years and she loved it,” says Laurie. “She was so proud to put on her uniform and go to work at the theater.”


From her participation in the Abilities United Independent Living Skills Program Tracey developed the skills that enable her to live with greater independence, and today she has her own apartment in Palo Alto. “ "The Abilities United Employment Services helped Tracey get job at Stanford working for food services in one of the dorms,” says Laurie. “It’s just wonderful.”


“This is a lifetime association with the agency,” says Laurie. “When Tracy had her 40th birthday, it was a given that we’d have the party at Abilities United.” Laurie shares a photo from an Abilities United Author’s Luncheon, where both mother and daughter are beaming. “You can see there how proud I am,” she says, as she brushes away a tear of happiness. 


Her advice to 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.”


Based on a 2013 interview. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Laurie Jarrett and Wendy Kuehnl

Judy Wachner: Helps support her household with art sales
Tuesday, December 10, 2013

When you walk through the front door at Abilities United, take a moment to look at the beautiful painting that hangs on the wall to your left. This will make you one of many who have admired the wonderful art of Judy Wachner.

Judy has been with the Abilities United Independent Living Skills (ILS) program for the past three years, since moving to the Bay Area from Southern California. Judy’s path has had its challenges. “When I was young I had a head injury, but for years nothing was diagnosed,” she says. “I did ok in public schools, but I was physically very small. I had a learning disability that nobody could figure out, and I had seizures and other issues.”

Seeing Judy’s special gifts as an artist, Abilities United helped obtain a scholarship for Judy to get individual art lessons from a professional instructor. Bud Rubin, a supporter of Abilities United, funds a scholarship that helps covers the fees for these lessons. With this, the stage was set for one of Judy’s special experiences at Abilities United. “I was able to give Mr. Rubin a picture that I had drawn,” says Judy. “He liked it and it made me feel so good.” Cassy Curran, Judy’s ILS instructor at Abilities United, adds that “It was an amazing picture; it just had a heavenly feeling. Mr. Rubin was deeply touched; it was a wonderful moment.”

“Working with Judy has been a delight, adds Cassy. “Her artwork is beautiful and captivating. I admire her sense of beauty, her gentleness, and her courage. She’s had a lot of difficult challenges in her life, but now I can see the day where Judy will be MY art teacher!”

Judy has sold a number of pieces of her art, and aspires to sell more. “I’d like to sell more to help add to our household income,” says Judy, who has been happily married to her husband Yaakov for 12 years. “Abilities United has been very proactive in helping me with my art, and helping me find new ways to sell it.”

“There are a lot of people with disabilities, many who are more disabled than I am,” says Judy. “But with a bit of help, the art that some people with disabilities can create is incredible. Abilities United is a great place. There’s a warmth here that helps make it really special.”

Based on a 2013 interview.  Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Judy Wachner and Wendy Kuehnl.

Don Ostrus: Involvement with Abilities United was a highlight of life
Thursday, December 5, 2013

Don Ostrus is 92 years young and has seen a lot in his time, so it means a little extra when this long-time supporter says “my involvement with what is now Abilities United was one of the highlights of my life.”

Don’s involvement with people with disabilities did not come naturally. “I had a cousin who was severely disabled, and he scared me,” says Don. “Then years later I befriended a child with a disability, and I found that he was such a sweet kid. In the 1980s I became involved with what is now Abilities United, and I served on the board for a number of years. When I became president of the board I was totally immersed.”

Things have changed a lot since then, and in a very positive way. “Back then those with disabilities were shunned; you’d never see a person with a disability working in the community,” says Don, “but now they are accepted. Today I see people with disabilities working in the community; they are great employees and they have such a sense of pride and self-worth with their jobs. It’s been a real inspiration to see this happen.”

Don sees that a key reason for the very positive progress through the years has been the work of organizations such as Abilities United. “There have been so many top-notch people who have given their time and their talents,” says Don. “Lynda Steele of Abilities United is one of the best executive directors around; she has a lot of empathy and a lot of business sense.”

“People with disabilities are an important part of our community,” says Don, “and it is organizations like Abilities United that make it possible.”


Based on a 2013 interview. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Don Ostrus and Wendy Kuehnl.

Pieter Kark: Neurologist works with people with disabilities for 50+ years
Thursday, November 21, 2013

The credentials of Dr. Pieter Kark tend to humble the rest of us. A preeminent neurologist with fifty years of experience working with people with disabilities, Dr. Kark was educated at two of the top universities in the world – Harvard and Oxford – and had stints at prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital, the National Institute of Health, and several leading universities during his distinguished career. Above all this, he is a man with a very big heart.

With such a pedigree, we were thrilled when Dr. Kark joined the board at Abilities United in 2009. Upon arrival, he was thoroughly impressed with what he found. “I’d never seen anything like it,” he says. “Everyone on the staff deeply cared about what they were doing. They all wanted to help the participants move forward, and to enable them to contribute to society however they could. There was such a warm, positive feeling.”

Abilities United has a different philosophy than some of the other organizations Dr. Kark has encountered. “Other organizations, particularly in the past, viewed people with developmental disabilities as people who needed to be cared for,” he says. “In contrast, Abilities United sees each individual as a person who can contribute to society in enormous ways! We have people who are excellent poets, artists, writers, and musicians. For the November 2012 election, five individuals organized a community discussion about tax issues that went for a couple hours and really got into the meat of the issues. Our participants are people who have a lot to give back, and they enjoy giving back.”

Over his career Dr. Kark has seen some important and very positive changes for those with disabilities. He has helped enable some of these changes himself; through his research he identified that some disabilities, which are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, can be treated simply by changes in diet. “One of my first patients had problems with coordination, and by putting him on a low sugar diet he’d get better very rapidly,” says Dr. Kark. Simply put, his pioneering work has helped enable more effective treatments for an entire class of disabilities.

While pleased with the progress he has seen over the past fifty years, Dr. Kark believes that we still have a long ways to go. “There are hospitals and high-tech companies – even in this area - that can’t imagine hiring someone with developmental disabilities for a job that they could certainly do,” he says. “People need to recognize that those with developmental disabilities have a lot to contribute.”

With his deep expertise and passionate support for people with developmental disabilities, Dr. Kark has been a wonderful addition to the Abilities United team.

Based on a 2013 interview. Written by  Bob Thomas and edited by Pieter Kark and Wendy Kuehnl.

Amber and Jacques MacMillan: Early experience creates ongoing involvement
Wednesday, November 20, 2013

From her work as a speech pathologist, Amber MacMillan had heard the buzz about Abilities United for years, and she became aware of the agency’s work. Then in 2008, her son Jacques was born with a disability and suddenly her family would become partiipants of Abilities United.

“Jacques was born in 2008 with a condition called hypotonia,” says Amber. “He was in the early intervention program at Abilities United starting at age two. With their therapy we saw lots of improvement in his ability to maintain his balance, and then to be able to stand and eventually walk.”

Like other Abilities United participants, Amber valued how Abilities United helped the whole family. “Having a child with a disability is a traumatic experience that hits like a freight train,” says Amber. “We had plans and dreams for our child, but now we would be taking a different path. It was very disorienting; suddenly my day was driven by doctor’s appointments and therapy appointments, and I didn’t know what was going on with our son or why. With Abilities United, I felt like I was arriving at a place where a team was going to take care of me as well as my child.”

“As a mother I found enormous value in what’s called parent group time,” Amber says. “When the child is with a therapist the parents have 45 minutes with each other and can talk about things relating to their children, or talk about what’s going on in their own lives. Lots of tears are shed there and you know you’re talking to people who understand the challenges. We all benefitted and felt that the parents group did something marvelous for us”

Amber was so impressed with her experience that she worked with three other parents to co-found the Abilities United Parent and Staff Association, and later she expanded her efforts to give back by joining the Abilities United Board of Directors.

At Abilities United, we are proud of the progress that Jacques has made, and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to work closely with Amber as she strives to help both the organization, and other parents who have a child with a disability.

Based on a 2013 interview. Written by Bob Thomas, edited by Amber MacMillan and Wendy Kuehnl

Lechuga Family: Laura made impressive progress at Abilities United
Thursday, November 14, 2013

In 2011, Ed Lechuga was grappling with the challenges and heartbreak of having a daughter with a disability who was not progressing. “Laura has a rare condition called Aircardi Syndrome, which results in an underdeveloped brain and other issues,” says Ed of his daughter. “A year ago, when she was six months old, she couldn’t hold her head up, and I would have to hold her neck just like an infant.”

It was at that time that Ed heard about the therapeutic benefits of the warm-water pool at Abilities United. “I wanted to do whatever benefited my daughter,” says Ed. “When we started with Abilities United, they asked what our goals were. The doctors had said that if Laura wasn’t holding herself up by age two, that she would probably never walk, so getting her to hold herself up was the goal.”

Laura went through several months of aquatic therapy at Abilities United. “One day it seemed like a switch went on, and she held up her head in the pool,” says Ed, who still gets excited at the thought. “That was a tremendous step forward! Now she’s 19 months old and sitting up, and with a bit of help she can even stand in the pool.”

Other experts have been taken aback by Laura’s progress. “Our neurologist was surprised,” says Ed, “Then when the Director of the Early Start program from the San Andreas Regional Center came over for her annual check-in, she was blown away.”

“I could talk about Abilities United all day long,” says Ed. “You can see the care and expertise they have as they are working with the children. They asked me how they could improve, and I simply couldn’t think of anything. We expect to be here for years.

Based on a 2012 interview. Written by Bob Thomas, edited by Ed Lechuga and Wendy Kuehnl.

Charlotte and Gina Rayfield: It's a family affair with Abilities United
Friday, November 1, 2013

For Gina Rayfield and her charming daughter Charlotte, Abilities United has been a family affair.
The Rayfields first came to what is now Abilities United when Charlotte, who was born with cerebral palsy, was about a year old. “We were a family coming in, with a child born with a disability, and we didn’t really know how to support her,” says Gina. “At the beginning when you have that challenge, it can be daunting, and you feel alone. Abilities United is really a great place for people to come together; to get the support for the family, and to help the child excel and succeed as much as they can.”
Gina was so impressed with her experience at Abilities United that she became a volunteer, then a member of the Board of Directors for six years, and then continued to be involved with the annual Author’s Luncheon. “My favorite memory of Abilities United was having our family featured at the Author’s Luncheon,” says Gina. “We presented a video of Charlotte, showing some of the amazing things she’s done and what a great person she is. Being on stage with her and sharing that moment was truly special.”
Charlotte today is a smart, vibrant, and impressive young lady. Now a 14-year old girl, she’s something of an ambassador for Abilities United, and supports fundraising activities via the Author’s Luncheon and the Abilities United Aquathon. She’s gets around in her wheelchair, but this hasn’t stopped her from developing a passion for bi-skiing, and videos on youtube of her skiing [] reflect her joy on the slopes. She’s a young girl with great dreams – “I want to be a teacher and an author,” she says.
“I would encourage people to learn more about Abilities United,” says Gina. “It’s a vital part of the community, and the work they do is amazing and important.”
Based on a 2013 interview. Written by Bob Thomas, edited by Gina Rayfield and Wendy Kuehnl

Zachary Baenziger: Many ways to give using his talent
Thursday, October 24, 2013

On nearly any workday, you will find 30-year-old Zachary Baenziger busy at his volunteer job at Abilities United.  He smiles widely and states, “It gives me pleasure to help and I know people appreciate what I do.  I am glad to provide support so we can move forward to get things done more quickly or keep from getting behind.”  Zac has a beaming personality, which has helped him create an essential role for himself at Abilities United.

