Abilities Expo Ambassadors are leaders, artists, athletes, writers, veterans, lawyers, journalists, advocates, entrepreneurs, students, parents of special needs children and very active members of the community of people with disabilities. To read their bios, click here.
If you have questions relating to disabilities, these inspiring men and women may be able to help you. Please pose your query and you will receive a response by email.
We may post your question, and the subsequent answer so that others in similar situations can benefit from the expertise of our team of ambassadors. It may even appear in The Buzz in our new Ask the Ambassador column for mass appeal!
For each regional event, our Ambassadors—members of the local community of people with disabilities—spearhead our community outreach initiatives. These individuals will meet face-to-face with rehab institutions, independent living centers, local manufacturers, service providers and local associations to generate excitement and increase attendance at each event.
From athletes to playwrights to artists, meet the impressive men and women who have chosen to represent Abilities Expo to the Community.
Karen Kain—a parent of a medically fragile, vaccine-injured child named Lorrin for fifteen years—teaches parents how to enjoy their children no matter their abilities. She shares how she bridged the gap from special needs to mainstream experiences in all arenas of life: best friends, slumber parties, concerts, camping, beauty pageants, Girl Scouts, school dances, musicals and endless travels.
Karen is committed to helping children who are living a unique life experience by supporting their parents. In 1994, Lorrin was severely vaccine injured and at that time Karen’s world fell apart. Life as she knew it was put “on hold” as she tried everything that she could to “heal” Lorrin and give her the best life possible.
Karen was forced to overcome massive rejection and isolation as she hurdled obstacles and adapted her life to find success as a parent of a unique child. What Karen did not expect on this journey was that she herself would learn, grow and even heal from her experiences. It turned out that Lorrin was always the teacher. She taught Karen that life is full of magic, how to love herself, not to pass judgment, to be present in the moment whether it be at the hospital or Disneyland, beauty comes from within, and that we are all one and each soul is important no matter their ability. Lorrin was totally comfortable with who she was, even though she was cortically blind, nonverbal and a quadriplegic who lived with uncontrolled seizures for her entire life.
When Lorrin was 3, Karen made a pivotal choice to embrace Lorrin’s uniqueness and enjoy all areas of life, living without rules and boundaries. Karen overcame life’s massive roadblocks as she raised Lorrin. Together they held their heads high as they paved the way to giving all parents permission to explore and enjoy life. Karen found that the solution to winning in this life of parenting a unique child started with being committed to having a great attitude and perspective regardless of their situation.
Through her keynotes sessions and workshops, Karen shares the principals that made her parenting experience a success. Her message is simple:
“It is my mission to share our life story in hopes it will support other children and their families who are living a unique life experience. It is my goal to raise awareness of the power and importance of all unique souls. I believe that Lorrin was here to pave the way to a grander attitude of love and acceptance for all. It is my honor as her parent to help spread her life’s message of love and forgiveness.”
Learn more about Karen at www.lorrinsworld.com.
Nick Scott works tirelessly to help others transform their disabilities into possABILITIES. At the age of 16 Nick was an ordinary teenager with an interest in athletics, when a near fatal traffic accident changed his life forever. After the accident Nick became overweight and discouraged, but somehow found the determination, mindset and personal strength to transform his life from a debilitating tragedy into a personal triumph. Now he uses those hard-won insights to help others achieve their personal goals.
Since March 2006 Nick has competed and guest posed at almost one hundred bodybuilding shows around the world. He earned his WBFF Pro Card in 2009 and received his IFBB Pro Card when he won the overall title at the NPC Wheelchair Nationals in 2011. Nick is the only wheelchair bodybuilder in the world that holds professional wheelchair bodybuilding cards from two bodybuilding organizations.
As a professional speaker, author, champion wheelchair bodybuilder, wheelchair ballroom dancer and personal trainer, Nick Scott uses his enthusiasm, vision, convictions, abilities, and life experience to reach out, to inspire and give hope to others, especially those unaware of the personal strength they can tap into if only they will believe and try.
In 2007, Nick created an online website for helping and training others, NickFitness.com. He is one of the only fitness trainers in the world that has designed workouts specifically for disabled athletes. Being in a wheelchair for all of his adult life, traveling in a wheelchair and becoming a professional wheelchair bodybuilder has given Nick a unique perspective few others can share.
Nick is the founder and owner of the largest online wheelchair bodybuilding community and a global promoter of the sport of wheelchair bodybuilding. Through his perseverance and determination, wheelchair bodybuilding has earned the distinction of being the first time in the world where a professional disabled sport is contested on the same stage as a professional sport.
In 2008 Nick Scott created and led a wheelchair bodybuilding camp at the Shriners Hospital in Chicago, the first ever of its kind. Teens in wheelchairs from around the country spent one week learning about fitness techniques for strength training and proper performance nutrition, and were introduced to exercise routines they could master.
Nick Scott is also the CEO, President and Founder of the not-for-profit 501(c)(3) Wheelchair Athletics Foundation. Its purpose is to provide and support the wheelchair athletics' experience through activities open to any child, adult or veteran with a disability, with the hope of providing both physical and psychological therapeutic value. The Wheelchair Athletics Foundation hopes to instill the "CAN DO" spirit in all its participants by giving them the confidence and independence needed to allow them to face their own life challenges and to overcome barriers that might have seemed insurmountable before
Currently, Nick is working on opening a chain of 55,000-60,000 square foot not-for-profit gyms across the U.S. All proceeds will go toward the growth of the not-for-profit gym and the cause of funding and supporting disabled athletes throughout the U.S.
