By Hugo Dominguez Jr.
Disabled children and young adults expand their possibilities with the help of a non-profit organization called AbilityFirst.
AbilityFirst helps youths ages 5-22 with physical and developmental disabilities by focusing on their capabilities and expanding their possibilities.
The organization has 24 facilities in Southern California that offer various programs and services including employment, housing, recreational and socialization activities, and camping.
“AbilityFirst centers have seen success,” said Monica Alcantar, East Los Angeles Center director.
Alcantar has seen the growth of each child develop from the first day they start until their last day.
The East Los Angeles Center is strongly focused on helping individuals to reach their goals.
Each person’s capabilities are the main focus, rather than their disability.
Claudia Galicia, Program Supervisor for the East Los Angeles Center, likes making a difference as one of eight staff members at the center.
Galicia feels rewarded for what she does, though every day she has to start from scratch with the kids. She recalls when she helped one of the children build a house out of LEGOs for the first time after he had spent time just staring at it.
“I love what I do” especially working with the kids,” said Galicia.
Participants are prepared to be self-dependent and learn to socialize through the socialization and recreational programs.
The programs include activities such as using public transportation, interacting with business people in the community, going to parks, going to the movies, bowling, visiting museums, theme parks and other social public events that typical children and young adults take part in.
AbilityFirst also collaborates with other programs in the community, such as the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club.
Individuals from these organizations come to a center or an outing and take part in activities with AbilityFirst individuals.
AbilityFirst gives individuals the opportunity to make new friends and interact with others.
Jaime Sarao, a 17-year-old Schurr High School student from Montebello, has been a part of AbilityFirst for a long time.
Sarao, who has autism, says that he has fun when he comes to the East Los Angeles Center.
He is one of 21 who attend the after-school enrichment program at the East Los Angeles Center.
When in the center, Sarao enjoys playing the Wii, using the laptops and helping out in the kitchen with chores and the preparation of snacks and meals.
Sarao is being prepared with basic skills that will help him in life, while at the same time enjoying himself.
When at home many individuals with disabilities don’t get to go out and interact with people outside of their walls.
Some parents don’t let their kids go out.
Sarao says that when he is home he doesn’t go out anywhere except to the store. He mainly plays at home with one of his sisters and spends time with his family.
Public exposure helps disabled children and young adults to learn to interact with the public, as well as allows them to spend time outside of their homes.
The organization has grown stronger over the years. They have expanded with a shredding company, housing, and a social program that runs on Fridays from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Saturdays from10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
AbilityFirst’s employment services help prepare young adults with job skills that match their capabilities for employment.
Individuals are trained prior to being employed and have the support of a job coach who works alongside them in supervising and training the individual while on the job.
If individuals obtain employment outside of AbilityFirst, training is still provided. In addition, an employee at the outside job supervises the individual on their first week while maintaining communication with AbilityFirst.
“AbilityFirst is very big about hiring participants,” said Alcantar.
They hire in-house for jobs in document shredding, packaging, sorting, gardening and more.
Many of the individuals who work outside of AbilityFirst obtain employment with McDonald’s, Vons, Ralphs, Dodger Stadium, Macy’s and other businesses.
AbilityFirst is a state-funded, non-profit organization that has also been affected by the state budget cuts.
Due to budget cuts, the number of kids that can attend the East Los Angeles center has been reduced from 26 to 20.
Also, staff hours have been cut and some kids can only attend the center for three days instead of the entire five days.
Individuals sometimes get referred to AbilityFirst through regional centers. Due to budget cuts, the regional centers are not currently able to pay for children to attend the programs at AbilityFirst.
During normal circumstances, families that don’t qualify for funding through the regional centers get placed on a sliding scale.
This allows children to qualify for the programs and families only pay the difference.
AbilityFirst staff members, family, friends and the individuals who utilize their services take part in fundraising at two major events every year.
This Sunday, many will walk, run and roll for 26.2 miles at the Los Angeles Marathon in efforts to raise funds for the programs and services offered by the organization.
They will also be raising funds on Saturday, Apr. 9 at Santa Anita Park for the Santa Anita Derby Day 5K.
Anyone can become an AbilityFirst Team member or sponsor a team member for these events.
AbilityFirst is also always looking for volunteers. Alcantar says that it is a great way to get volunteer hours that schools may require.
Photos by Hugo Dominguez Jr.