Valley Life for All: A nonprofit makes good on its promise
Valley Life for All
Editor’s note: the Post Independent, in conjunction with Valley Life For All, has been publishing a monthly series about fostering inclusion since 2018. This represents the final installment.
This reporter was on a roll, finding more stories to write about for the Inclusion Campaign for Valley Life for All. Having learned so much about people with challenges and disabilities, I wasn’t ready to give it up.
But Debbie Wilde, Executive Director, and Sandy Schroeder, Vice President of the Board of Directors, are happy to see the conclusion of Valley Life for All, for it is a success story, a book where the reader has come to the last page and is satisfied.
And, like finishing a good book, there’s a sense of the bittersweet, says Wilde. “It was a wonderful ride with amazing people. I’m delighted to be a part of a nonprofit that met its mission. That’s the ultimate goal of a nonprofit.”
VLFA began in 2010 the dining room of Margaret “Gary” Bender, whose daughter has Down syndrome. She was joined by another parent, Katie Grange, who also had a child with disabilities. They began looking at opportunities for their kids to be able to participate in the community, just like their peers.
They won a grant from the state to fund their 501c3 status in 2011. Not long after, the nonprofit was christened Valley Life for All (VLFA).
Sandy Schroeder attended one of their meetings as a parent of a son with disabilities, and before Bender moved out of state, she asked if Schroeder would take over VLFA. Schroeder said only if she could work with Debbie Wilde, whom she met at a VLFA evaluation focus group.
The dynamic duo was born. Wilde became the Executive Director and Schroeder the President of the Board of Directors. At one point they had $11 in the bank account and relied entirely on volunteers. Eventually they gained funding from various grants and sponsors and were able to pay for some positions.
The women, along with a dedicated board and volunteers, created four pillars for VLFA: The Inclusion Campaign; a Provider Collaborative; Leadership Training; and Spanish Culture and Language Support Group.
The Provider Collaborative, in which communities collaborated to provide services and support in the transition from school to community, dissolved as other organizations picked up this mission. The Spanish Culture and Language Support Group for Latinx parents with children with special needs, morphed into La Esperanza de Emily, spearheaded by VLFA Board Member Cecelia Garcia. Its success was in helping other services grow to involve Latinx parents and helping Latinx parents become self-advocates for their children.
The Leadership Training collaborated with the Roaring Fork Center for Community Leadership to enroll adults with disabilities who are a match for the leadership class. VLFA supported their participation with scholarships and provided mentors for support and curriculum modification. The goal was to focus on personal strengths, goals, desires and interests to facilitate futures of choice for people with disabilities in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The Inclusion Campaign, a favorite for both women, includes Amy Schuster and Erin Gallimore. The goal, says Schroeder, “was to eliminate the fear about how people interact with people who have different features. We focused on the value added to our community.” VLFA achieved this in a personal way, through stories in the newspapers and on the radio about individuals with disabilities and challenges.
Wilde recalls a VLFA story about a friend named Corey who has degenerative muscular disease and uses a wheelchair. She ran into him some time after his story was published in the newspaper. “I recall Corey as saying, ‘I’m a social media star. People come up to me and say, I saw you in the newspaper and heard you on the radio and I just want to say hello to you. There must’ve been 200 people who have come up to me.’ And it was perfect because his message in the story was, ‘If you see me, don’t be afraid to come up and talk to me.’ So I believe we had an effective way to get an important message across while honoring people and celebrating their stories.”
Of course, there will always be more stories to tell, but, as Schroeder says, “The goals of our four pillars have been met. The community now has the capacity to meet the needs we have identified.”
As this reporter came together with Wilde and Schroeder at a restaurant table to congratulate them, Schroeder deflected, saying, “We think all of this was well spent because we have a changed community, so it’s not necessarily a congratulations to VLFA, but a congratulations to a new community.”
Adds Wilde, “And that people of all abilities can make significant contributions and have full inclusion for all of our citizens in our community.”
As the bill comes and payment is delivered to the waiter, Schroeder says: “We want to say thank you to everyone who participated and who volunteered their time and opened their minds to look at things differently.” Piped in Wilde, “And to everyone who sponsored and helped with the funding.”
The restaurant has closed for the day. As Wilde and Schroeder get up to leave, they are confident that the mountain communities that VLFA featured will carry on the mission of inclusion for all.
Local nonprofit Valley Life For All is working to build inclusive communities where people of all abilities belong and contribute. For more, visit http://www.valleylifeforall.org or find them on Facebook.
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