Jason James and Kelton Alexander do yoga at the park during AbilityFirst's after school program. Photo courtesy of AbilityFirst.

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AbilityFirst aims to provide every possible experience to its participants—sometimes kayaking and sailing, or a baseball game or trip to SeaWorld. They’ve attended adaptive ski school, and have even gone to casinos and bars.

While the organization serves those with disabilities, its services extend far beyond the traditional day program.

“We’re really giving that individual the opportunity to participate to see if they like it or not,” allowing participants to truly discover their skill sets and potential hobbies, said senior director of programs and the director of the Long Beach center, April Stover.

Clients in the day programs receive the opportunity to develop plenty of practical skills as well, such as taking public transportation, calling an Uber, going to the movies, or eating at a restaurant.

“We may need to adapt things so that (people with disabilities) can be successful, but they have the same wants and the same needs that anybody does,” said Stover.

In its nearly 100 years, AbilityFirst has adapted to meet the needs of the disabled community.

First created in Pasadena in 1926 under the name “Crippled Children’s Society of Southern California” (a name changed in 2000 to reflect both the more appropriate terminology of today and the population it serves), the AbilityFirst of today is all about person-first language, emphasizing the client as an individual, rather than being viewed as their disability.

While society has come “leaps and bounds” for people with disabilities, “we (aren’t necessarily) anywhere near where we need to be,” said Stover.

But what AbilityFirst accomplishes through its several locations (its Long Beach center opened in 1966), is advocacy for those with disabilities, while helping to support its clients in becoming independent and active members of their communities.

While the nonprofit initially focused on providing day programs and therapies, as more schools began to provide these same services, AbilityFirst recognized the needs that weren’t being met, which largely includes social recreation and independent living skills.

Not only does AbilityFirst offer the first fully accessible camp in the state of California, but clients can participate in a wide array of programming, which has only increased since the organization has pivoted more toward community-based support and employment workshops in the past five years or so, said Stover.

“Children grow up to be adults, and so we really wanted to make sure that they had programs that would allow them to continue to grow,” said Stover.

The adult day programs specifically appeal to the interests and desired skills of its participants, ensuring that they have the highest quality of life possible and are able to participate in deciding what kind of programming they receive, said Stover.

“If we’re not giving our individuals with disabilities the opportunity to experience all of those different things that the world may offer, they’re not going to be able to make a true, informed choice,” said Stover.

And when the pandemic altered the entire scope of what was available to clients, AbilityFirst maintained the same mission of meeting their clients’ needs during this turbulent time.

Jasmine Woodson, Annette Cruz, and Hannah Okyere from AbilityFirst’s adult day program spend time at a park in San Pedro. Photo courtesy of AbilityFirst.

“Zoom didn’t work for everybody, but it did work for a lot of individuals,” said Stover. “It worked for individuals that just wanted to make connections. There would be times where some of our Zooms literally were just some social hours because they needed to have that connection.”

And for those clients whose needs couldn’t be met online, AbilityFirst made it a priority to meet them where they were.

While Stover compared the experience of adapting to the pandemic to “building the plane as we’re flying it,” the organization was one of the first to transition to alternative location programming, meaning meeting clients in their front yards or in a park once it was deemed safe.

Through this, the nonprofit was able to continue focusing on the individuals’ needs such as social and independent living skills, while giving families a needed break, she said.

This February, Stover is looking forward to the completed remodel of the Long Beach center, which will provide more space and opportunity for its clients and their families, particularly for the College to Career and supportive employment programs.

“We’ve always been trendsetters, and so I think that we will continue to really see what our participants want, what’s out there and go after it and try it,” said Stover. “The sky’s the limit.”

Contribute to AbilityFirst here.

Precious Lamb to receive $350K grant 

Precious Lamb Preschool, which provides free education and care for young children of those who are homeless, is this year’s S. Truett Cathy Honoree as part of Chick-fil-A’s 2022 True Inspiration Awards.

The local nonprofit, one of 34 honorees across the country, will receive a grant of $350,000 to further its programs.

“Their work is truly inspiring,” John Howard, operator of Chick-fil-A Long Beach, said in a statement.