Learn more about Nick Scott at:
Marquetta Bell Johnson
Marquetta Bell Johnson was born into a family of tailors and quilters, providing a rich environment which fostered her creativity as a youth. She is a self-taught artist and creates hand-dyed textiles, quilts and collectibles.
Marquetta is also a teaching artist who enjoys affiliations with such organizations as VSAarts of Georgia, the Atlanta Partnership for the Arts in Learning and The Names Project Foundation / The AIDS Memorial Quilt.
In 2004, she was one of 12 artists selected to represent the United States as an International Arts Fellow by VSAarts. She has received the Phoenix Award from the City of Atlanta for making a significant cultural contribution to the community and a grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts proclaiming her a master artist practicing a traditional Georgia art form.
Marquetta’s work has been published extensively and featured on HGTV’s “Crafters Coast to Coast.” She is also the author of Hand-Dyed Quilts, a “how-to” book about quilting and dyeing. Most notable among her commissions is a Textile Mural for the Department of the Interior in our nation’s capital.
Marquetta considers herself a community-based artist who uses her creativity to impact the world in a positive way. According to her, “Every stitch I make is an act of love with the potential to foster harmony, well-being and peace.”
Mark Johnson, M.Ed.
After receiving his M.Ed. in Guidance and Counseling from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Mark went on to fight passionately for people with disabilities as the Director of Advocacy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Nevertheless, his impressive resume of accomplishments does not stop there.
Mark is also a graduate of the Leadership Denver Program and ARC’s Regional Leadership Institute, a past president of Fund for Southern Communities—a progressive fund that supports social change in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia—and a founder of American Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation/American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today.
- SCI Hall of Fame Inductee (2007)
- Betts Award (2007)
- Georgia Self Advocate of the Year (2006)
- Pathfinder Award, GA Brain & Spinal Injury Trust Fund Commission (2005)
- Advocate of the Year Award, Georgia Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities (2003)
- Justin Dart Jr. Spirit of ADA (2001)
- New Mobility Person of the Year (2001)
- Justin Dart Freedom Award (2000)
- James E. Skittkamp Award (1999)
- The Americans with Disabilities Act Award (1991)
- Distinguished Service, National Council on Independent Living (1990)
- Jefferson Award for Outstanding Community Service, North Carolina
Kristina Rhoades resides north of Atlanta with her husband and childhood best friend, Jacob. They own a home and spend a lot of time outdoors with their two great dogs. Kristina endured a T-5 spinal cord injury at ten-months old and has used a manual wheelchair for as long as she can remember.
Kristina is the General Manager of Brenau University's radio station, 89.1 WBCX. She hosts two weekly radio shows. "The Ocean Breeze," is a music show featuring a mix of traditional and modern beach music. "Above and Beyond" is an informative interview talk show, highlighting uplifting and inspirational people. Kristina also enjoys producing several other live and pre-recorded shows weekly.
In 2008, Kristina graduated from Brenau University with a Bachelor's degree in Master of Communications, with a concentration in Public Relations. Coming from a family with a professional background in broadcasting, she loves working in both radio and television. In 2010, she received her Master’s of Science degree from Brenau in Organizational Leadership.
As Ms. Wheelchair California 2005, Kristina was proud to have the opportunity to travel from her home state as an advocate for women and people with disabilities. Since 2005, Kristina has worked with Colours Wheelchair as a member of Team Colours. She also works with LegaWear—a a company that makes custom-tailored professional attire for people of all abilities and body types.
Modeling is one of Kristina’s passions and she hopes to increase the visibility of women with disabilities in print and motion media. In her spare time, Kristina enjoys motivational speaking, any kind of sports, and being involved with a marketing committee for a not-for-profit organization that serves adults with disabilities. She also offers social media and voiceover services to individuals and organizations.
Kristina’s closes every radio show with her motto: “Happiness is yours to choose or reject, so embrace it. Sing out loud, give somebody a hug, smile for me and don’t forget to dance to the music.”
Kristen was born in Providence, Rhode Island and now resides in Cranston, Rhode Island. She graduated from East Greenwich High School and attended Rhode Island College where she studied political science. Kristen is currently a constituent caseworker for US Congressman James Langevin. As such, Kristen handles issues regarding the Americans Disability Act, Veterans and Military concerns and issues related to Education and Housing. In addition, she represents the Congressman on several boards and commissions, including PARI Independent Living Center, TechAccess, the Rhode Island Home Choice Coalition, Rhodes to Independence Housing Work Group and the Youth Leadership Forum. She also represents the Congressman at special events when his Congressional duties keep him in Washington, DC.
Kristen was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which is a form of Muscular Dystrophy at 15 months. She has used a wheelchair for mobility since elementary school. Her parents, Pat and Jerry decided early on that they would not think about the things Kristen couldn’t do, but rather concentrate on what she could do. Each year her parents would speak to her teachers and made it a point to instruct them that Kristen was not to be treated special because of her disability but instead was to be treated like all the other children.