Zac has volunteered between 10 to 15 hours a week for the past two years. From scanning projects to filing, he works side-by-side other Abilities United staff and brings an up-beat spirit to the office.

Born in Vallejo, Zac was raised in Los Altos, and graduated from Los Altos High. When he finished high school, he qualified for support from the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR).  He was intent on finding a job since he did not want to stay at home doing nothing in particular.   His DOR counselor sent him to Abilities United to receive job search skills and placement. He recalls that with his combination of challenges, learning these skills was very important to his ability to find employment.  Zac also took a series of business office procedures courses through adult education at the Adult Education Center in Mountain View.

Over those twelve years, Zac worked for a clothing store, an Italian deli, upscale food store, and in his father’s business. He was recently hired to do administrative work at a Ada’s Café that is scheduled to open in the new Mitchell Park Public Library.

When Zac is not at work or is in between jobs, he volunteers at Abilities United, ready to complete whatever tasks need to be done. “I like the people here and Abilities United gives me somewhere positive to go.” Doing a variety of office tasks helps keep up his office skills.

Drew Thorne, Adult Services Coordinator, is Zac’s supervisor at Abilities United. He explains that, among the administrative volunteers that work in his department, Zac works long hours, handles technically complicated tasks, and takes ownership of long-term projects. Drew continues, “Our relationship with Zac exemplifies an intrinsic approach of Abilities United: we are connecting abilities with opportunities; we’re showing that strength and inclusivity go hand in hand. We help him prepare for employment, and he helps us with our workload. Zac works hard and rises to a challenge, his impact here is immeasurable.”

Zac is thorough, pays close attention to details, and is always willing to help at a moment’s notice.  He is excited to learn new things. As a result, he has expanded his skills and effectiveness. He easily collaborates with staff and volunteers. He takes time to engage and support other volunteers in their work.  “Zac is a very supportive person,” reflects Drew. “Zac is a hard worker who takes pride in his results and rises to new challenges; his impact here is immeasurable.

Zac likes being part of an organizational community and finds it hard to imagine not coming to Abilities United.  “If I stayed home in my apartment I would be missing out, feeling unmotivated. My favorite part of Abilities United is the employees and participants.  We offer and provide good programs.” 

Based on a 2013 interview with Carol Lillibridge. Written and edited by Carol Lillibridge and Wendy Kuehnl. 

Christine Wyborn and her son Philippe, have benefitted from and are benefitting Abilities United
Friday, October 18, 2013

Christine Wyborn and her husband moved to Belmont, CA where their first son, Philippe, was born at the end of 1969.  Like all new parents, the Wyborns were overjoyed with their new-born son and looked forward to seeing him grow with each passing day. “When Philippe was born, he was fine,” reflects Christine,  “However, at 15 months old, he started having seizures resulting in brain damage. He was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy.”  Though the diagnosis was devastating, Christine was determined to get the best services available and tirelessly located as many resources as possible.  One doctor suggested that Philippe stay at home, an option Christine did not accept. Instead, Christine immediately enrolled Philippe in physical therapy, where he learned to crawl, then walk.

Three years later, Philippe’s baby brother, Shawn, was born. After a few months, Shawn too, was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and had seizures. She enrolled them in a school for children with Cerebral Palsy. But at the same time she fought the school district so the boys could attend the public school in San Bruno.

During the boys’ school years, Christine discovered Abilities United. Phil and Shawn swam in the Abilities United pool two times a week. They also had horseback riding therapy in Woodside twice a week.  “Swimming enhanced their body coordination she says, “and riding strengthens balance for children with Cerebral Palsy.” 

Philippe went on to junior high school in Foster City but Shawn died at the age of 14 during a seizure.  Philippe was much more fortunate and his most severe and last seizure was at the age of 23. 

After Philippe graduated from the San Bruno high school in 1992, Christine searched for a place where he could continue to develop his independent living and social skills. After evaluating several programs, they found Abilities United’s Adult Day Program, which he has attended ever since. “We all loved Abilities United right away,” she states.

Four years ago, at age 38, Philippe took the next step in his independence and moved out of his family’s home into a Foster City group home when the five other residents voted him in.  Every weekday travels to Abilities United via a van service. 

Today, Christine’s biggest concern is to provide for Philippe’s future.  In 2005, before her husband died, they created a trust. Christine states, “I want to give to a charity that is close to me. After Philippe’s needs are met by the trust, our home will go to Abilities United.”


Based on a 2013 interview conducted by Carol Lillibridge. Written and edited by Wendy Kuehnl and Christine Wyborn.

Debby Lesser: Her life's passion is inspired by her son
Friday, October 11, 2013

Like other team members at Abilities United, Debby Lesser has a deep commitment to people with disabilities that extends well beyond working hours. An Executive Assistant at Abilities United, for more than twelve years Debby has been focused on helping to ensure housing options for those with disabilities. 

“My son Ben has Fragile-X syndrome, which is a genetic condition that shares some characteristics with autism,” says Debby. “As Ben grew older and I learned more about what he had in store, it became clear that housing for the disabled is a big black hole.”  

“Many people with disabilities are low income, and it’s not affordable for them to live in this area given housing costs,” she says. “I’ve tried to help raise awareness that people with developmental disabilities live in our communities and they need housing. Otherwise, they often have to move somewhere cheaper that’s far away from families and friends".

“A woman with a mission, in the last fifteen years Debby has helped build forums for parents to start planning on housing for their disabled children; helped start a parents group that now has 170 families; and continues to work with local communities to advocate for more housing options. 

With her passion for improving the lives of those with disabilities, it was appropriate that Debby would make her way to Abilities United. “I was struck with how board members, families, and participants all view this as a second home; they know everyone and it’s very comfortable. Families feel this is a place where their children will be cared for and appreciated, where they can learn and grow.” 

“The staff at Abilities United is really a good group,” says Debby in conclusion. “They’re a big reason why Abilities United is a premier agency in the Bay Area.”


Based on a 2013 with Debby Lesser. Written by Bob Thomas, edite by Debby Lesser and Wendy Kuehnl.

Joe and Jennifer Kaufman: Son and mother's lives changed by Abilities United
Thursday, October 3, 2013

Two minutes after her son Joe was born, Jennifer Kaufman’s pediatrician walked into the delivery room and coldly said “your son shows all the signs of Down Syndrome.” He then turned and walked out of the room.

“Seven weeks later I brought Joe to Abilities United,” says Jennifer. “The first teacher I met reached for Joe with joy and said ‘A baby!’ She didn’t see an infant with Down Syndrome, she just saw a beautiful baby.” Jennifer gets emotional at recalling the moment. “Abilities United saw past the diagnosis. I will never forget how they loved him for being Joe-Joe.”

Through physical therapy at Abilities United, Joe would learn to walk and take his first steps when he was three years old. “That was monumental,” says Jennifer.

Jennifer, who had previously been a teacher herself, was so impressed with Abilities United that she applied to join the organization. With her energy, compassion, teaching background, and experience in raising a child with a disability, Jennifer has been a wonderful fit.  For eight years she’d been a teacher in the Abilities United Early Intervention Program, working with children from infancy to age three. She is a beloved teacher and friend for many children with disabilities, as well as their families.

Today Joe attends a public school, and together with several other kids at school, he has the job of raising the flag each day.  Jennifer is proud of Joe having this responsibility.

Looking forward, Jennifer’s dreams for Joe will, in their essence, sound familiar to most parents. “I look forward to him contributing to society at whatever level he’s capable of doing. I hope that he’ll be a happy adult, who is loved, and who is appreciated for all that he is.”

Abilities United is proud to have worked with Joe, and we’re fortunate to have wonderful staff such as Jennifer.

Based on a 2012 interview with Jennifer Kaufman. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Jennifer Kaufman and Wendy Kuehnl.

Hellen Hsieh: Showcases and shares artist talent with all
Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hellen Hsieh, owner of Design Loft, is a dedicated long-time art curator volunteer at Abilities United.  Since January 2010, Hellen has contributed her own artistic talent selecting, preparing and framing the original works of art created by artists of Abilities United. She also spearheaded Abilities United’s participation in the Silicon Valley Open Studio tours (SVOS) as well as dozens of other Bay Area venues to showcase and promote the art created by participants of Abilities United.  Hellen has also hosted an art show of the Abilities United artists at her Design Loft grand opening.

Hellen’s efforts are inspirational and the artists inspire her,  “I want other people to see the beautiful artwork individuals with disabilities are capable of creating; to help people see their talent and ability rather than their disability. This is an opportunity to give these artists a public space to display their work.”

She was honored with President Obama’s Volunteer award for her hundreds of hours of volunteer service as our art curator. She has received the San Andreas Regional Center (SARC) Service Above Self award for community impact. Her volunteer efforts have been highlighted in the San Jose Mercury News, Menlo Park Almanac and Mountain View Voice.  Hellen’s contributions have made possible art shows at Silicon Valley cafes, libraries, city buildings and corporations.  She has expanded the art shows to corporations such as Cisco Systems where all 27 pieces of artwork by artists from Abilities United sold to Cisco employees and LinkedIn’s corporate headquarters where the art was sold as a part of LinkedIn’s 10th anniversary party and their “dress your office space” campaign.

Hellen’s contributions as an Art Curator are most definitely appreciated by everyone at Abilities United, especially the artists themselves whose self-confidence and passion for art increases with each exhibit and sale. She has “drawn” the attention and admiration of many community members and friends of Abilities United.

Based on a 2012 interview with Hellen Hsieh. Written and edited by Wendy Kuehnl and Hellen Hsieh.

Eric and Elinor Burns: Trailblazer in services for people with disabilities
Thursday, September 19, 2013

When it comes to providing services for those with disabilities, Elinor Burns has found herself as a trailblazer more than once.

“I was one of the original parents who met in a church basement in Palo Alto to plan the creation of what was to become Abilities United,” says Elinor, whose son Eric was born in 1951 with Down Syndrome. “There were no service options back then; there was nothing at all for Eric.”

