When Billy Jones first came to the AbilityFirst after-school program at age 7, he was already in intensive therapies for some learning difficulties and trouble communicating. Sometimes, he would give in to his version of the fight-or-flight instinct and just take off, or go AWOL, as he calls it.
But at AbilityFirst, Jones tried to run away only once. They told him if he wanted to stay, he had to follow the rules. And as it turns out, he did.
“That’s how much he loved and bought into the program,” said his mother, Stephanie Jones. “For him to turn on a dime like that — running was his impulse for everything that upset him. … I always wondered, what is AbilityFirst doing for him that no place else is?”
Since then, Billy Jones, now 22, has happily stayed put at AbilityFirst, blossoming into a friendly, polite and popular young man, a proud high school graduate. He’s become an accomplished actor and dancer living on his own, and this fall he will begin school at Pasadena City College. He’s even returned to volunteer at the AbilityFirst summer day program, where he helps clean up, organize games and mentor some of the younger participants, especially when it comes to one of their most popular events of the year: the talent show.
The man nicknamed “Smooth Moves Billy Jones” loves helping to organize the big event, plan costumes and choreograph dances. He sat down recently with one of his best buddies at the program, 11-year-old Alec Hamilton, to discuss what AbilityFirst has meant to him over the years and the upcoming program at AbilityFest, a celebratory, interactive event on Saturday, July 13, at Los Angeles State Historic Park.
“I love it here, it’s really cool. It’s fun. I hope I might come back and work here while I go to college,” said Billy, noting that his best dancing protege, Hamilton, also made a three-pointer while playing basketball earlier. Hamilton lit up to interject, “Oh, that’s right!”
The two boys have gotten to be close friends over the years, with Jones teaching Hamilton the famous “shuffling” move, which the younger boy jumped up to perfectly demonstrate.
“Yeah, me and Alec, we became good friends. The first time I ever saw him dancing, he reminded me of me when I was little!” said Jones, who sat comfortably with Hamilton, both shyly grinning at their kinship.
AbilityFirst has stood for, and alongside, people with developmental disabilities and their families for 93 years, creating programs and a welcoming environment where everyone feels they belong and are valued. Over the years, the nonprofit organization has created a diverse layering of programs, designed to help people with disabilities achieve their personal best throughout their lives. The person-centered program approach is grounded in individual choice, autonomy and community participation that empower individuals with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other intellectual and developmental disabilities to discover what is important to them in their lives and to develop the skills needed to achieve their goals.
AbilityFirst after-school and summer programs provide a nurturing environment for school-age youth. It’s here that Jones really began his journey, said his mother.
“It’s really the best thing that ever happened to Billy — he has been able to do things I never thought he’d be able to do,” said Stephanie Jones, choking up at the memory. As Billy’s adoptive mother and birth aunt, she quickly sought out help for Billy when she realized he had trouble speaking and linking thought patterns together. After taking Billy to a neurosurgeon and countless therapies, she decided to try the AbilityFirst program.
“AbilityFirst has always treated him with patience, understanding and respect. They’ve always just let him be himself, and that’s something I’ve had to learn a lot from, too,” she said.
“As his mom, I want him to be able to fit in, I want him to look like everybody else and be accepted like any [other] child. But with his disability, I realized later that for many years, I was trying to make him fit his square self into a round circle. Now, he stands up for himself, he says, ‘Mom, let me tell you what I want, what I’m thinking,’” she noted, chuckling at what can even be his stubbornness at times. “Well, it all started at AbilityFirst.”
AbilityFirst’s well-trained and caring staff provides opportunities for new experiences that encourage socialization, exploration and choice. Participants enjoy enriching experiences and programs that provide as much personal attention as needed (including feeding, changing and transferring), while supporting personal growth and discovery. Some of the field trips include visiting outdoor play areas, amusement parks, the Pasadena Humane Society and the Magic Castle. The program is aimed at students 6-22 years old, but there is also an adult day program for students who might age out or graduate.
“AbilityFirst programs facilitate exploration of interests and goals by increasing opportunities to interact with others,” said President and CEO Lori Gangemi, adding that programs are consistently reviewed and improved. “We offer a broad variety of experiences, activities and new environments that change daily based upon the participant’s individual interest and choice. Our programs are constantly changing and improving with input from participants, their families and our staff.”
Through center-based activities and field trips, AbilityFirst helps participants learn basic life skills, including simple snacks, personal care and practicing safety in the community. There is a strong focus on helping improve communication — participants work on conveying their basic wants and needs through language skills, body language, picture boards or use of technology. But the best part of the program, participants will tell you, is the socialization: The kids here are kids, interacting with peers, learning how to be a good friend, respecting personal space, sharing and taking turns.
On a recent summer day, they gathered on the outdoor basketball court to play ball or just goof around. One young woman was eager to introduce her peers, offering her hand to guide the way.
AbilityFirst after-school socialization program supervisor Lisa Duenas was delighted by the kids’ excitement at having a reporter on the grounds and, after a whirlwind tour that included a breathtaking list of events and activities, showed the interactive indoor play rooms, including an enormous smart TV where they can play Nintendo Switch or hold Just Dance competitions. Bright, colorful murals depicting “Star Wars” heroes or other action figures like Ninja Turtles surrounded the walls.
“We want it to be lively and colorful and fun — this is a place kids can get excited about,” said Duenas, who was also busy planning the monthly Friday night party, which would include homemade shaved-ice treats, taquitos, music and interactive games. “We are known for our parties! It started just as bingo, but it’s expanded to all this madness. We are not a school — we’re more of a summer camp, we want it to be fun.”
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. While the target population has changed dramatically over the years, it still meets a great need within the community — setting a standard 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 frontrunner in supported employment by helping adults with developmental disabilities succeed in competitive community jobs.
The after-school care and summer day camp program even includes a Saturday drop-in option. While helping the children learn, it also provides a much-needed respite for working parents who might have errands to run or housework to finish.
In fact, the entire AbilityFirst program allowed Stephanie Jones to work full time when Billy was still young, she said.
“It helped us in so, so many ways, but part of that was peace of mind: I could work, run my errands or have some time to myself, all while knowing that Billy was in a safe and caring place,” she recalled. “I’ve always thought of the after-school program as a Boys & Girls Club for children with disabilities. That’s how much fun they have.”