Kristen’s hobbies include watching movies, singing, and traveling. She recently began to bi-ski. She volunteers for the Muscular Dystrophy Association at fundraisers throughout the year and received the MDA Rhode Island State Personal Achievement Award for 2005. In addition, she is a member of the Young Democrats of Rhode Island and has served as a State Democratic Committee Member and a Rhode Island Democratic Convention Delegate. Kristen has volunteered on many local and state political campaigns. She also teaches confirmation classes at her church, Holy Apostles.
Kristen has combined her employment, leadership knowledge and her advocacy work to pursue her platform of “breaking down altitudinal barriers for people with disabilities in the workforce.” Individuals with disabilities face many barriers every day—from physical obstacles in buildings to systemic barriers in employment. Yet, often, the most difficult barriers to overcome are the negative attitudes that people with disabilities can encounter in the workplace. Kristen's philosophy is that we are the only ones who can set limits for ourselves and our potential; no one else can. Kristen's personal life in the workforce reflects this belief. She started working summer jobs when she was 14 and has never let barriers hold her back. In Kristen's own words, "If I let other people set limits for me, I wouldn't be where I am today. As far as I am concerned, there are no limits and I hope this holds true for you as well."
Autumn Grant was born and raised and continues to live in Massachusetts. Autumn received a BA in Humanities with a concentration in Classics from Providence College, graduating summa cum laude and with the Directors Award for Excellence in the Humanities in 1996. She also received a MA in Higher Education Administration from Boston College in 2000.
Autumn was diagnosed at the age of 10 with Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy; this came as quite a shock since she had been very physically active, especially in dance. In 1996, shortly after graduating from college, she started using a wheelchair. Grant soon learned that her wheelchair was actually her key to a more independent life
Autumn currently serves as the Senior Academic Advisor in the Academic Achievement Center at Bridgewater State University. As such, she coordinates all academic advising for first year and transfer students. In addition, she mentors students in academic difficulty and serves as an advisor for students studying Elementary Education.
As Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts 2006 and Ms. Wheelchair America 2007, Autumn promoted her platform “Independence through Education.” Autumn feels that education is the first step towards obtaining independence and spent her year working to eliminate barriers keeping people with disabilities from becoming involved in post secondary education. She hopes she has demonstrated that “Independence through Education” is possible by sharing her own personal story with those she has met. Autumn is the current State Coordinator of the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts Foundation and served two terms on the Board of Directors of Ms. Wheelchair America Inc.
Autumn’s hobbies include reading, traveling and spending time with her fiancé Kenny and their “babies,” two dog and three cats. Her love for travel prompted her to create her own travel agency VacationAbility, to help people with disabilities make their travel dreams come true. Autumn is an active volunteer with the Muscular Dystrophy Association and received an MDA State Personal Achievement Award in 2002. In addition, Autumn is involved in many professional organizations and enjoys presenting at regional and national conferences. She was recently selected as an Emerging Leader by the National Academic Advising Association.
For the past three years, she has been an adjunct science professor at Southern Maine Community College. Since her accident, she has received a Bachelors of Science in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and graduated Summa Cum Laude with her Masters in higher education: college teaching and learning.
Now 26-years-old, Monica is involved in mentoring students and is passionate about spreading awareness for all disabilities. She started the Ms. Wheelchair Maine Leadership and Advocacy Organization in 2011, and received the Forty Under 40 award in Maine that recognizes dedication to leadership, professional excellence and community involvement.
In her spare time, she enjoys adaptive water-skiing, kayaking, traveling, deep-sea fishing, cooking and painting.
Mike Ervin is a writer and disability rights activist living in Chicago. His plays have been produced in theaters across America.
As a journalist, he has written extensively about the community of people with disabilities for several national newspapers and magazines. Currently, he is a columnist for New Mobility magazine and spinalcord.org. Mike is also a founding member of the Chicago chapter of the direct action disability rights organization ADAPT.
Linda Mastandrea is an attorney in Chicago with a practice concentrating in disability law and advocacy. Introduced to wheelchair and disability sports while in college at the University of Illinois, Linda went on to compete in wheelchair basketball for twelve years, and in wheelchair track for ten.
She represented the United States in the Paralympic World Championship and the Pan American competition in wheelchair track winning 15 gold and 5 silver medals over seven years. She held national and world records in all five distances in which she competed during her career.
Linda is also a published author. Her recent book, Sports and the Physically Challenged: An Encyclopedia of People, Events and Organizations debuted in October 2006. She has also written for numerous publications geared towards people with disabilities, including We Media, Exceptional Parent, Sports ‘n Spokes, and New Mobility magazines.
Linda is actively involved in the disability advocacy and sports communities. She is a member of AT&T’s Advisory Panel on Accessibility and Aging. She serves on the board of Access Living, chairing their Lawyer’s Advisory Committee. She is on Variety of Illinois’ board and works with them on their Kids on the Go! Program, helping children with disabilities obtain equipment like wheelchairs and adaptive bikes. She was vice president of the National Disability Sports Alliance, and served two years on the United States Olympic Committee Board of Directors. She is a member of the legal committee of the International Paralympic Committee, and has worked with the IPC to promote human rights issues through the vehicle of Paralympic and disability sport. Currently, Linda has joined the staff of Chicago 2016 as Director of Paralympic Sport and Accessibility. In this role, she is working to help bring the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games back to the United States and to her hometown of Chicago.