Building on the efforts of Elinor and other families, what is now Abilities United was formed in 1963. In the 1980s, Elinor served on the staff as Director of the Home Companion Program. “The parents knew the value of respite,” says Elinor. “They welcomed the opportunity for their child to have a relationship with someone other than a family member. It was also an important outlet for the parents themselves, to spend time with their other children and with their family in general.”

A wonderful highlight of Eric’s life was his time working at Stanford University. “He got the job through Abilities United Employment Services,” says Elinor. “They trained him and he was hired at Stanford where he worked in the dining room at one of the dorms. He made wonderful friends and for a decade he enjoyed working there. Each paycheck was a day of celebration; he was so proud to save his own money and to use his savings for a camp he attended each year.”

Eric has had a full life as an artist and a gold-medal winner in Special Olympics, and enjoys camping, bowling, and other sports. All of these are things he does with his friends from Abilities United.

With the tremendous advances in health care in recent years, life expectancies have increased for those with disabilities, and this is bringing new challenges. “Now I find myself a trailblazer again,” says Elinor. “I’m working with Abilities United to explore perhaps developing a program to help seniors with disabilities – like Eric - avoid feeling alone and isolated from their peers. We’re very grateful to the Abilities United professional and caring staff for allowing Eric to explore new paths here in his senior years.”

Those of us at Abilities United are very grateful to Elinor for her wonderful efforts in establishing our organization, and for continually working to improve services for people with disabilities.

Based on an interview with with Elinor Burns, written by Wendy Kuehnl. 

Taylor & Jill: Abilities United has been invaluable
Thursday, September 12, 2013

Abilities United is full of wonderful people and wonderful stories. However, few tug at the heartstrings like Jill and her beautiful daughter Taylor, who is lives with cerebral palsy.

“When I first brought her to Abilities United, Taylor couldn’t participate in the therapy sessions,” says Jill, “She would scream and cry any time I wasn’t holding her, so she just couldn’t be involved. Then at home, she seemed frustrated that she couldn’t do the things that her older brother could do; he was bouncing around the house and she wanted to keep up with him.”

"We didn’t know if Taylor would ever be able to walk,” says Jill. “Then Taylor’s physical therapist at Abilities United had her try a kid’s walker in one of the hallways, and she just started walking!  Everyone rushed out to see; everyone was crying. Taylor had a big smile on her face as she just cruised up and down the hall. The Director of the program came out to see, and told me ‘this is why I do what I do; this is why I love doing this.” And I just said ‘this is why I love you; because you do this.”

In the past year, there’s been a total transformation.  Taylor has become mobile through the use of her walker and the benefits of the wide range of services available to her from Abilities United. “There’s been just a miraculous change.”  

By nature Jill is full of joy and enthusiasm, but when asked to summarize how Abilities United has helped her and her daughter, she is instantly overcome with emotion. “They treat the whole family: myself, my husband, and Taylor,” she says as she brushes away tears. “They never give up. They give you practical tools that you can use; that really make a difference. Abilities United has been invaluable to me and my family.”

The support Abilities United provides goes far beyond the hallways of the facility. Abilities United provides support sessions for the parents, and Jill now has a new circle of friends. “We get together to take the kids to the park, or maybe go to dinner. There’s a whole network of families with ties to Abilities United, and we can share with each other and support each other.”

In summary, she simply says, “It’s an amazing place.”

Minka van der Zwaag: City of Palo Alto partners with Abilities United
Thursday, September 5, 2013

Abilities United takes great pride with its place in the community, and Minka van der Zwaag, who manages the Office of Human Services for the City of Palo Alto, sees the organization as something special.

“What I enjoy most is when I go shopping at Safeway and see that the courtesy clerk is a person with special needs, and that he’s exuding pride in his job. Having a job can help provide a sense of accomplishment and a sense of purpose, and Abilities United helps people with disabilities get and keep these jobs. It’s a great legacy of the organization.”

Each year the City of Palo Alto offers a summer camp at the Lucie Stern Community Center, pairing special needs kids with youth volunteers. This year, Abilities United ran the camp, helping deliver results that are consistent with the organization’s philosophy of inclusion for those with disabilities. “The summer camp program has been amazing,” says Minka. “It gives all the children that special memory of summer camp, and helps build inclusive relationships among the campers and the volunteers many of which carry over to the school year.

Abilities United is one of a select group of non-profits that has received grants from the city. “We view Abilities United as the leader in providing great services for those with special needs.” she says, “We’ve always been very impressed with how much Abilities United can do with just a little money. Whenever the city provides a grant, the receiving organization has to specify what they hope to accomplish with the money, and Abilities United always meets or exceeds their objectives.”

With the fiftieth anniversary of Abilities United, Minka offers her congratulations. “Thank you for your service and passion for those with special needs,” she says, “We look forward to continuing to partner with you in the future.”

Abilities United greatly appreciates the support of the City of Palo Alto, and looks forward to continuing to expand their positive impact in the community.

Based on a 2012 interview with Minka van der Zwaag.  Written  by Bob Thomas, edited by Minka van der Zwaag and Wendy Kuehnl

Rochelle Perucca: A woman of strength finds hope at Abilities United
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rochelle Perucca, a Fulbright Scholar, psychotherapist and a college professor for the past 35 years, was intimately aware from a very young age of the challenges faced by people with disabilities.

“My father was an invalid,” Rochelle says, “and brain surgery that was intended to help him actually made matters far worse.” With her unique perspective, Rochelle loved working with people who had disabilities. She volunteered with Abilities United matriarch Betty Wright in the 1960s, and also worked as an interpretive ranger with people who are deaf and blind in a groundbreaking program at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Then one day some thirty years ago, Rochelle, a very active athlete, went from being a supporter of people with disabilities, to having a disability herself. “I had a rock climbing accident,” she says. “In the blink of an eye, my life changed, and for seven years I couldn’t walk.”

After her accident, she returned to what is now Abilities United as a client, and for thirty years she has made aquatic therapy at the Betty Wright Swim Center a very important part of her life. “In the pool I have a freedom of movement that I don’t have on land,” she says. “The pool is the only place where I can have a full range of motion. In the pool my pain is dispersed, and I’m then calmer, more comfortable, and can sleep better.”

The joy that Rochelle gets at the pool is not only limited to the physical comfort it brings. “People at the pool are my family; when I’m there I help everyone I can. It’s a wonderful place. I love inspiring others, and helping them and seeing them progress. I like to help them find value in their own lives and stretch their own limits.”

Rochelle also has an important message for others. “I struggled as a child with the biases and limitations that people impose on those of us who have a disability. There’s a stigma, an attitude; people try to ignore you as if you’re not there. We are just like you! Please accept us, try to understand us as well as you are able. Be kind to us and treat us as you would want to be treated if you were in our shoes.”

In her lifetime, Rochelle has seen how services for people with disabilities have progressed. “The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was a game-changer; it opened doors and gave us a foothold. It opened the eyes of the rest of the world that we are here.” She adds a heartbreaking comment difficult for most of us to imagine, about the days before ADA: “I remember going to the bathroom at Macy’s and having to sit on the floor for a couple hours because nobody happened to come in to let me out. There were many things like that; it didn’t just happen once.”

It takes three hours out of Rochelle’s day to come to Abilities United, but she feels it is time very well spent. “For me, Abilities United is a lifesaver. Abilities United embraces people with disabilities in a way that I hope the world can evolve to. It brings love, generosity and understanding to people who might otherwise be thwarted by the world. It’s an oasis of hope.”

At Abilities United we are honored by Rochelle’s kind words, and we are inspired by her amazing strength and spirit.

Based on a 2013 interview with Rochelle Perucca.  Written by Bob Thomas and edited by Rochelle Perucca and Wendy Kuehnl.

Peter Beckh: 40 year career working with people with disabilities
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Peter Beckh’s career path happened to take him into the field of working with people who have disabilities, and he considers it to be a wonderful stroke of luck.

In 1974, Peter received a Masters degree in social work, and though he had never worked with people with disabilities, he eventually took a position at the Golden Gate Regional Center. Such regional centers place children with significant disabilities with various organizations. “My first case visit was to a girl who was blind, and who had no arms or legs. She had to roll over in order to move,” he says. “I put my hand on her while saying hello; I remember she was warm and alive. It was a transformative moment; I realized she was just like me.”

Through his work at the Golden Gate Regional Center, he became familiar with what is now Abilities United, and with a background as a successful administrator he joined Abilities United in 1989 as Associate Director.

“I really liked the people we served,” says Peter, who spent 14 years with the organization until retiring in 2012. “Many have become my personal friends, and they’re a big part of my life.” When Peter celebrated his 60th birthday, the party was at Abilities United.

Peter gets enormous satisfaction seeing the progress that clients make at Abilities United. “For some it’s being able to lift a spoon so that they can feed themselves,” he says. “For others it might be overcoming an overwhelming fear of the water and then learning to swim; for others it’s developing their social skills and getting a job. The look on someone’s face when they get a job, or when they get their first paycheck – they are so proud!”

Peter has the highest regard for the staff at Abilities United. “They are my heroes; they are amazing people. It’s a great place to work because of their spirit,” Peter says and then pauses. “I thought it was a privilege to work here.”

Based on a 2012 interview with Peter Beckh.  Written by Bob Thomas and edited by Sally Mickel and Wendy Kuehnl.

Kelly Wong: Blossoms in work and personal life
Thursday, July 18, 2013

Six years ago, Kelly Wong, a charming young lady who is developmentally delayed, was using the rehabilitation services of another provider.  Her mother Wanda had dreamed that perhaps someday Kelly could work, but she simply was not progressing.

“I found Abilities United, and after they did an assessment, they said that Kelly had the ability to hold a job,” says Wanda. “I was surprised and excited. They worked closely with Kelly, training her on a variety of tasks and helping her prepare for an interview.”

With training and support from Abilities United, Kelly got a job as a courtesy clerk at Safeway in Milpitas, where she bags groceries, collects carts, and helps in various other ways. She has been there for five years, working four days a week. Reflecting that the significance of having a job cannot be over-stated, when asked if she enjoys working, Kelly answers an emphatic “yes” and absolutely beams with excitement. 

Wanda has been thrilled with how Abilities United has helped transform her daughter’s life. “Since she started with Abilities United, there’s been a drastic change with Kelly,” says Wanda. “She’s able to be more independent, her speech has improved, she’s much more confident, and her personality has blossomed. What a difference there’s been!”

“The Abilities United staff is so passionate; I’m so impressed,” Wanda says. “They’re upbeat and professional, and they make you feel important. They’re just amazing.”

At Abilities United we appreciate the wonderful feedback, and it’s amazing people like Kelly that inspire us to do what we do.

Based on a 2012 interview with Wanda and Kelly Wong. Written by Bob Thomas, edited by Wanda Wong and Wendy Kuehnl.

