Like any young adult, 27-year-old Jessica
Marrero is steering her own course, working toward becoming a chef and someday earning enough money to afford her own apartment.
The clear-eyed, upbeat Marrero, a determined woman who has Down syndrome, takes her own transportation to work at HOPE Cafe and Catering. She arrives early, promptly changes into her work clothes, keeps a clean work station and smiles broadly at co-workers as she does food preparation.
“I’ve always liked cooking and baking, it’s one of my favorite hobbies since I was a teenager,” Marrero said as she worked, preparing to-go salad dressings and stacking them neatly for the next big catering order. Someday, she’d like to make the burritos and grilled cheese sandwiches that she experiments with at home, she said.
Marrero has worked hard to get here, harder than most her age. But she’s done it with steady support from AbilityFirst, the 92-year-old nonprofit that is making inroads to provide opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to learn job skills and find gainful employment.
Marrero first worked at an AbilityFirst Business and Employment Services Center (there is one in Pasadena and another in downtown Los Angeles), and after learning some basic office and job skills, eventually felt ready to find a job in the community. AbilityFirst jumped to the task, assigning her a job developer who helped find out her interests in employment. After discovering she is passionate about food, AbilityFirst staff members prepared her with mock interviews and answers to commonly asked interview questions. They also watched videos on industrial kitchens so Marrero would understand how a kitchen might look and feel.
After a four-week internship, HOPE Cafe offered Jessica a permanent position. AbilityFirst also supported her early work success by providing a job coach who checks in with Jessica and the employer, making sure things are going smoothly and there is proper communication regarding expectations and results.
“She was thrilled when she got the job, a ‘real’ job, she calls it,” said her mom, Norma Marrero. “She had done a lot of interviews without getting an offer, but she knew that’s part of the process, and we framed it that is part of the experience. AbilityFirst really helps teach them how to exist in the work environment, which is a whole different issue; it’s a little harder for her.”
AbilityFirst has outlined three separate programs to ensure adults who have developmental disabilities can succeed in competitive jobs. DiscoverAbility is a time-limited program for participants to try out new paid work experiences through internships or volunteer opportunities. ExploreAbility is a licensed program for adults, with a ratio of one staff member for every three participants, and includes extensive community activities to help broaden their experiences. It helps adults who are making the transition from AbilityFirst work centers to become more involved in their communities in their daily lives through work, recreational and leisure activities. PossAbility is AbilityFirst’s newest program and is set to be completely community based, with activities aimed at helping adults complete personal goals.
Together, the programs are designed to provide support and assistance to participants, promoting interaction, learning and self-discovery.
AbilityFirst CEO Lori Gangemi said the programming is part of AbilityFirst’s ever-changing dynamics in its storied history to meet the needs of its participants, as they are called, to help children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families lead their most satisfying lives.
“We have evolved over the years — we have a much more person-centered approach now that involves working and living an active life doing recreational activities, as well as focusing on life skills,” Gangemi said. She noted that getting more adults with developmental disabilities into jobs and the community serves a dual purpose, helping participants lead richer lives as well as giving back to the community.
“I really believe it’s about changing society, changing people’s perceptions of just what people with developmental disabilities can do. They are usually model employees, and many employers say this. I think they have to prove themselves more and they’ve had to work so hard to get there,” she said, adding that employers have told her how hiring an AbilityFirst participant helps create a great environment of camaraderie, as co-workers rally around the worker. “We would love to hear from more employers who are open to hiring!”
Throughout its history, AbilityFirst has pioneered some of the first community services in California for children with disabilities. Originally called the Crippled Children’s Society of Southern California, the nonprofit was founded to help children and adults who suffered from polio. Its target population has changed dramatically, but still meets a great need within the community — setting a standard in accessibility with the design and construction of one of the first fully accessible camps in the nation; opening one of the first vocational training programs in the country for adults with disabilities; being a forerunner in supported employment, helping adults with developmental disabilities succeed in competitive community jobs; and leading a statewide effort to secure passage of Senate Bill 309, which ensures that young adults who have developmental disabilities can attend after-school programs throughout high school.
With an annual budget of about $18 million, AbilityFirst serves some 2,000 children, adults and their families. About 85% of parents have said that the nonprofit’s after-school programs, for participants from age 5 to 22, have allowed them to stay employed, Gangemi noted.
Longtime AbilityFirst board member Mark Fedde called the nonprofit “a lifesaver,” recalling when his son was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy and noting that the nonprofit was a support system for the entire family. His oldest son, Taylor, has attended its after-school program and social and recreational activities.
“To have AbilityFirst right in my own backyard, not even a mile away, it’s like this best-kept secret,” said Fedde, adding that there is a void of services for adults with developmental disabilities in the San Gabriel Valley. Taylor, now 25, is nonverbal and uses a wheelchair, but through AbilityFirst he has gotten to attend prom and even go skiing.
“I thought they might take him down a gentle slope, but nope, they took him to the top of the mountain and sent him down the halfpipe, it was just incredible,” said Fedde, noting the nonprofit was “smart enough not to invite the parents” for that particular trip. Fedde also recalled seeing his son at a prom put on by AbilityFirst, the first time he ever saw him in a suit and tie, out on the dance floor with his friends, just like any other teenager.
“For us to know that our child is out having fun and experiences in a safe, caring environment is a little step out into the so-called normal world; that they get to participate and enjoy the things every typical high school student gets to enjoy was so important to us, to just feel like a typical boring family,” Fedde said. “They do all these things to make families feel a part of their community.”
AbilityFirst faces some costly challenges in offering its services, due in part to the necessity of providing a high ratio of staff per participant, and also because of the high costs of maintaining equipment and facilities to ensure access for those with physical disabilities.
Board member Richard Frank is chairing a master planning task force for two facilities, including the Lawrence L. Frank facility, to ensure AbilityFirst is meeting the needs and the sites “will last another 50 years.” The Frank facility in Pasadena (there are other facilities around greater Los Angeles) was named after Frank’s grandfather, who was one of AbilityFirst’s founding members. His father and sister were also involved in the organization as board members.
Seeing AbilityFirst’s work firsthand “has stirred my passion,” Frank noted, especially seeing the joy experienced at Camp Paivika, the nonprofit’s fully accessible overnight camp in the San Bernardino National Forest.
“Seeing what AbilityFirst can do for the clients firsthand, seeing how they can learn these life skills and gain confidence and lead more productive lives is just huge,” he said, adding that he’s also visited the nonprofit’s work center. “Society should operate to help everyone achieve their potential in life, even those who are dealt a different set of cards. At the work center you see people with smiles, people who are feeling productive and proud of that.”
For Jessica Marrero, working at HOPE Cafe has given her new goals and dreams to achieve. She participates in staff meetings (“She asks great questions,” noted office manager Ann Lancaster), and has new friendships with co-workers. Working has also given Marrero something else that she has embraced wholeheartedly: purchasing power.
She pays rent for the apartment she shares with her sister, but also hopes to afford her own apartment, a challenge in the local housing market. She also has been able to grow her dynamic collection of movie DVDs, which she keeps alphabetically and loans out, with a strict return policy, to friends and family.
“She loves making money,” Norma Marrero noted. “A good portion goes to her rent, but with each paycheck she gets the newest movie release. If you borrow one, though, you better give it back. She will not let that go!”