It was at the University of Houston-Downtown that Ana Calvo became the president of the student organization for people with disabilities and, through this role, that she discovered her love for advocating for the rights of others with disabilities.
Ana received her Bachelors in Arts of Social Science with concentrations in Psychology and Sociology and a Minor in Political Science in 2002. She went on to get her Masters in Social Work from the University of Houston College Of Social Work in 2007.
Over the last decade, she has been the subject of much media attention. When she received her undergraduate degree, Ana was featured in the Texas Magazine for her accomplishments. In addition, she appeared in the Houston Chronicle in 2002, has done numerous television appearances locally—including the Patricia Gras PBS show and Telemundo with Marcelo Marini—and was recently featured in HTexas Magazine.
Ana currently works at the Houston Community College Vocational Advancement and Social Skill Training (V.A.S.T.) Department as director of transition services where she prepares young adults with cognitive and physical disabilities to lead a healthy, productive and independent life. She is very active in the community and also serves as Chair for the City of Houston’s Commission for People with Disabilities.
In May 2008, Ana was awarded the Dorothy Caram Commitment to Leadership Award from the United Way Foundation. At the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant in August,
she received the Nicki Ard Award for her advocacy accomplishments. Recently, Ana was also recognized as one of the 100 Houston Latinas Women in Leadership.
As Ms. Wheelchair Texas 2009, Ana promoted her platform of helping the youth to embrace their disabilities and achieve their dreams through education, employment and community involvement and will continue to be an advocate for people with disabilities.
A native Houstonian, this former Ms. Wheelchair America (2009) and Ms. Wheelchair Texas (2008), graduated Summa cum Laude from the University of Houston and earned her Master's degree in Health Promotion from the University of Texas School of Public Health. Born with spina bifida, Michelle has used a wheelchair since the 6th grade, but those who know her don't think of her as "disabled."
With her background in health research, Michelle emphasizes the importance for everyone to make their own health a priority. She reminds us that those of us who have physical limitations can still be healthy and active. She herself stays active with daily exercise at her gym, and through recreational activities such as snow skiing, wheelchair sports, kayaking and Taekwondo.
Through her volunteer work, Michelle is an active advocate for all people who have disabilities, not just those who use wheelchairs like herself. From 2003 through 2007, Michelle served as a commissioner on the Houston Commission on Disabilities before being appointed that committee’s chair. She also served on two other city commissions and coordinated efforts to better serve Houstonians with disabilities. Michelle is also the winner of the prestigious Jefferson's Award in recognition of her volunteer service which includes her involvement in Playgrounds Without Limits, Houston's first inclusive playground for all children.
In addition, Michelle previously served as Executive Director of the Houston's Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities and, in that capacity, led a number of successful disability initiatives. Thanks in part to her efforts, Houston was honored by the National Organization on Disability as the recipient of the 2007 Accessible America Award. Michelle currently works at a major cancer center and continues to volunteer as a disability advocate on collaborative initiatives. She also recently joined the Colours Wheelchairs team, a manufacturer of innovative and stylish wheelchairs.
Michelle’s philosophy is to never refuse a true adventure. In her spare time, she races her MINI Cooper in autocross competitions, and has even taken first place in her class and "Driver of the Year."
Olga L. Guerra
My name is Olga L. Guerra and I am a parent of an 11-year-old child who has cerebral palsy. I am a very involved parent and have been advocating for Araceli since she was diagnosed at the age of six months.
Araceli was born “normal,” but as she grew she was not meeting developmental milestones. Her pediatrician suggested we see a neurologist, so we did. Dr. Bohan diagnosed Araceli with microcephaly, but he explained that he was going to label her with CP so she could access more resources. This was Greek to me but I agreed. Little did I know that having the CP label was a good thing. As she grew, she was also diagnosed with mental retardation, speech impairment, an orthopedic impairment and a physical impairment.
As a first-time mom, it was very difficult for me to be told that the child I thought I was going to have, I was no longer going to have. I felt all the emotions that we all go through when there is a great sense of loss. But, I had to pick up the pieces and move forward because my daughter needed her mommy and, gosh darn it, she was going to have her mommy!
Thus my quest began to ensure that she would receive any and all services she needed to be successful. This also meant making sure she had devices and equipment that would assist her in being the best that she can be.
I did not think Araceli would ever walk but she had other ideas. A few years ago, she just got up and walked from one room to another. This, of course, comes because of therapy, a gait trainer, leg braces and endless doctor appointments. Araceli is non-verbal, but she does have lots of communication so I was able to get her a DynaVax MightyMo through the Specialized Telecommunications Assistance Program (STAP) in Texas. This is an augmentative communication device which allows Araceli to convey her desires. For example, when Araceli wants French fries, she can press the corresponding picture and it says, “French fries.”