Jackie Thielen: lifelong philanthropist; advances her values beyond her lifetime
Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jackie Thielen, a Palo Alto resident since 1959 when she moved to California with her husband Lawrence and their children, was involved in many charities. However, her longest relationship was with Abilities United (then C.A.R).  When the family first arrived in Palo Alto, a neighbor invited her to volunteer at the C.A.R thrift shop “Market of the Flea”.  Thus began a 50-year commitment to Abilities United.

“My mother was genuine, generous and cared about others.  She had a deep sense of fair-mindedness, respected others and was never judgmental, ” recalls her daughter, Laura. “Mom was an authentic person, not interested in social advancement.  She was modest, quiet and assured of herself but never wanted to be the center of attention.”

Despite being very busy raising six children and hosting home dinner parties for her husband’s business, Avantek,  Jackie continued her volunteer work. Thinking back to her childhood, Laura remembers that her mother required the children to engage in volunteer work.  “As a teenager, I was not pleased, but soon realized the value of giving. Now I am grateful for mom’s insistence.  She believed, and instilled my belief, in social responsibility,” Laura recalls with pride.

After several successful decades running Avantek, Lawrence sold the business and retired to spend more time with the family.  A year after his retirement, he, Jackie and the two youngest children vacationed in Kauai, Hawaii.  Tragically, Lawrence, an accomplished swimmer, drowned while snorkeling during a sudden change in weather. 

After Lawrence’s death, Jackie accelerated her interest in philanthropy.  She particularly valued supporting those who have difficulty helping themselves – especially children.  “Mom was passionate about her philanthropy. She gave to many charities and was primarily interested in helping the less fortunate,” states her son, Ed. She wanted to give financial support to charities quietly and, during, not after, her lifetime. She was most interested in supporting organizations that live in the “shadows”, not the charities that are highly and publically visible.  More importantly, she wanted to know that her support made a difference in someone’s life.  In time, Jackie developed a deep interest in Abilities United, which ultimately became her primary charity of interest.   For decades she was active in the Authors Luncheon fundraising event as well as an annual donor. 

When Abilities United honored Jackie at the 20th annual Authors Luncheon in 2011, “she was deeply pleased,” recalls Ed.  At that time, Jackie was quite ill and could not leave her home. Laura and Ed attended the event to represent her.  They remember vividly how happy Jackie and each of them felt when she received this honor from her friends at Abilities United.

Jackie lived a full life that embraced family, friends, travel, and an enduring passion for the arts until October 5, 2012.  “My mother possessed many wonderful qualities. However, most importantly, mom passed along acceptance of people who are different in any way; she took everyone at face value,” states Ed with warmth and admiration.

Jackie's gentle, generous, loving nature embraced and influenced family, friends and others in profound, enduring ways. She inspired many through her philanthropic work and continues to advance her values beyond her lifetime through the legacy gift she has left Abilities United. Abilities United is grateful for Jackie Thielen and her support throughout the organization’s history and into the future. 

Based on a 2012 interview with Jackie's children, Ed and Laura. Written, edited by Carol Lillibridge and Wendy Kuehnl

Sally Mickel: career and life changed by grand-daughter
Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Like many of the employees at Abilities United, Human Resources Director Sally Mickel came to Abilities United for one purpose but found herself engaged with the organization at a whole different and unexpected level.

"I'd been working as a human resources professional at a software company, but I knew that I wanted to do something different," says Sally. "I knew about Abilities United, and I had relatives who had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. There was some sort of inner calling, and I decided that this was the place I really wanted to work."

Once Sally started working at Abilities United she realized that the services could benefit her granddaughter Amber.  Now a beautiful 18-year old girl, Amber contracted pneumococcal spinal meningitis at the age of three months, which left her profoundly deaf, with a brain injury and a diagnosis of cerebral palsy. The doctors said Amber would be dependent upon a feeding tube, confined to a wheelchair, and had little to no chance of ever regaining independent movement of her body. What the doctors did not understand was the determination of her, her family, and Abilities United to prove them wrong.

"Our first experience with Abilities United services was when Amber was eight years old and a respite worker came to visit Amber at home. That moment the respite worker walked in, there was just an immediate connection," says Sally, who is moved at the memory. "They communicated by sign language, and then embraced. It was very special. After all these years, she is like our family member and Amber is a family member to her." The respite service was invaluable, enabling the family to spend time with Amber's sister, or to simply have a break of a few hours knowing that Amber was in good hands.

Like so many clients, Amber also found the warm-water pool at Abilities United Betty Wright Swim Center to be incredibly helpful as she worked to develop her ability to walk. "Each time I recall her first visit to the pool, I am overwhelmed with happiness,” says Sally. “I remember walking over to the pool to watch. As my son helped Amber down the ramp into the water, I looked away for just a moment when my son yelled, ‘Mom, look at Amber - she's walking!’ My heart skipped a beat and my eyes welled up with tears of joy. Amber had just taken her first independent steps! As she took off through the water running, she looked over her shoulder at her dad and sister and began to laugh - as if to say, ‘Look at me, I can run!’"

Today Amber is in the Abilities United After School Socialization program where. "She engages everyone; the staff and the participants,” says Sally with pride. “She laughs and high fives all her classmates and teachers. She owns the place."

Amber continues to grow socially and intellectually. She is happy and healthy and striving to achieve greater independence. "Her social skills, self awareness, and sense of humor have just blossomed,” says Sally. “We attribute that largely to her interactions with everyone at Abilities United. Amber is a happy soul, and she has a joy of life that is contagious.  I think she changes people's lives and their perception of people with disabilities. I know for a fact that she has certainly changed my life and the lives of her large extended family - all for the better!"

Based on a 2012 interview with Sally Mickel.  Written by Bob Thomas and edited by Sally Mickel and Wendy Kuehnl.

Linda and Robin Vargas: 4 decades of giving and receiving service
Thursday, June 20, 2013

Volunteers are a key part of the team at Abilities United, and long-time volunteer Linda Vargas helps set the standard. We are not the only ones who appreciate and recognize her service; the White House does too!

Linda’s relationship with Abilities United began forty years ago when her son Robin started attending Abilities United. Robin is challenged with cerebral palsy, and at that time, there were no comparable programs in the San Jose area and no public transit options, so she and Robin drove the twice per day, 72 mile round trip to Palo Alto. Since then, both Linda and Robin have become a vital part of our Abilities United community.

Linda helps support fundraising activities at Abilities United, and has logged thousands of hours helping our cause. For decades she’s been willing and able to do whatever it takes to help support the fund development team, and has helped enable raising over $1million each year in donations for services for people with disabilities.

In January of 2011, Linda, Robin and the rest of their family, along with  Abilities United, were thrilled to learn that she had been selected to receive President Obama’s Volunteer Service “Call to Service” Lifetime Award. The blue pin featuring the presidential seal is the highest of many honors that Linda has received for her volunteer service.  She proudly wears that pin along with her historic collection of Abilities United pins.

Though Robin is now able to get to Abilities United on his own using a public bus, Linda continues to make the trip to the office each week to volunteer. She finds her work to be personally very rewarding, and though she had planned to retire from volunteering at 75, at 84 she’s still a regular here.

We are fortunate to have wonderful volunteers such as Linda, and we’re proud to join the White House in recognizing her decades of volunteer service.


Based on an interview with Linda Vargas. Written by Bob Thomas, edited by Linda Vargas and Wendy Kuehnl.

Molly Hale: warm water therapy helps dream come true
Friday, June 14, 2013

There are many individuals at Abilities United who represent thet, and one is Molly Hale, who has been coming to Abilities United for 17 years.

In 1995, Molly was in a car accident that resulted in a broken neck, and doctors told her that she would be permanently paralyzed from the neck down. But Molly wasn’t buying it.  

She started rehabbing in the warm water pool at Abilities United and became a huge believer in the powers of aquatic therapy, gradually getting increased use of her hands and arms. Then, with the help of a highly trained therapist on the Abilities United team, she reached the huge milestone of being able to stand in the pool, and then later on land.

“It took six years to be able to be able to stand,” says Molly. “What a thrill that was, to finally be able to stand! It was like a dream. Today I can stand on land, and I can get around a bit as long as someone is there to help me with my balance.”

Molly continues to make progress with her rehab, and her enthusiasm is inspiring. She tools around in her colorfully adorned wheelchair, rides a horse with the assistance of two “sidewalkers” who help her maintain balance, continues with martial arts training, and is currently looking forward to an upcoming wheelchair ballroom dance class.

Molly’s husband Jeramy has also used the aquatic facility at Abilities United. “I had thought it was just for people with disabilities, and not for me,” he says. “Then I pulled a hamstring doing martial arts training, and with the help of one of the Abilities United staff, I starting rehabbing in the pool. I’m now a huge proponent of using the pool to rehab sports injuries.”

You can see Molly at the pool at Abilities United several days each week; just look for a happy lady that’s swimming and tumbling in the water, while merrily chatting up anyone in ear-shot.  Thanks Molly, for setting such an amazing example for all of us!

Based on a 2012 interview with Molly and Jeramy Hale.  Written by Bob Thomas, edited by Molly and Jeramy Hale and Wendy Kuehnl.

Pauline & Ryan Navarro: Enjoying happy times
Thursday, June 6, 2013

Pauline Navarro, whose son Ryan is challenged with Down Syndrome and autism, is an enthusiastic lady who is relentlessly positive. 


“It was 18 years ago that Ryan came into the Infant Program at what is now Abilities United,” says Pauline. “Having a child with significant disabilities can be traumatic for the family. Abilities United helps the family grow the child in the best way possible, and unlike other programs, helps the family build the unity and cohesiveness that is so important at such a difficult time.”


“Ryan’s teacher in the Infant Program told me to enjoy him,” Pauline says of those days, “and not to be consumed by being his therapist and teacher. It was wonderful advice and I repeat those words to other parents with a disabled child; enjoy the happy times.”


When he was ten years old, Ryan returned to the After-School Program. “The Abilities United program is a model for the nation,” says Pauline. “The children are taught social integration skills and taught to have leisure skills on their own. The impact is enormous.” Pauline pauses as her voice catches. “Lastly and perhaps most importantly, with Abilities United Ryan has friends; he has a social life. It’s the only place he can have a birthday party that has any meaning whatsoever to him”


“I’ve seen many other organizations who work with the disabled,” says Pauline, “And Abilities United is far and away the best I’ve seen.” 


Based on a 2013 interview with Pauline and Ryan Navarro. Written and edited by Bob Thomas, Pauline Navarro, and Wendy Kuehnl.


Weaver Family: on the right track through Abilities United
Wednesday, May 15, 2013

When our son Jackson was young and diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy I had no idea what I was doing. I spoke with Gina Rayfield and she told me “get to Abilities United!”

