New Aspen nonprofit advocates for the disabled | AspenTimes.com

New Aspen nonprofit advocates for the disabled

Jeanne McGovern/The Aspen TimesAspen artist Win Charles sells her handmade greeting cards at the Aspen Saturday Market. Charles, and Max Grange (in background), were among the Valley Life for All advocates at the market, helping educate people about the new nonprofit and the valley's disabled community.

ASPEN – Ask Margaret “Gary” Bender what her hope is for Valley Life for All, the nonprofit she recently helped launch, and she offers an unusual response: “My hope is that there would be no Valley Life for All.”

The reason behind this goal is simple, though.

“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need an organization like Valley Life for All, because there would be no need to connect people with and without disabilities. … It would be happening on its own accord.”

But Bender – who has been a fierce advocate for Alex, her teenage daughter who has Down syndrome, as well as the disabled community as a whole – said there is actually a great divide in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.

Katie Grange, a longtime local and mother of 23-year-old Max, who grew up severely disabled in Aspen, agrees. In particular, she found a huge drop-off in services and outlets for Max once he left the public school system.

“Being disabled is from birth to death, and there are gaps in the services offered,” said Grange, who, in addition to her job as a real estate agent, is actively involved in disability rights organizations locally and at the state and national levels. “It can be very isolating if you don’t have someone advocating for you.”

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So when Bender and Grange connected, their mission quickly become clear.

“Inclusiveness … that is what this became about,” Bender said. “Being included in everyday life in every stage of life; being a contributing member of the community. It’s pretty simple, but so difficult at the same time.”

Added Grange: “Our valley is so progressive, and we have so much potential here, that is why we decided we needed to be a model for other communities.”

Thus the formation of Valley Life for All, which the state recently granted its 501(c)3 nonprofit status: Founded on the idea that community is key to any organization’s success – also called asset-based community development – VLFA “is a grassroots movement created by concerned citizens throughout the Roaring Fork Valley who are empowered to build a bridge between people with and without disabilities from Aspen to Parachute.”

More specifically, VLFA organizers focus on four core areas of concern: attitudes and awareness; career and recreational opportunities; housing and transportation; and respite, families in isolation that need support.

To the latter point, Bender noted: “So many families affected by disabilities are just trying to get through the day. We want them to know they can get the support they need; we will be their advocate.”

But it is perhaps the first area of concern that will have the most impact, VLFA organizers agreed.

“It’s not that people don’t want to help, don’t want to be inclusive. I think it’s more that they don’t know how to do this,” said Grange. “A lot of what we’re going to be doing is educating the public, reaching out to them in new ways.”

Among the ways VLFA is tackling the problem is outreach. For example, a couple of VLFA self-advocates – disabled people creating opportunities for themselves and others – worked at last week’s Aspen Saturday Market. They will return in September to sell their wares and share their stories. Also on Saturday, VLFA partnered with Raising a Reader, another local nonprofit, by having self-advocates read stories to children as they visited the booth.

“We want people to know these are people just like everyone else; we want to share the gifts they have,” Grange said, explaining that other connections the fledgling nonprofit has made include partnerships with the Snowmass Recreation Center, participation in the Aspen Area Community Plan process, and the beginnings of a website that will include a calendar of events, list of service providers and information for and about the valley’s disabled community.

“We can make difference. Not just for our kids, but for so many others,” said Bender. “Disabled or not, I think everyone will learn something from Valley Life for All.”

For more information on Valley Life for All or how you can become involved, visit http://www.valleylifeforall.com.

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com

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