She has a Tandem trike from Freedom Concepts thanks to The Heart of Variety organization. She has gone to Disney World courtesy of Make a Wish. I could go on and on but, bottom line, there are many resources, services and equipment that will help our children with challenges get that much closer to being “normal.” I tell parents all the time that all they have to do is ask. The worst thing that could happen is that the answer will be “no” and you are no worse off than when you started. What if the answer is “yes?”
I believe in allowing all children with disabilities to be the decision makers as to what they can or can‘t do. Granted, Araceli may not become a rocket scientist, but who I am I to put any limitations on her abilities?
Part of my job as her mother is to ensure that ALL doors will always be open for her. Araceli will be the only one who will decide if she can or can’t do anything.
I was 19 years old and thought I had the world at my fingertips. I loved to ride dirt bikes, surf, snow board, wake board, fish and work out. On November 27, 1993 just after Thanksgiving, my parents and brother joined some of our family in Laughlin, Nevada, while I stayed home since I had to work. Believe it or not, this was the first time my parents left me home for an extended period of time. Since they were gone, I thought what better time to have some friends over. A good friend came over with his street bike—which I loved to ride—and I later took another friend for a ride on the back of the bike late that night. While I was driving the motorcycle with my friend, he fell off. With the balance was thrown off, I was not able to keep the bike on the street. The bike swerved off the road and I hit a telephone poll. I would soon learn that my life would not be the same.
According to the reports, I needed to be resuscitated twice and, due to my internal and external injuries, I only had enough blood to keep my heart pumping. I remained in ICU for 6 weeks on life support. After I was taken out of ICU, I was transferred to several hospitals. During that time, I had 9 surgeries and remained in the hospitals for 6 months.
As a result of my accident, I am a T4, T5, T6—incomplete paraplegic. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to meet several others with spinal cord injuries. They have shown me a new way of life and given me hope. Today I still remain friends with many of those people that gave me hope and so much encouragement. I thank God that they were sent to show me that my life will go on, but in a different way.
I have learned so much in the last 17 years, living with a spinal cord injury. I thought it was a life I could never live, but it became easier in time, with lots of practice and prayers. You learn to be creative.
Today, I am happily married to my girlfriend at the time of my accident, who I only knew for 6 months, and we have a 3-year-old son. I am CEO of Wheelie Medical Supply, owner of Wheelie Distribution, a realtor for Keller Williams VIP properties, an ambassador for the Abilities Expo Los Angeles and a proud Rider for Ralphs Riders, a nonprofit which helps people with spinal cord injuries. I enjoy helping others who face challenges similar to my own and various other disabilities. I want them to be able to overcome some of the obstacles that I was able to.
When I am not working or volunteering at hospitals, I enjoy spending time with my family.
I tell people that I have been blessed to have bonus time for the last 17 years. Although some days present more challenges than others, I would never trade them for anything.
NEVER SAY NEVER!
An activist and advocate by training, Ruthee Goldkorn has carried the issues of under represented groups to elected officials and public policy makers for decades. After she became a wheelchair user in 1990, she took on the cause of a community activist for the disAbility community, using the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act to make sure public services, health care services, recreation, education and all places of public accommodation are fully usable and compliant.
In 1995, she created No Barriers, a disAbility access consulting and advocacy services firm.
While serving on the Executive Board and as a member of the Legislative Committee of Californians for Disability Rights in 2001, she was dared by a colleague to enter the Ms. Wheelchair California Pageant. “I thought I knew everything until I was surprisingly crowned Ms. Wheelchair California!” she said. “All I was after was the title of Ms. Congeniality, not the lofty responsibility of being the official spokesperson for the disAbility community with a focus on the issues of women with disAbilities.” She assumed that weighty responsibility with style and success, and has been the Executive Director of this not-for-profit organization since her reign ended.
Ruthee feels that while the federal disAbility rights laws have drastically changed our communities in the 20 years since its passage, we still have a long way to go and a short time to get there. She continues to dedicate herself to the hard work and noble cause of disAbility advocacy and activism.
“The Abilities Expo is a fantastic vehicle to carry forward and bring change to our world,” she stated. “It is my privilege to be associated with the Expo and the incredible staff who make magic happen at every event.”
Raised in Chicago as a child of the 60s, she now lives in Moreno Valley with her husband Peter who is a high school teacher and her daughter who is on staff with the University of Redlands Athletic Department, women's basketball program.
My first 23 years have been very busy.
Since I was a child, I have been committed to working with the special needs community both as an advocate and motivational speaker. I have long extolled the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle through sports and recreation for people with disabilities. I speak from experience and owe my own love of sports—and the opportunities that stemmed from it—to Casa Colina, a not-for-profit rehabilitation center. Casa exposed me to a variety of athletic opportunities, from competitive tennis to skydiving. I went on to compete in the Wheelchair Tennis U.S. Open and am now a spokesperson for Casa Colina’s Outdoor Adventures Program where I encourage young people of all abilities to overcome their physical challenges in an active way.
The more I became involved in advocacy, the more doors opened up. I had the honor of representing the State of California at the Annual Spina Bifida Conference where I highlighted all Golden State advancements in all areas which concern disabilities. I have addressed a Presidential Task Force in Washington, DC about implementing new accessibility policies to benefit our community. I was also selected to be the Youth Initiative Chairman of the Board of Directors for Services Center for Independent Living (SCIL). In addition, I have fought local community colleges to ensure the right of a person with a disability to pursue an education.