That was the best advice – thanks Gina! Abilities united really helped me find connections to other families facing similar issues. And like Gina expressed, having those connections, and the support from the staff in the Early Intervention program was like a new lifeline. Suddenly, we weren’t alone. 

That early start from Abilities United has helped us all in so many ways. Jackson learned his first independence during early intervention group which enabled him to easily transition to preschool. He and his friends inspired my husband to develop products which help them live more independent and enriching lives. We see technology as a true equalizer in the lives of people with differing abilities. We’ve all seen the YouTube video of the boy with special needs in Texas playing basketball and the high schooler with Cerebral Palsy winning a wrestling match (and if you haven’t visit the Abilities United facebook page!) and these viral videos of people with different abilities are tearing down the barriers. When I was my daughters’ age (30 plus years ago) the world was not so accepting. I can only imagine what the next 30 years will bring.

For the future, who knows what technology Jackson will have at his command. Today, people use various social media to stay connected and tablets to control their TVs and lights. Tomorrow he may have a speech recognition system that is attuned to his voice and “accent” to control his physical world, allowing him to complete tasks otherwise too difficult to do in a time-effective manner – opening up his career options. 

But in the end it isn’t about the technology itself, but what it does for us. By allowing Jackson to live more independently he can also live more happily, and I know these early connections at Abilities United have helped put him (and all of us!) on the right track.

Jana Weaver wrote and presented this speech at the Abilities United 50th Anniversary Recognition event on April 25, 2013.

Joseph Omolayole: here and doing well!
Wednesday, May 15, 2013

When I was a few months old, I was in a serious car accident. My injuries left me with short-term memory problems. My mother thought I would not make it, but I’m here now and doing well.

That is what led me to the Golden Gate Regional Center and then Abilities United where I met Christen, the best I.L.S instructor I have ever met!  Christen introduced me to biking.

And now I love biking! Biking has helped me improve my ability to focus and improved my balance. It also taught me patience; to be aware of what is ahead of me, to be cautious, but act in a way to be most successful.

I also love to make art. It is wonderful when my pieces are sold to art appreciators.

My art sales help me buy more art supplies so I can keep improving my skills.

Recently, I got a visual styling job in a retail store with the help of the Abilities United job counselor, Jackie. I get to do what I love in this job…working with fashion and style.Fashion is my passion!

My goals are to have my own fashion design studio. I have developed a women’s clothing line and soon I’ll have a show of my collection.

I thank everyone who has taken me to places that I wouldn’t have known with out you.

I would have been lost without these tools you have taught me.  I dearly thank Golden Gate Regional, Abilities United, my dear mom for her support and the blessings my God has given me.

Thank You :)

Joseph Omolayole wrote this speech (edited by Wendy Kuehnl) and delivered it at the Abilities United 50th Anniversary Recognition event on April 25, 2013.  He was quoted in the Palo Alto Weekly story "Abilities United rocks out at 50th anniversary"

Lynda Steele: Reflections on the past, present & future
Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The following is Lynda Steele's speech at the Abilities United 50th Anniversary Recogntion party held on April 25, 2013.

When Abilities United was founded in 1963, life was very different for people with disabilities and their families. In California, 13,400 people were living in institutions and 3,000 more were on the waiting list for admission. Families with children with disabilities had few, if any services. They were faced with the tough choice of their child living in an institution miles away, or leading an isolated life at home.

The 12 founding families of Abilities United wanted their children to have the same rights and resources as everyone else – to share in community life and not be shut away from it. At the same time, Betty Wright was teaching children to swim in her backyard pool.  Betty realized that water was the great equalizer and leveled the playing field for children with and without disabilities.With these visionary founders, the community was mobilized and Abilities United was born.  The organization leased land from Santa Clara County and raised donations to build its first pre-school on Middlefield Road so that early childhood support services could begin.  This was quickly followed with a recreational program in 1966, then aquatics and respite services in 1969, all as a response to the needs of families in the community.

At the same time, significant public policies changed.  The state of California passed the Lanterman Act in 1969, creating a right to services for people with developmental disabilities. This was coupled with the civil rights movement led by Ed Roberts to create Centers for Independent Living across the country. Mass transportation, education and employment were made more accessible.  When the Americans with Disabilities Act was finally passed in 1990 President, George H.W. Bush said “Let the shameful wall of exclusion come tumbling down”

Now, 50 years later, less than 3,000 people in California are living in institutions and over 240,000 receive services in the community. Abilities United is proud to be a part of this revolution.  We have grown from serving 12 children in 1963 to serving over 62,000 people with disabilities in our 50 years of service to the community. Our impact reaches far and wide because of all you have each done to help us fulfill our founders dream. I am sure our founders would be proud today to know that many of our children are getting a fast start on life with our help.  They would be pleased to know that many of our adults are employed in businesses you patronize; many more are living independently throughout our neighborhoods.

In our past 50 years, we, and the people we serve have demonstrated the significant contribution that people with disabilities can make in their community. Based on their needs to be the best they can be, they used the opportunities, resources and supports we created together. The dark ages of institutional care and exclusion from society are nearly over. 

We now want to build on this solid foundation.  Help us work side by side with other organizations and individuals to ensure a future of full inclusion, where people with and without disabilities live, learn, work and play together.  So just take a moment to imagine the future with me….

  • Imagine Abilities United working with even more pre-schools, child care centers and school districts so that they can be fully equipped to ensure all children get the best start in life regardless of their disability.
  • Imagine Abilities United partnering with City Parks and Recreation departments so that afterschool programs are available for all children and parks are accessible to everyone.
  • Imagine a community where every employer is like Safeway and calls Abilities United first for qualified job applicants to fill their vacancies.
  • Imagine Abilities United becoming the regional or national training center for aquatics professionals so that many more swimming  pools have the capacity and skills to serve people with disabilities.
  • Imagine a community where  technology is available to everyone to help minimize the effect of a disability.
  • Imagine a community where people who are still bullying people with disabilities are required to report to our very powerful Abilities United self advocacy group to explain their behavior and change it.
  • Imagine people being defined for their abilities and not their disabilities.
  • Imagine no more excuses to justify segregation
  • Imagine no more barriers.
  • Just imagine no SPECIAL anything any MORE!

With your continued help this future is within our grasp. Thank you.

Charlotte & Gina Rayfield: family benefited from & now benefit Abilities United
Wednesday, April 24, 2013

For Gina Rayfield and her charming daughter Charlotte, Abilities United has been a family affair.
The Rayfields first came to what is now Abilities United when Charlotte, who was born with cerebral palsy, was about a year old. “We were a family coming in, with a child born with a disability, and we didn’t really know how to support her,” says Gina. “At the beginning when you have that challenge, it can be daunting, and you feel alone. Abilities United is really a great place for people to come together; to get the support for the family, and to help the child excel and succeed as much as they can.”
Gina was so impressed with her experience at Abilities United that she became a volunteer, then a member of the Board of Directors for six years, and then continued to be involved with the annual Author’s Luncheon. “My favorite memory of Abilities United was having our family featured at the Authors Luncheon,” says Gina. “We presented a video of Charlotte, showing some of the amazing things she’s done and what a great person she is. Being on stage with her and sharing that moment was truly special.”
Charlotte today is a smart, vibrant, and impressive young lady. Now a 14-year old girl, she’s something of an ambassador for Abilities United, and supports fundraising activities via the Authors Luncheon and the Abilities United Aquathon. She uses a wheelchair, but this hasn’t stopped her from developing a passion for bi-skiing, and videos on youtube of her skiing [] reflect her joy on the slopes. She’s a young girl with great dreams – “I want to be a teacher and an author,” she says.
“I would encourage people to learn more about Abilities United,” says Gina. “It’s a vital part of the community, and the work they do is amazing and important.”
Here at Abilities United, we appreciate the kind words, and the great support. We couldn’t serve the community without wonderful supporters such as Gina and Charlotte.

Based on a 2013 interview with Gina and Charlotte Rayfield. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Gina Rayfield and Wendy Kuehnl

Niels Smaby and Tina Hendrickson: volunteer experience changed their lives
Thursday, April 18, 2013

Abilities United can change people’s lives, whether it’s for the lives of participants, their families, or even  volunteers. Just ask Niels Smaby and his wife Tina Hendrickson.  

Niels and Tina first became involved with what is now Abilities United when they were at Stanford in the late 1980s. “We happened to both take a class called ‘Understanding The Handicapped,’ and through this we came to volunteer at the pool at Abilities United,” says Tina. Little did either of them know that the next few months would have an enormous impact on the rest of their lives.  

First, through working together, Niels and Tina became close, and before long they were married. “Many of our co-workers and clients from Abilities United came to the wedding,” says Tina as she fondly recalls the memory.  

Second, the experience at Abilities United was to shape their life perspective and Niels' career.  

“The pool was a great place to be and a great experience,” says Niels. “After I graduated I worked two jobs for a while, as a physical therapy aide in downtown Palo Alto, and at Abilities United Betty Wright Swim Center. At my physical therapy job, I was struck at how people would complain about how their injuries impacted things like their tennis game or their golf swing. Then I’d go to the pool and work with people who had more significant disabilities, and they didn’t complain at all.”  

“One of the men I worked with has cerebral palsy. His therapy includes walking in the pool,” says Niels. “We spent a lot of time together in the water, walking and talking, and we became good friends. I eventually went over to his house to help him get his home computer work area set-up, as he has some unique needs because of his disability.”

Niels became increasingly interested in assistive technology. In the coming years he designed custom devices to aid people with disabilities in their jobs. He also worked at the Veteran’s Administration helping improve reconstructive surgical processes to give vets with spinal cord injuries better use of their hands. Today Niels is an engineer at Intuitive Surgical, which designs and manufactures surgical robots used in laparoscopic surgical procedures.

Niels' and Tina's early experience at Abilities United also impacts their family's next generation.  Their two daughters learned to swim at the Abilities United Betty Wright Swim Center. “They were in the pool when they were a couple months old,” says Tina. “The warm water was perfect for infants. They’ve continued swimming at Abilities United ever since.”  

 “Volunteering at Abilities United was an amazing life experience,” says Neils. Tina then adds “The people we worked with were so appreciative, but I think I got even more out of the experience than they did.”

Based on a 2013 interview with Niels Smaby & Tina Hendrickson.  Written by Bob Thomas, edited by  Niels Smaby, Tina Hendrickson and Wendy Kuehnl

Champ Pederson: I've grown and learned how to be an adult with a disability
Thursday, April 11, 2013

My name is Champ Pederson and I am a 25-year-old man with Down Syndrome.  

I was living independently in Palo Alto in 2010, and I had my own place. I was using services from another agency, but I wanted something better. 

I wanted to major in communications. I wanted to have a career in public speaking. I want to be an advocate for people with Down syndrome.

After I graduated from Taft College in 2010, I came to Abilities United. At Abilities United I learned how to be a professional, and how to be an adult with a disability. I have learned new things like grocery shopping, meal prep, keeping a budget, and time management. 

