Celebrating 50 Years of Doing Good

AbilityFirst honors those who help, and those it helps
Published on Jun 10, 2024

According to Greg Wood—who, along with his wife Heba, was honored with AbilityFirst’s Visionary Award, at its 50th Annual Food and Wine Festival Sunday—the organization is the only reason their son Zach, is a productive and thriving adult living with autism.

As Wood explained before being presented with the award, “Back when we were beginning with Ability First, autism was pretty rare. This was still around the beginning of the 2000s, and we, like most parents with autistic kids, were frustrated, and full of challenges.”

Greg and Heba visited numerous doctors and therapists, until they found AbilityFirst, he said.

“They were a savior for us,” he said. “We learned a lot. Zach, our son, really flourished with first the afterschool program that he went to, and then he went to a work center. They used to have a work center, but that’s all been closed. Now he’s with the ExploreAbility program, which is a day program, and he goes there, and gets to go out in the community and have experiences.”

Greg and Heba have supported AbilityFirst since their son was 16, and he is now 38, meaning they spent nearly two decades supporting and contributing to the organization. AbilityFirst serves both children and adults with disabilities, with a wide range of programs.

Along with the honorees, AbilityFirst itself was honored by a host of local and state leaders. Fifth District County Supervisor Kathyrn Barger, a longtime supporter, told the more than 300 guests at the South Pasadena home of Mary Urquhart, that no matter what the coming year’s LA County budget battle brings, she would prioritize AbilityFirst to assure its County funding.

“AbilityFirst is so important for those families that have disabled children,” said US Congresswoman Judy Chu, also a longtime supporter. “It provides so much socialization and work opportunities and an incredible camp, also. It just really allows for these families to have another family.”

State Senator Anthony Portantino also related his experience of taking a colleague’s disabled child to Disneyland, along with his own children: “And when Belle blew him a kiss during the parade, and he responded, I just cried like a baby,” said Portantino, smiling at the memory.

“That kind of moment makes this all so special and worthwhile,” he said.

Portantino, Chu and Barger all presented recognition certificates to AbilityFirst and its new CEO, Dr. Sergio Rizzo-Fontanesi.

Sunday’s event was co-chaired by Anita Lawler and Mary Spellman, and featured nearly 20 restaurants, with beverages provided by nearly a dozen breweries, distillers, wineries, and coffee providers.

In addition, tens of thousands of dollars were raised in a live auction, with items ranging from a diamond necklace, and a Pasadena Police Department helicopter flyover, to a day at the Santa Anita racetrack and a vacation weekend in Sonoma, California.

More information about the work of AbilityFirst is available here.





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