I am also part of the movement for the inclusion of actors with disabilities in the entertainment industry. I have personally starred in PSAs, commercials and various television shows and continue to work to achieve a more accepting environment where people with disabilities are portrayed accurately and honestly in the media.
My volunteer work is extensive and includes such organizations as Ability First and Lanterman Development Center. This has provided me with another chance to reach out to the special needs community, emphasizing the importance of continued education and familiarizing families with the resources that exist to help them.
I am a recent graduate of the University of La Verne with a Bachelors Degree in Psychology and hope to go on to receive my doctorate. I belong to two prestigious honor societies and have certifications in Crisis Intervention Counseling for Victims of Sex Crimes, Advocate Counseling for Victims of Domestic Violence, and Group Crisis Intervention for Critical Incident Stress Debriefings. I have also received the Bronze President’s Service Award for my work in domestic violence.
Currently employed at the Parents Place Family Resource Center as their new Outreach Coordinator, I look forward to continuing to make an impact within our community and effect positive changes for the future of people with disabilities.
Ian James Brown
Ian James Brown graduated from the United States Air Force Academy. Extremely active, he played football, rugby and volleyball as well competed in boxing, power lifting and martial arts.
Ian became a paralyzed veteran during his service in the United States Air Force.
Undaunted, Ian began a post-baccalaureate program to finish the pre-requisite courses in preparation for medical school.
Ian is heavily involved in neuro-spinal research and volunteers at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation and the James J. Peters Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center. He focuses on the consequences and rehabilitation of spinal and traumatic brain injuries. Ian has worked for Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs in order to help fund responsible medical research.
In addition to his academic pursuits, Ian also works to help fit customized wheelchairs to the disabled population as a representative for Lasher Sport, LLC. As a volunteer for Lasher Sport for more than a year and a half and an ambassador to the Abilities Expos, Ian meets local clients, and travels abroad to meet patients with varied diagnoses to help find and suggest durable medical equipment, disabled resources and medical research programs.
Ian is also affiliated with the Accessible Racing program where he not only competes, but he helps design and develop the arrive and drive experience which enables people of varying disabilities to learn autocross and race driving in a fully accessible race car.
Ian is a model, spokesperson and representative for LegaWear where he helps to provide custom tailored fashion for people with varying levels of ability.
Though a retired military officer, Ian hopes to rejoin the working force in Neuro-spinal research—specifically in neuro-technology and cure research—following medical school.
Ian is also a wheelchair athlete and competed for the first time post-injury in power lifting and archery at the 2008 Veteran’s Wheelchair Games in Omaha, Nebraska where he brought home gold medals in archery and weightlifting.
Hi, I’m Dana – also known as “Tanner’s Mommy”. This is my new alias ever since my now 5-year old son Tanner entered school. Tanner has cerebral palsy and epilepsy as a result of a severe stroke and cerebral hemorrhage. In these 5 short years my family and I have been on a journey which has included awesome highs and deep lows and are still riding the waves with joy in our hearts, determination of spirit, and a ever deepening passion for advocating and serving in the disAbled community.
Tanner is our first and only child and was born normal. As you’d imagine our dreams were altered the day Tanner suffered his stroke and spent 2 weeks in ICU at 7 weeks old. There was a profound sense of grief and sadness but also anger. Tanner is our world and at the same time our world was crumbling – “How could this be” was all I could think. The day Tanner had his stroke we were told he would die. The extent of his brain damage was too severe. We were devastated! We stayed faithful and hopeful during those long dark days and by week 1 in ICU Tanner was still alive. I recall saying to the attending physician that he’s stable so things seem to be looking good. He looked at me as if I had said the sky is purple with flying pink pigs. How could I think he was stable while still on life support, not breathing on his own, not eating by mouth, still suffering seizures? In turn I looked at him and said, “My son is still alive – a week after you told me he would be dead. He is beginning to cough in discomfort from the airway – a good sign, he is opening his eyes and moving them towards sounds, his seizures have slowed. I’d say he’s stable – he’s surely not going to die and he’s already proving that he’s a fighter! I will take him any way I can have him.” And with that we began Tanner’s long, slow but steady, road to recovery.
As a family it is our mission to provide Tanner with the most “normal” life possible. Advocating for Tanner to have the best treatment, opportunities and care has not been an easy road. Professionals tend to underestimate children with disabilities while simultaneously lumping them into one category or another. Each child is exquisitely unique and should be treated as such. Parents are not crazy they are fearful, hurt, confused and hopeful and should be listened too and collaborated with – we are our child’s personal professional. I have worked diligently to open people’s minds to these realities. From arguing the merits of some sort of supportive walking device so Tanner could be free to move about on his own two feet, to finding a mainstream daycare to send him where he was the only child with major disabilities because I felt it was important for society to accept and accommodate children not exactly like themselves. It was very important for Tanner to interact with and learn from “normal” children – while also educating them.
In the past 6 months I have made major changes in my life. I have moved away from my 15+ year career in pharmaceutical medical communications to pursue a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, ultimately specializing in TBI, stroke, spinal cord injury and lymphedema. Additionally, I serve on the board for my local Special Education PTA (SEPTA) Chapter and as a Parent Member joining Committee on Preschool Education/Special Education (CPSE/CSE) meetings in support of other parents with children with special needs.