Abilities United helps me out no matter what I do in life. I have Down Syndrome and its going to be with me all my life. I used to be frustrated. I lashed out at people and I told people off. I got very mad. I cursed. I cried. Now, I can control my anger by walking it off, going to my room, and finding fun things to do. Abilities United has done a lot for me, and it’s hard to explain how much it means to me. I am happy. This is MY story to tell, and it’s such a beautiful thing that it makes me want to cry. 

My family supports me in what I do. My family has seen me grow up and be a good son to my mother. My Mom is my strongest advocate. She helps me whenever I need her. I have faith and hope in my brothers.  I am a sensitive, emotional, fun loving, cheerful man. I know I have problems. We all have problems, but there are people here at Abilities United to help me. 

I believe in the quote on the Abilities United web site: “If you want to be happy for an hour, take a nap. If you want to be happy for a day, go fishing. If you want to be happy for a month, go on a honeymoon. If you want to be happy for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, help children with disabilities.” 


Written by Champ Pederson. Edited by Bob Thomas and Champ Pederson.

Ellen Ehrlich: early family experiences bring her to Abilities United
Thursday, April 4, 2013

My journey to Abilities United began over six decades ago when my parents of beloved memory had a baby boy, my brother. Shortly before he turned one, he was diagnosed with congenital brain damage--a fluke of nature, the doctors explained.

Two years later another baby boy arrived and, sadly, nature repeated itself. The boys lived short lives, succumbing to pneumonia at ages two and four. Happily, an adopted son later joined our family.

After many intervening years of academic wanderings, my husband Tom and I finally settled back into our Palo Alto home that had been rented for 21 years. At that time my college classmate Rosemary Enthoven was the president of what is now Abilities United. She swiftly recruited me. Luckily for me I joined Board of Directors. It was a perfect opportunity for me to honor my parents.

Little did Tom and I know then that when our first grandchild was born three months prematurely he would swim early on at the Betty Wright Swim Center at Abilities United. Now he is a strapping college junior!

As is so often the case with volunteering, I have received far more from this superb agency than I have given. Looking back, I cannot imagine how my mother and father managed in Chicago without the warm embrace and skilled services of Abilities United staff. May all in our community benefit from another 50 years of such excellence.


Submitted and written by Ellen Ehrlich 2012

Pamela Newman: 22 years of continued progress to inclusion
Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pamela Newman is one of the many staff members who has long maintained a deep commitment to the cause of Abilities United. It all started in 1990, when a friend who had extolled the virtues of the agency brought Pamela to the Aquatic Center.

“I came in and saw Aquatics Services, where there were children and teens with physical impairments, as well as adults with therapeutic needs stemming from things like arthritis or stroke,” says Pamela. “It was great to see how people who struggled on land could enjoy such a wonderful freedom of movement in the water. That day, right on the spot, I decided that I wanted to work here, and all these years later I’m still here!”

Pamela has been involved in various roles at Abilities United. Currently she manages the Computer Education program, teaching participants how to use email, Facebook, Microsoft Office, digital art, and computer-based training for skills such as reading and language comprehension. In this role she helps to bridge the digital divide and educate people of all ages in computer, academic, and life skills.

A lot has changed in the 22 years Pamela has been with the agency. “When I first started, the adults I worked with had been excluded from the educational system. It was terrible: even if they had the same cognitive skills as other children, someone might have decided that they didn’t belong in a public school and they were never given a chance,” Pamela says as she sadly shakes her head. “Now though, the schools, and the community in general, are doing a dramatically better job of including people with disabilities and enabling all to reach their potential, which of course aligns with our goals at Abilities United.”

Looking to the future, Pamela hopes to see continued progress on the path of inclusion. “It’s a two-way path. We of course want to enable  participants to get out and be part of the community, but we also want to get more people from the community to come and participate here at Abilities United. We currently have excellent services for people with or without disabilities: a great Milestones Preschool, our aquatic services, and our computer education program are a few examples. We also have the potential to expand some of our other current services such as Independent Living Skills - where we help develop life skills and job skills - to anyone in the community who can benefit from these services.  We all need to open our arms and our minds and be truly inclusive.”

Based on a 2012 interview with Pamela Newman. Written by Bob Thomas. edited by Pamela Newman and Wendy Kuehnl.

Bob Thomas: high school experience brings him back to Abilities United
Thursday, March 21, 2013

I first became aware of and volunteered at Abilities United over 30 years ago, but the experience made such a lasting impression on me that in 2012 I came back to volunteer again.

In the spring of 1978 I was in high school in Menlo Park. A classmate was volunteering at Abilities United (then CAR) with school-aged children. She asked several of us on the basketball team to come over and work with some of the children who would be participating in Special Olympics that coming weekend. Three or four of us volunteered, showed off a little, and then took the kids to the local basketball court to work a bit on their basketball skills.

I was an 18-year old jock at the time and pretty full of myself, but I was touched by these kids who were so happy, and so full of love and appreciation. It meant so much to them to get a high five (actually it was a low five at that time…), or to get a hug. A couple of the kids wanted to hold my hand as we all walked back from the basketball court, and instantly this cocky teenager was choking back a few tears. That was 35 years ago but it’s still a very vivid memory.

I then went off to college, got busy with family and a career in high tech, but always remembered that special day in 1978. For years I had a vague intention of someday getting involved again at what is now Abilities United. Finally in early 2012 I called, introduced myself, and was invited in for a tour. First I was introduced to a few participants who were around at lunch, when a middle-aged man came up to me and shook my hand. I later found out that he had just learned how to shake hands, and I was both humbled and excited at his progress. Then at the pool I was amazed to hear how several people who were told they could never walk again have been through rehabilitation with aquatics and are now walking. I was overwhelmed how this is a place where miracles can happen!

Since then I’ve been volunteering at Abilities Untied, helping the marketing department with social media and doing interviews in support of the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration. Volunteering here is immensely rewarding. Often I’ll drive over to Abilities United on my lunch break, preoccupied with the ebbs and flows of various topics of my workday. However, after spending just a bit of time at with the people I am interviewing,  I’m in a very different state of mind, amazed with the quality and dedication of people at Abilities United, and inspired by the incredible spirit of their participants.

Abilities United is an exceptional organization doing fantastic work with special people, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to help and be a part of this wonderful group.

Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Wendy Kuehnl.
Noel & Michael Pino: it's a family thing
Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Michael Pino dedicates much of his life to taking care of his brother Noel, a big-hearted man in his 50’s who is developmentally disabled. Michael has a simple, clear view of how Abilities United fits in with his life. “Abilities United enables a family to function with a normal workday, and enables me to pursue my career.”

How does Abilities United have such a dramatic impact on Michael and his brother? “Noel is at Abilities United every day during the week, and I know he’s in good hands there,” says Michael. Because of this, Michael can go to work. “Noel looks forward to going to Abilities United. Each night he tells me about his friends, and what they did that day.”

At Abilities United, Noel learns life skills like folding clothes or loading a dishwasher. With the help of Abilities United, Noel learned the days of the week. “That was amazing,” says Michael. “I’m very grateful for what may seem to others to be small progress.”

Noel also volunteers at community organizations with a group of other Abilities United participants. They work at 40 organizations including Mitchell Park where they pickup trash, NCEFT and BOK Horse Ranch where they clean stalls and groom horses, and the Humane Society and Marine Science Institute where they feed animals and clean up cages. These activities not only benefit the community; they also give Noel and dozen of Abilities United participants the satisfaction of making a valuable contribution to the community. They also learn important work skills which they may be able to use for employment.

Michael greatly appreciates that Abilities United has not only helped Noel maximize his potential, but that the organization helps families as well. “Early on, they helped me understand how to better understand people with disabilities, and they’ve helped both Noel and me learn how to cope with the challenges. It’s a family thing.”

His advice to other families is simple. “If you’re lucky enough to get into Abilities United, then thank your lucky stars. It’s been great for us.”

The Abilities United staff considers Noel to be an unofficial greeter at the facility, as he is always anxious to welcome visitors. His kind heart and friendly, open nature touches us all.


Based on an interview with Michael and Noel Pino in 2013. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Michael Pino and Wendy Kuehnl.

Jeff Byron: transformation, change, and growth since 1969
Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Jeff Byron first became familiar with Abilities United in 1969, when his sister, who has a developmental disability, was a participant of the organization. Since then, services for people with disabilities have come a very long way.

“The biggest transformation has been from institutionalization, which was the typical approach until the 1960s, to mainstreaming and inclusion in the community, which is what Abilities United is all about,” says Jeff. “For example, today my sister has a job. Working means so much to her, and it adds value to her life and to the lives of others. Those with disabilities are a vital part of our society.”

In 2002 Jeff become an Abilities United board member, and served as President of the board for two years. “While I was on the board we started Milestones Preschool. It’s critical to identify and start therapy for those with disabilities and introduce children to diversity at the earliest possible age, and Milestones Preschool continues to be one of our most critical services,” says Jeff. “In 2008, we also changed the name of the agency from C.A.R to Abilities United. The name reflects that we’re about abilities, not disabilities; and that we’re about uniting, not separating.”

As is true for most people who have served with the agency, the participants of Abilities United touched Jeff’s heart. “They greet you with so much appreciation and affection,” says Jeff, and it certainly wasn’t just him, these individuals influence the community. “Dave, a participant of Abilities United, was a tall, gregarious guy, who worked at Stanford. He also marched and performed with the Stanford band. He passed away a few years ago, but they still keep a life-sized cut-out of him today in the Stanford band shack. He was big part of the Stanford band.”

Looking forward, Jeff makes an appeal to the community to continue supporting Abilities United. “Government funding has steadily decreased over time, so we really need those who have the means to step-up and provide support,” says Jeff.  “There are more people out there who need our services, and we want to be able to help.”

“The staff and the volunteers help make Abilities United a magical place,” says Jeff. “Their commitment and dedication always warm my heart.”

Based on an interview with Jeff Byron in 2012. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Jeff Byron and Wendy Kuehnl.

Grant Waldron: Inspired by the people he works with
Thursday, February 28, 2013

Grant Waldron wears two hats at Abilities United, and both hats help put people with disabilities on the road to independence.

