AbilityFirst Looks Beyond Disabilities, Focuses on Capabilities

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Story and Photography by LAURA MONTEROS

6:11 am | September 30, 2013

AbilityFirst focuses on possibilities in its annual Festival of Fall fundraiser The AbilityFirst motto is “Looking beyond disabilities, focusing on capabilities, and expanding possibilities.”

That motto kept coming up as we spoke with people at the organization’s Gourmet Festival of Fall fundraising event on Sunday evening. The non-profit provides services, activities, and employment for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Annie Tran, the production supervisor at the Pasadena Work Center and a client of AbilityFirst said, “AbilityFirst doesn’t look at the disability, they look at the ability.”

Lori Gangemi, CEO of AbilityFirst for the past nine years,  AbilityFirst for the past nine years, said that the philosophy of “focusing on abilities rather than disabilities” attracted her to the work.

Ray C. Cherry, secretary of the board of directors and a vice president at presenting sponsor Union Bank, said that the organization fits well with the Union Bank Foundation’s commitment to reinvesting in communities.

“Focusing on their abilities is really something they want to support,” he said. This is Union Bank’s fourth year as presenting sponsor of the event.

The biggest challenge of such an organization is financial, Gangemi said, which is why fundraisers like the Festival of Fall are necessary. AbilityFirst gets support from the State of California, but cuts have hit them hard.

“We lost all funds for Camp Paivika a couple years ago,” she said. “It was just gone. We’re fundraising for that.”

More than two dozen restaurants had booths at the event, donating food, beverages, and time. Homeowners Mary and Bill Urquhart opened the spacious grounds of their South Pasadena home to the 400 guests.

NBC4 News anchor Chuck Henry enthusiastically ran the auction and raffle. He told us that he was contacted for the event two months ago.

“I don’t do a lot of these events,” he told us. “I get contacted by a lot of people.” After looking at the AbilityFirst website, he said, “I was happy to do it. It’s a great cause.”

He said he was especially impressed by the summer camp, and in introducing the auction, he announced, “It would be wonderful if we could reduce the price for everyone who wants to go there.”

AbilityFirst operates three work centers, as well as readying clients for outside work at businesses such as Ralphs, Knott’s Berry Farm, AEG and DirecTV, starting at minimum wage or higher. The centers train clients to do work such as bulk mailings, packaging, or document shredding.

Peter Yoou, Pasadena Work Center director, has been with AbilityFirst for 10 years, seven of them at the work center. He said the workers at the shelter are paid at piece rate, so what they earn depends on how much they produce. Clients who are able to work outside are trained in hard and soft skills such as working with supervisors and coworkers. They also learn interview skills and how to put together a resume.

“A lot of the positions available and appropriate for our people are entry level,” he said. “We try to find a job they desire and will enjoy.”

One of the clients who works at the Pasadena Center, Zack Wood, is an amateur photographer as well as a jack-of-all trades at the center.

“I do all different types of jobs,” he said. “Mailings, go with the delivery truck.”

He said he likes working. “I like earning paychecks. I’ve made a lot of friends there.”

Tran, who was born with cerebral palsy, has been with AbilityFirst for 16 years. She oversees all the jobs at the center, including five floor supervisors and 80 workers. She rose from line worker to floor supervisor to her present position as production supervisor. She ensures the quality and timeliness of the jobs.

“It’s nice to help people in the community to see how we’re doing day to day,” she said. “To help [the clients] build their self-esteem.”

She said she likes showing what she can do. “I’m happy to work at AbilityFirst, because I can see myself grow.”

Cherry’s involvement in AbilityFirst really goes back to his childhood on the East Coast. He experienced the benefit of a similar program that his disabled aunt attended. It enabled her mother to work, and “she learned life skills and how to communicate better,” he said.

Cherry has been involved with AbilityFirst for 10 years and served on the board for five. He is also the chairman of the capital campaign for the Harry Mier Center in Inglewood.

“We just completed a $3.6 million goal about a week ago,” he said.

He encouraged anyone who is interested to come by the work centers or Camp Paivika for a tour.

“It’s not just one person that makes this all possible. It’s the work of Lori as CEO, her staff, an incredible board …  the community support we’ve been getting is just amazing and will ensure the work goes on for another 80 years.”