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Hope never hindered : Abilities United keeps families afloat by helping people with special needs

At one time, a simple message from the doctor accompanied a diagnosis of mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism or Down Syndrome: "No hope."

Many disabled infants, children and adults consequently became the inmates of state mental institutions, isolated from everyday life in their communities.

But that changed for 12 local families who believed a state mental facility was not an option for their children with special needs. Through combined efforts and community support, they established the Palo Alto-based Community Association for Retarded (C.A.R.) in 1963, later renamed the Community Association for Rehabilitation, an early-intervention program for infants and children up to 3 with or at risk for developmental disabilities.

"It's a revolution of the past 40 to 50 years," said Lynda Steele, executive director of C.A.R., recently renamed Abilities United. "The institution of shutting people away is why organizations like Abilities United are popping up."

Andris and Betty Ramans may never have known about C.A.R. if it weren't for a Mrs. Kelty, whom they met at Stanford Hospital in 1971 after their infant son, Eriks, was diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

Kelty told the Los Altos couple about the organization's infant-stimulation program. They enrolled Eriks in classes at 3 months.

"He's been going to different C.A.R. programs ever since," Andris said.

Children aren't the only ones who benefit from the programs.

"I'd prefer to call it (early intervention) a parent-education program," said Janel Astor, director of children's development. "Parents need to understand what's going on with their children."

"That is exactly right," Betty said of Eriks' early years, "and their dedication – staff has always been available to talk."

Through Eriks' participation in C.A.R.'s programs, the Ramans said they met many parents and shared information about different programs.

"It's almost like networking," Betty said.

As the children grew older and changed, so did their needs, Steele said. The organization has evolved with them, expanding its services and support to people of all ages and varied disabilities.

"We hear where the need is from the people we're serving," Steele said, who returned to the association in 1991 after working there from 1980 to 1983. "There's a whole range of services – it's one-stop shopping."

The new-generation support services offer preschool, after-school socialization, adult activities, employment services and independent living programs for the disabled of specific age groups – with a new focus.

"As an agency, we have a new strategic direction, which is to expand and focus on bringing people together with and without disabilities to increase their knowledge and understanding of each other and so strengthen our community," Steele said in a March 2008 press release announcing C.A.R.'s name change to Abilities United.

Created three years ago, the preschool program for 2-to-5-year-olds has a 50-50 ratio of children with disabilities or at risk to those without.

The program's structure, design and philosophy can benefit all children, according to United's preschool manager, Avril Landes.

"You develop an awareness – an empathy – and also a greater value for differences in yourself and other people," Landes said.

Outside, the preschoolers participate in planting seeds and flowers in the raised gardens, compost snack remnants and climb playground equipment. Inside, the teacher asks questions of the children and gives them the same directions.

"That's our goal," Landes said, "that you can't pick out the children with special needs."

Now 37, Eriks works at Safeway and has his own apartment in Sunnyvale.

"I'm loving it," Eriks said. "I love living by myself."

Eriks relied on C.A.R. – he participated in independent living skills and job coaching classes, mentored by Matthew Young, who helped him with math and cooking skills and personal training at a gym.

"He's been living on his own for about 10 years," Andris said of his son. "He can't make a turkey, but he can make a hamburger and use the microwave."

"C.A.R. is like a family to me," Eriks said, "a big family to me."

Eriks said he has held jobs at Nova, Marriotts Hotel, Starbucks, Spoons, K-Mart and Fresh Choice before landing his current job, but he still remembers his first paycheck.

"My parents gave me $25," Eriks said. "That's when I started rolling in the dough."

"We've always worked hard so he could be independent," Betty said. "He's happy where he's living now."

Eriks uses public transportation, but better than the bus is the cell phone, according to Andris.

"He's a phone call away," Andris said. "It's given him a lot of confidence to venture out on his own."

For fun, Eriks meets every two weeks with the Car Club to socialize with friends, traveling to the Farmers Market in Los Altos, playing games on "fun night" or bowling.

"We do all kinds of stuff," Eriks said.

Eriks said he wants to get married and have children someday. He has a girlfriend, Katy Kolb, and spends lots of time with his two closest friends, Ryan M. Emidendio and Lindsay Marie Milbach.

Andris said Eriks' success was guided by many people – counselors, therapists, special education teachers in the public schools system – and C.A.R.

"We can't say enough about the people who work with these agencies," Andris said.

There are no limits for anyone with a disability, no matter how severe, Steele said.

"It's a give-up mentality to write that person off," Steele said. "Who are we to say that it's a hopeless case?"

Eriks said he had doubts about making it on his own at times, but offers this advice to anyone feeling the same way.

"Don't feel left out," Eriks said. "You've got to be in it together like a family."

For more information, call 494-0550 or visit www.abilitiesunited.org.

Contact Mary Beth Hislop at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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