Grant spends half the day in the Adult Day Activities program working with individuals who aren't ready to work or live independently, but who want to learn new social, recreational and vocational skills. Grant primarily works with individuals in the Community Connections volunteer group, who volunteer each day at any one of 40 local nonprofits and other organizations.  As the name implies, through these activities they indeed connect with the community, and learn administrative, maintenance, cleaning, plant care, and animal care skills that they can utilize in other aspects of their lives. “We’ll go out and clean chicken coops, cleanup at the park, and provide other volunteer services,” Grant says. “Each person is so excited, and so proud, to give back to the community.”
The other half of his day is spent with the Independent Living Skills program, where individuals learn life skills needed to live with a greater degree of independence. “I’m so proud of the people I work with,” Grant says. “One of the participants used to be so introverted that I literally couldn’t get a word out of him, but now he’s calling me all the time and – get this - singing in a choir!”
Grant has been at Abilities United for twelve years, and is very proud of the agency’s success. “Local case managers want to place their clients here at Abilities United; they see us as the model for how other agencies should be run.”
Grant is inspired not just by Abilities United, but by the participants as well. “Many of them are so full of happiness and love. Each day I go to work and get hugs! How great is that?” 


Based on an interview with Grant Waldroni in 2012. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Grant Waldron and Wendy Kuehnl.

Mary Doten: Five decades worth of life's greatest experiences
Thursday, February 21, 2013

As a high school student in the late 1960's, I became involved with children with special needs when my mother offered my “sitting services” to a friend of hers. I would look after Jimmy, who was four years old, and the youngest of three boys. His parents had a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that Jimmy had been diagnosed as
“un-trainable”. He was attending a specialized pre-school, but the family needed help after hours and some respite time.

 During the summer Jimmy attended a morning program and I participated as his caregiver. Every afternoon and on weekends I was also with him.

Looking back, I was taking quite a risk for a 16-year-old, and I learned that more than compassion was needed. Considerable patience, perseverance, creativity, common sense and caring were also required. 

My experience with Jimmy led me to the Betty Wright Swim Center in early 1970, and to what is now Abilities United. I volunteered for two years and was trained to assist the instructors who taught swim techniques to the children with disabilities. Since I worked closely with the staff at Abilities United, I learned how devoted they were to all of the children. The children benefited immensely. They not only had fun, but had a chance to enjoy a new experience, and learned that they could do an athletic activity which was also great physical therapy. They left with happy smiles on their faces.

I married during that volunteer time and though my husband and I have been in and out of the Bay Area since 1972, there has always been something at Abilities United that has drawn me back into their fold. I was active on the Authors Luncheon (fundraiser) planning committee in the early 1990’s until 2007 and co-chair of the Authors Luncheon in 2001 and 2003.

Through the many moves I have had, I have never found an organization to match the quality of the services and employees at Abilities United. Abilities United is a very special place, and it was a wonderfully rewarding place to have volunteered! 

My volunteer experiences and years with Abilities United have been many and varied, all because of a little boy named Jimmy. In honor of my childhood friend, my husband and I placed a special brick in honor of Jimmy in the Abilities United Heritage Garden. Knowing Jimmy and everything I experienced because of him helped form the rest of my life and proved to be one of my greatest satisfactions in life.

Written and submitted by Mary Doten. Edited by Bob Thomas and Wendy Kuehnl.

Priya Sadrozinski: An indelible human spirit; loved by all
Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Priya Sadrozinski provides an inspirational reminder of the indelible human spirit, and the boundless, unconditional love of a father for his daughter.
Priya was an Abilities United participant for twenty years. She had septo-optic dysplasia, a rare condition that resulted in a myriad of medical issues and disabilities that included developmental delay, epilepsy, visual problems, and other issues. However, despite the frequent surgeries, seizures, and hospitalizations, Priya rarely complained and was an inspiration and joy to her family and friends.
Priya started coming to physical rehabilitation at Abilities United Aquatic Services, located in the Betty Wright Swim Center, when she was just three years old. She would continue to come to the pool for the next twenty years. The pool was a great place for Priya to not only develop physical skills, but also to meet other people and socialize. “Priya was very outgoing,” says her father, Hartmut. “She made many friends at the pool; it was just ideal for her.”
Priya was able to read and write at roughly a third-grade level, but she greatly enjoyed creating rhymes. “It takes time to make a rhyme” was one of some 1,200 rhymes that she wrote and transcribed onto a long scroll. Shortly before she died, some of her favorite rhymes were published in two books: Priya Said See Ya, accompanied by her own drawings, and Priya's Animal ABC Rhymes, illustrated rhymes about animals from A to Z.  Both books are being sold as fundraisers for Abilities United.
In recent years she also participated in the Adult Day Activities at Abilities United. “Priya was always talking about all her friends from Abilities United, both the participants and the staff,” says Hartmut. “The staff is extremely dedicated to the care and progress of the participants. It’s really very special.”
As part of the Abilities United Community Connections, Priya and other participants did volunteer work at local organizations, including maintenance at Mitchell Park and preparing food or flowers for those in a retirement home. “Getting out into the community was so important for Priya. Being out in the community benefits the participants tremendously, and also makes the community aware of those with disabilities.“
The Abilities United community was devastated to get the news in 2011 that Priya had died at age 24. “She was always very happy here,” says Hartmut, who brushes away a tear as he talks about the daughter that was so special to him. “When she died we asked our friends to contribute to the Abilities United Priya Memorial Fund that we created for her, specifically to benefit the wonderful staff of the Adult Day Activities program. Abilities United is a very special place.”
Priya is deeply missed, and Abilities United is proud to have had the privilege of working with such a wonderful young lady.  

Based on an interview with Hartmut Sadrozinski in 2012. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Hartmut Sadrozinski and Wendy Kuehnl.

Heloise & Howard Stewart: Family commitment, community involvement, individual vision made dreams come true
Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Heloise and Howard Stewart met Betty Wright in 1963 during their search for swim lessons for their daughter Mimi, who had cerebral palsy. Her physical therapist recommended the therapeutic support provided by aquatic therapy.

Soon Mimi was a new student at Betty Wright’s pool, originally located in her Barron Park backyard in Palo Alto. Mimi did so well under the loving but disciplined instruction of Betty Wright that Mimi’s sister, Sue (at age 13), became a teacher after earning her Junior Life Saving Certificate.

Both Sue and Heloise, now a spry 92-year-old, reminisce warmly about how the pool created a unique spirit of community involvement. “Patients and families were involved; we all felt like family. That kind of community spirit was priceless.”

Heloise describes Betty Wright as a Palo Alto legend. “She taught thousands of local children how to swim. She loved working with all children, welcoming disabled children, including Mimi, into the existing swim groups. She instilled confidence and responsibility in both her swim students and volunteer staff. She matched the teachers to the needs of each child, expecting the teachers to maintain careful records on their students’ progress.”

As the classes grew in size, a larger pool was needed and, in 1966, plans were developed for a new public pool that eventually became the Abilities United Betty Wright Swim Center. “Betty needed help raising funds for the new pool,” says Heloise, “so we decided to sign a promissory note for the $5,000 to launch the fundraising campaign to get it built.”

To raise funds, Howard recruited the Key and “S” Clubs at Cubberley and Palo Alto High Schools to create a three-year paper drive. Every Saturday, 15-30 students worked on paper routes. Howard provided route leadership. Heloise was the organizer and provided Saturday lunches for the students. 

After three years, the Stewarts and students together raised $15,000. The state provided a matching grant while the Wedde Guild, a local philanthropic group, provided the first matching gift. The pool opened in 1969.  Heloise recalls that accomplishment,  “What our community did to build Abilities United, our society needs now. What the young students accomplished would not directly benefit them. These young volunteers had responsibility for the wellbeing of others and made a great difference. They created change.”

Remembering their deeply satisfying experiences with Betty Wright and Abilities United, Heloise and Howard Stewart left a gift to Abilities United in their estate plan. Heloise recalls, “The pool and C.A.R. (now Abilities United) were at the center of our family life for eight years. We all believed in Betty and helped to make her dream come true.”

Thank you Heloise and your family for believing in the abilities of all individuals and for your help to make the dreams of future participants of Abilities United come true.

Karen Denny: 26 Years with Abilities United: Families, Lives, Society Transformed
Tuesday, January 29, 2013

In 1986, Karen Denny began an impressive 26-year career with Abilities United that has enabled her to help some 500 families with children who have disabilities.

Karen speaks humbly and factually about successes at Abilities United that, to the rest of us, are nothing short of miracles. “We’ve had children who were told they would never walk; but then they do. We’ve had children who were expected to never talk; but then they’ve learned to speak. That’s what we do.”

Focused on children from birth until age three, Karen tells the amazing story of two-year-old Taylor, who came to Abilities United as an infant. “Taylor wanted to be in close physical contact with her mom anytime she was here, such that she couldn't participate in physical therapy, speech therapy or her classroom activities." said Karen. “Separating from their parents is often a hard thing to do for many children with special needs, as so often in their young lives whenever they’ve been taken away from their parents it’s to go into surgery or something equally unpleasant. However, this was an extreme case, and unless things changed drastically, Taylor wouldn't be able to go to preschool. Several of us worked together on a Separation Behavior Plan; like everything at Abilities United it was a team effort. Today, just six months later, this beautiful little girl cruises down the hall with her walker, smiling from ear to ear, singing, and greeting people she doesn’t even know. The transformation is incredible.” Karen pauses for a moment. “The things our kids can do never cease to amaze us.”

Karen has seen some very positive changes for children with developmental delays in the past 25 years. “There’s been an explosion of research, that we at Abilities United are turning into good practice. For kids with autism, and for their parents, services have generally become much better in recent years.”

Looking forward, Karen hopes to see continued improvement in acceptance and integration, and at Abilities United both the Milestones Preschool and the Independent Living Skills programs are working towards that goal. Karen is excited to see these changes in society as well. “It was wonderful to see the TV show Glee have two kids with developmental delays in the show,” she says. “It’s a great example, and an inspiration for so many of our parents, to see a couple of teens with special needs being accepted as equal members of the group.”

That’s the future that Karen and so many others at Abilities United are working for.

Based on an interview with Karen Denny in 2012. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Karen Denny and Wendy Kuehnl.

Peter Leung finds inspiration, shares passion, at dream job
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Abilities United is all about the abilities, not the disabilities. Just ask Peter Leung, who lives with cerebral palsy, holds a BA in kinesiology and has had a successful 21-year career as a staff member at Abilities United.  After two decades, Peter still loves working here. “I’m so excited to be here,” he says. “It’s a great place.”
Peter is a recreational swim and fitness instructor as well as an American College of Sports Mediicine (ACSM)  hydrotherapist at Abilities United Aquatic Services. In the 93-degree water of the Betty Wright Swim Center, he’s seen some amazing achievements including individuals who, through hard work and aquatic therapy, regain their mobility despite having been told they’d never walk again.
One of his favorite stories is a young girl with autism, who was terrified of getting in the water. “It took six months to get her from playing on the steps in the shallow part of the pool, to go with me into three feet of water. After a lot of hard work she’s completed the entire swim school curriculum and can now swim with the rest of her family. That’s what Abilities United is all about – including everyone.  She doesn’t have to just watch from the deck while the rest of her family enjoys the pool.”
“It’s phenomenal,” Peter says. “I came here thinking I was going to inspire people, but they are the ones who inspire me.”
In 2009, his dream job just about came to an end due to medical issues. “Because of my cerebral palsy, my biomechanics changed and I was having trouble walking. I went to a doctor, and he referred me to aquatic therapy…here at Abilities United!” Therapy in the pool has helped improve Peter’s ability to walk and has been very helpful to reduce his pain so he can continue to work at this job he loves.
Peter is proud of his success as an employee at Abilities United, and is similarly proud of the increased level of employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the community. “It’s not charity; you need to do the job,” he says. “The individuals who get jobs with help from the Abilities United Employment Services are committed to their jobs and very capable to do their work. Some of them get up at 5:30 in the morning to take two or three buses to get to work on time.”