By volunteering time at local children’s and adult hospitals I am reminded that resources are not available to all. That there are many barriers to obtaining important information and interventions, and that this is unacceptable. I recall being in the ICU with other scared parents. They just nodded and mumbled when the doctors told them what they were going to do next with their child. They were not empowered to be a part of their child’s treatment or discharge plans. One step at a time, we will all be empowered. I’m on a mission!
After receiving degrees in Sociology and Spanish (with concentrations in Latin American Studies and Peace & Justice) from Villanova University, Amanda Sullivan pursued her life-long dream of working with the less fortunate. Amanda was an aid worker & missionary for the better part of ten years. She worked with orphans, refugees and abused women and children, mainly in Latin America and The Caribbean. She has lived in Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Jamaica and Mexico. She's worked with indigenous refugees in the foothills of Guatemala and with people with Hansen’s Disease (also known as "Leprosy") in Ecuador. She was a first responder during Hurricane Katrina & planned a wedding between two beautiful evacuees from The 9th Ward of New Orleans. She was taught how to shine in the face of adversity by some of the most spiritually-wealthy & courageous souls on the planet. Amanda left her heart with the people of Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. During her three and a half years there, she ran an orphanage for little girls, ages 6-14, and taught Spanish classes to children who speak Mayan. She loves the outdoors, sports, meeting inspired people, camping, animals & discovering new places.
Amanda came home to New York City from setting up another shelter in Mexico, for Christmas of 2008. While home, she was involved in two major car accidents within a six-week period. Despite suffering traumatic brain injuries & fracturing/breaking/injuring her entire body from head to toe, Ms. Sullivan's smile was left unscathed in her accidents. She took this as a clear sign to NEVER STOP SMILING NO MATTER WHAT. An athlete her entire life, Amanda has never been one to shy away from a challenge. The last few years have proven to be her biggest challenge yet. Amanda is mobile thanks to her forearm crutches and wheelchair.
Since her accidents, Amanda has met a plethora of incredible people with disabilities. Connecting with other positive people in this beautiful community has helped keep the fire burning inside of her soul. Ms. Sullivan has recently decided to become a wheelchair athlete, thanks to these new friendships, and just purchased her first handcycle! She's keeping her heart and mind opened to all of the lessons that can be learned through adversity. Inspiration is Amanda's motivation!!
Amanda wants anyone going through a hard time to know that NOTHING can take the love in your heart nor the light in your soul away from you. Some things happen that are totally out of our control~ People can break our hearts or our bodies ~ But ultimately WE ARE IN CONTROL of our lives. Amanda believes that an inspired soul is IMPOSSIBLE to break. Feeling like a victim and thinking negative thoughts are the ONLY true disabilities in this world. Ever since attending The NY Metro Abilities Expo in May, Amanda has been focused on ENABLING herself however possible. She no longer feels as if she needs to be getting around without her mobility aids in order to be COMPLETE.
This experience has overwhelmed Ms. Sullivan's soul with more love and hope than ever before. She has been doing between 4-6 hours of physical therapy every day for over three years & feels more empowered than ever. Amanda has become involved in many organizations which give hope to people with disabilities. She will begin giving motivational talks at schools sometime next year (when her brain is hopefully more healed) & has decided to write a book someday, as well. She wants to share all of the wonderful things that she's learned from her travels & her accidents & is excited to learn new lessons from all of you, as well. Ms. Sullivan is elated to be a NY Metro Ambassador. She feels honored to have the opportunity to make new friends & share this journey "on the cripp side" together. Finally, Amanda wants you to know that we may have been disabled by chance, BUT WE ARE ENABLED BY CHOICE.
Eliza Riley wants to encourage young people to speak out, to know that they have a story and it needs to be told.
Youth Leadership and Outreach Coordinator for Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, Eliza, who herself has cerebral palsy, was an early promoter of self-advocacy for people with disabilities “I want to be a role model for working in a new and different way," she explains.
A Santa Clara native, Eliza graduated from Oakland’s Mills College. An activist from a young age, she was a founding member of the Alliance of Professionals with Disabilities. After graduating from college with a degree in theater arts, she dabbled in many different worlds. After doing shows with Alchemy Works/PEP, she eventually needed to transition to the full time employment world.
She subsequently joined Americorps, where she advised community organizations on emergency planning for disabled populations. In 2007, County Supervisor Ken Yeager appointed Riley to the Santa Clara County Advisory Commission for Persons with Disabilities. Here she was able to see things on a broad level and bring important issues to the board from the many different communities and organizations within the county.
Her advocacy skills eventually brought her to the world of employment. She served as a Disability Navigator for CONNECT! Job Seeker Center.
Now, Eliza's mission is to make sure the needs, thoughts and actions of teens and young adults with disabilities are seen and heard. She has weekly youth leadership classes where the youth learn about their wonderful history and begin to take pride in their culture. She works with them on what laws and people are out there to provide support. Most importantly, she teaches that they have a big future and voice that needs to be heard.