“All my life I knew that I wanted to work with people who have disabilities,” says Peter. “For me, Abilities United is a dream come true. I’ve found an organization that has the same passion as I do.”

Based on an interview with Peter Leung in 2012. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Peter Leung and Wendy Kuehnl.
Nick Golick: a lifetime of learning, creating, giving back
Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Nick Golick is a happy, artistic and inspiring young man. Born with Down syndrome, Nick started coming to Abilities United in 1982, when he was just six months old, and so began a lifelong relationship with the organization.

“Abilities United has always had great programs that benefit Nick,” says his father, David. “First was aquatics in the pool, and then the early intervention program helped him develop balance and motor skills. Next came Special Olympics, then learning how to become more self-sufficient through the Independent Living Skills program, and finally Nick got a job as an adult. Abilities United has always been there to help him flourish.”

Getting a job was the ultimate success for Nick. Abilities United helped Nick land a job as a Courtesy Clerk at Safeway, where he bags groceries, collects grocery carts in the parking lot, and helps around the store. He’s been there six years, and meets weekly with his Abilities United job coach to discuss how to continually improve his work.

His attitude about his job sets a great example for all of us. “I like to go to work, and I’m passionate about my job,” says Nick, “When we go on vacation, I’m always asking when I get to go back to work.”

“He’s very, very proud of his job,” adds David, “and I’m a very proud father.”

Nick likes to express himself through painting and has done so since he was a child. With the help of Abilities United, he has sold many of his works. “When I sell my paintings, I give half the money to Abilities United,” Nick says. “It makes me feel really proud.”

The Golicks have now been involved with Abilities United for some 29 years. “The spirit of the organization has always stayed the same,” says David. “They are good people with big hearts. Those of us who live in the area should know about Abilities United, and appreciate that we have such a great organization in our community.”

And we appreciate that Nick contributes to our community through dedication to his work, his beautiful artwork, and his positive attitude!


Based on an interview with Nick and David Golick in 2012. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by the Golick Family and Wendy Kuehnl.

Mike Connor: a long special relationship with Abilties United
Wednesday, January 9, 2013

In 1974, Stanford football player Mike Connor was looking for a new residence, and he landed a room in a Palo Alto home. The owner was Betty Wright, who was one of the core group that helped establish what is now Abilities United.
“Within a few hours she had me signed up as a volunteer,” Mike laughs, and that afternoon began a relationship with Abilities United that has now endured for nearly 40 years.
Mike’s story shows a passion for the cause that runs so deep with many who have become involved with Abilities United. “I had been a lifeguard, so Betty got me in the pool with the children with developmental disabilities. Working with those kids was one of the great joys of my life,” he says. “I even worked as a janitor; I’d come over here at 11 at night to clean up.”
Mike savors the good memories of his early days at Abilities United. “There was one child who was severely challenged with cerebral palsy, and I used to carry him in and out of the pool. We became very close. And I remember one of the kids who was training for Special Olympics; he was up on the deck like a coach encouraging the others. That was such a wonderful thing to see; I’ll never forget that.” Mike pauses. “In the pool many of these kids could get a level of mobility and independence that they couldn’t get on land. It was always a thrill to witness that.”
Later Mike would serve for some seven years as President of the Board of Directors at Abilities United. “I don’t know who was serving who,” Mike says. “Yes, I was helping out, but it was awfully good for me too.”
Mike looks back at how things have changed in the past decades for those with disabilities. “When I was young you didn’t see people with disabilities in the workforce. Now Abilities United helps place clients in jobs at places like Safeway, or the movie theater, or somewhere else. Abilities United learned years ago to focus on the abilities, not the disabilities.”
For the 50th anniversary of Abilities United, Mike says “There’s a huge congratulations owed to everyone who’s worked here and who has supported the cause: staff, volunteers, donors, and others. It’s a very special group.”
Yes, and Mike himself is one of those very special people.

Based on an interview with Mike Connor in 2012. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Mike Connor and Wendy Kuehnl.

Eriks Ramans: An Inspiring Role Model for All
Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A happy man with a big heart and a wicked sense of humor, Eriks Ramans epitomizes how people with disabilities can live a full and productive life. His charming personality, his engaging humor, his commitment to the community, and his enthusiasm for everything he does makes him a natural and recognized role model and advocate for people with disabilities.  Eriks simply loves life, he loves his life; and that is a positive example to the entire world.  
Eriks has been a client of Abilities United for as long as he can remember. Born with Down syndrome in 1971, Eriks started with what is now Abilities United when he was six months old.  He began in the early intervention program, where he learned to walk, talk, and feed him self. Over his lifetime, he has participated in a broad range of programs at Abilities United.
In recent years Eriks has been in the Independent Living Skills program, which has enabled him to get his own apartment. Eriks has also participated in the Abilities United Employment Services program, and he’s worked well over ten years at great companies like Marriot and Safeway. He takes great pride in being a hard worker, and continues to improve his job skills through ongoing training at Abilities United and through volunteer activities in the community.
Eriks’ father Andy is thrilled with his son’s progress. “When Eriks was young, we wanted to set a direction so that he could be on his own someday,” says Andy. “With the great help of Abilities United, it’s happened - he’s now been in his own apartment for over ten years.”
“The people at Abilities United are wonderful,” says Andy. “Their passion and dedication are amazing.”
“Abilities United is family to me,” says Eriks, while flashing his usual big smile. At Abilities United, Eriks is family to us too, and we’re proud to have such a fine, inspirational man as one of ours.

Based on an interview with Eriks and Andy Ramans in 2012. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Eriks and Andy Ramans and Wendy Kuehnl.

Marie Mong: Inspired by and an Inspiration to Children with Developmental Disabilities
Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Any look back at the first fifty years of what is now Abilities United starts with Marie Mong, who helped get the agency established back in 1963. Marie is now 95 years old and has a lifelong spirit and attitude that inspires us all, "Children with disabilities can learn just like any children, we’d just need to take it a bit slower.”

Mary knew from a young age that she wanted to work with the disabled. “When I grew up in the twenties and thirties, there was a boy in our neighborhood with Down Syndrome. He got nothing; the family just kept him isolated in the home. I think I knew then that I wanted to work with people with disabilities and find a way to help.”

Around 1960, Marie was working at the Children's Health Council (CHC) where she worked with several mothers who had children with disabilities. These mothers wanted their children to have access to educational resources to help them live to their potential. They began meeting at First Baptist Church in Palo Alto to plan a community resource for children with developmental disabilities, and opened a nursery. Dr. Robert Taylor, a noted pediatrician from CHC, recruited Marie to run the preschool. With a bit of funding, Abilities United was incorporated in 1963 (as C.A.R), and moved to the grounds of the current Palo Alto facility.

“I ran the nursery school from the start,” says Marie. “At that time there was no training for educating the disabled, as the doctors just said to put them in an institution. We had to figure it out on our own. I thought that these children could learn just like any children, we’d just need to take it a bit slower.” This philosophy that Marie developed still represents a best practice today.

The pool was added in the 1960s, and the Aquatic Center instantly became a key part of the facility. “The pool was a godsend,” says Mary. “Swimming was great exercise for the children, and those who couldn’t walk on land could enjoy moving around in water. I remember one of our children was deaf, blind, and had developmental issues, but in the water he would just blossom – he was a beautiful swimmer.“

Looking back, Marie says that it’s remarkable how services for the disabled have been completely transformed during her lifetime. “Now disabilities get effectively identified at birth; that sure wasn’t the case fifty years ago. Back then, nobody knew anything about autism, and people with disabilities weren’t even given a chance. Now they’re participating and contributing in schools and in the community. “

Locally, people like Marie, and so many others at Abilities United, have helped drive this transformation and inspiration.

Based on an interview with Marie Mong in 2012. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Marie Mong and Wendy Kuehnl.

Dr. Harry Hartzell remembers 50 years of Abilities United & services for people with disabilities
Monday, December 3, 2012

Fifty years ago Dr. Harry Hartzell, a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, learned that his newborn child had severe disabilities. Subsequently, he and his wife discovered that a group of parents had started a program at a local church for young children with developmental disabilities. They enrolled their son Ben and found the program, under the direction of Marie Mong, to be very helpful in giving them guidance in caring for Ben. It also put them in contact with helpful community resources and with other parents facing similar questions and challenges. Thanks to the foresight, planning, and fund raising begun by these parents, who wanted services for their children to be available in the community, this program grew into Abilities United.

It is sobering to remember the thinking that was prevalent in that era. “At that time, the advice that many professionals gave parents was to institutionalize the child before getting emotionally attached,” remembers Dr. Hartzell. “I visited the hospital in Sonoma where Ben would have been placed. It was a shocking experience, and we certainly weren't going to send our son there. Fortunately, it was the early '60s, and under the leadership of President Kennedy, parents were having the courage to speak up, taking the position that these are our children, and the right thing to do was to show that we love them by helping them become part of our community.”

Thus began Dr. Hartzell's association with the agency. In time he would become increasingly active, serving on the Abilities United Board of Directors after retirement from his pediatrics practice, and he continues to advise on fund-raising efforts to this day.
“I’m proud of so many of our programs,” Dr. Hartzell says. “Our Employment Services Program helps our clients get jobs—in food service at Stanford, as a greeter at Walmart - all kinds of things. Our participants take enormous pride in their work, and that furthers the goal of inclusion in the community. I’m also very proud of our programs for the parents. As my wife and I learned, raising a special needs child brings some enormous challenges, so providing counseling and enabling parents to meet with others who have been in their shoes is a huge help.”

A conversation with the remarkable Dr. Hartzell reminds us of the incredible changes over the past 50 years. What is now Abilities United has grown from a small but determined group of parents meeting in a church social hall, to a vibrant organization with a wide range of services and a track record of making a significant difference in the lives of special children and their families. What was once the standard practice of institutionalizing a child has given way to effective efforts at education and inclusion. Here in the Bay Area, Abilities United is playing a key role in those efforts, helping our community continually improve its commitment to our developmentally disabled citizens.

Based on a 2012 interview with Dr. Harry Hartzell.  Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Harry Hartzell and Wendy Kuehnl.



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