Eliza has also worked on the first annual West Coast Disability Pride Parade! This was a great event full of a lot entertainment and chances to learn. Eliza’s favorite part of the day was hearing, “We are here! We’re Loud! We’re DISABLED and PROUD!” as it reverberated through the streets of San Jose. It will be back next year, even bigger and better!
She is also featured in an ad for the Unity Center. The Unity Lab will give youth a chance to encounter a unique experience each time they visit, as they contribute their own voices to an ever-expanding database of personal testimony, professional expertise and creative expression, incorporated throughout The Lab’s experiences and shared with our partners’ programs.
Bob Coomber is a lifelong Bay Area resident, raised in Piedmont and currently calls Livermore home.
Bob acquired juvenile diabetes in his early 20’s and Bob struggled with the illness and its complications, including irreversible osteoporosis. After multiple leg, ankle and knee fractures, Bob finally took his doctor’s advice and began life in a wheelchair.
Wheelchairs may seem a confinement, but to Bob the chair was simply another challenge. A lifelong hiker, Bob soon began experimenting with easy outdoors excursions. Several broken chairs later, one thing led to another and Bob became a staple of local newspaper and television shows—that guy in a wheelchair who won’t believe in limits.
On August 24, 2007, Bob became the first person in a wheelchair to summit California’s 3rd highest peak, the 14,246-foot White Mountain. Bob is also the first in a chair to summit two local favorites, Mt. Diablo and its companion, North Peak, as well as Mission Peak in Fremont.
Bob was inducted into the California Outdoors Hall of Fame in January 2007. He was one of only 27 Americans to receive the President’s Council on Physical Fitness Community Leadership Award in 2008. He’s also been featured in every Bay Area newspaper, as well as the CBS Early Show, ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson and the Hallmark Channel.
In the fall of 2011, Bob plans to summit Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro, and be the first unassisted wheelchair user to make the journey. The trip will also serve to distribute 200 wheelchairs in Arusha, Tanzania, in partnership with The Wheelchair Foundation of Danville. A potential spring warm up summit attempt of Mexico’s Orizaba (18,490’) could also be on the horizon.
Bob has been married to wife Gina for 15 years. They spend way too much time finding new trails to explore all over California and the West.
Bonnie Lewkowicz grew up in Detroit and knew at an early age that she wanted to be a dancer, yet she never imagined that her dance career would take the form of dancing in a wheelchair. From age five to fifteen she studied all forms of dance (ballet, tap and jazz) until an all-terrain vehicle accident left her a quadriplegic in 1972 and her dream of a dance career seemingly out of grasp. With the harsh winters of Michigan and the difficulties of getting around in them in a wheelchair, she packed her bags and headed for the Left Coast immediately following graduation from high school. It was at her new home in California that she discovered a way to be the physical person that she was prior to her accident and where she learned to embrace Ghandi's philosophy to, "be the change you want to see in the world."
Driven by the desire and need to be physical, she explored wheelchair sports. (At this point, she had never seen anyone dance in a wheelchair and did not even consider it as an option.) A newly created adapted PE program at Santa Rosa Community College offered wheelchair racing and swimming and, after trying both, Bonnie felt like she had found her place. She went on to compete and medal in track, field and swimming events for 10 years. Following per participation in a quad rugby exhibition game at one of the Wheelchair Games, she and some fellow athletes fell in love with the sport and formed the California Quad Rugby League where she competed for eight years with the team she founded, Quadzilla. In the summer of 2010, she received the honor of an induction into the Northern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Because her life-affirming experience and the effect that sports and recreation had on other people with disabilities, she decided to study recreation therapy. In 1985, she graduated from CSU – Sonoma with a Bachelor’s degree in Adaptive Recreation and relocated to Berkeley to work for Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program (BORP) as the Adult Sports Coordinator. While at BORP, she organized sports activities and outdoor adventures for people of all ages and abilities. It was through leading these excursions that she discovered her new passion—travel.
For more than 25 years, Bonnie has been advocating for greater access to outdoor recreation and travel for people with disabilities. First, she specialized in accessible travel as a travel agent and, then in 1997, she founded and became the director of Access Northern California (www.accessnca.org), a not-for-profit organization committed to expanding opportunities to accessible (inclusive) tourism and outdoor recreation. She consults with the travel industry about accessibility, conducts disability awareness trainings and writes about travel. She authored a book titled, A Wheelchair Rider's Guide: San Francisco Bay and the Nearby Coast, about accessible trails and produces an access guide to San Francisco. Her latest project includes creating a website of accessible trails along the entire California Coast (www.wheelingcalscoast.org).
During her years of blazing accessible trails, Bonnie—always open to new discoveries—attended a dance workshop in 1987 and awakened the formant dancer within. Armed with this new set of skills, she began to explore a new way to dance with a group of like-minded people. This venture quickly grew into the internationally acclaimed contemporary dance company, AXIS Dance Company. For more than 20 years she performed, taught, and toured extensively with the company, venturing as far away as Siberia. In addition to performing, she was instrumental in developing the Dance Access/Kids program, the educational component that teaches creative dance to youth and adults with and without disabilities. Today she only performs locally but continues to teach youth, adults and educators. She firmly believes that the opportunities afforded her by being a part AXIS far outweigh those had she been a dancer without a disability.
When not working she enjoys hiking, gardening, singing, cycling and hanging out with her husband of 19 years.