AbilityFirst, which has provided programs and services to children and adults with disabilities in Long Beach since 1966, celebrated the grand reopening of its Long Beach center on Sept. 28, the culmination of an 18-month construction process and $6 million capital campaign that also supported its Pasadena location’s renovation.

The Long Beach center was in need of many updates, including improving accessibility and the breadth of services offered, said April Stover, senior director of programs at AbilityFirst’s Long Beach center.

AbilityFirst’s efforts to raise $6 million for its Long Beach and Pasadena centers began in 2019, and the Long Beach center finally broke ground in April 2021, Stover said.

Throughout the process, the Long Beach center worked to keep its doors open, temporarily closing sections of the building in order to keep operating, Stover said.

The updates and enhancements to the center are expansive, all aimed at improving the experience of its over 90 participants.

Among the Long Beach location’s vast improvements are a new and safer driveway, a flattened greenbelt area allowing for more usability and an enhanced gardening program, a renovated kitchen area for developing culinary skills, a more accessible ceramics room, updates to its warm-water pool used for therapeutic and recreational services, and new locker rooms including a unisex changing area.

AbilityFirst’s warm-water pool at its Long Beach Center was renovated to be in an enclosed area with an added roof and HVAC system. Photo courtesy of Asahi Chinen for AbilityFirst.

AbilityFirst also now has a brand new sign along with updated landscaping, which Stover hopes will provide more visibility to the nonprofit.

“I don’t want to be the best-kept secret in Long Beach,” Stover said. “I want people to know we’re here and the services that we provide and what we do to give back to the community.”

Perhaps the most significant of the updates include enhancements to the center’s programming areas, which allow AbilityFirst to bring its College to Career and Supported Employment programs to the Long Beach center.

The programs were previously offered within the AbilityFirst agency, meaning they were available to clients, but not necessarily at the Long Beach location. Bringing them directly to the Long Beach site, Stover said, will improve access and opportunity for individuals in AbilityFirst’s after-school and adult programs.

“That really encompasses our mission,” Stover said. “We really are going to give our individuals that choice throughout their lives.”

The employment program connects individuals with job coaches and employment specialists, who can assist with each stage of the job process, from creating a resume, to interviewing, to learning the necessary job skills, with the goal of individuals eventually working independently, in a job they are interested in, Stover said.

The College to Career program is a newer addition to the nonprofit, which originated in AbilityFirst’s Pasadena center, and truly took off after the start of the pandemic and the shift to online services, Stover said.

The program connects individuals enrolled in college with an education specialist, who provides support as needed, which can vary from help with setting up a routine and developing time management skills, to interacting with other college students, to taking the bus to class, Stover said.

“It’s different for every individual based on what their level of need is to help them succeed in college,” Stover said. “The ultimate goal there is that they will graduate and then be able to have a career that they want.”

The addition of the employment and college support programs affords adult participants with more choices apart from AbilityFirst’s adult day program, which is focused on recreation, socializing and volunteering, Stover said.

“If you don’t have a variety of pathways to choose from, then you’re kind of landlocked,” Stover said. “This way we’re actually giving that true choice and opportunity.”

Over the years, AbilityFirst has adapted to the changing needs of its participants; in the earlier days of the organization, polio was prevalent, and therapies for people with disabilities were not typically offered in schools, Stover said.

As needs shifted and therapies in schools became more common, there was no need for AbilityFirst to duplicate those services, Stover said.

“We found that where the true need was in independent living and that social skill aspect, and so that’s what we really focused on,” Stover said. “Our adult programs and our after-school programs are giving that independence, giving that choice, and learning those new skills.”

Renovations included an updated teaching demonstration kitchen, where participants learn about safety, cleaning, inventory and prepping, among other independent living skills. Photo courtesy of Asahi Chinen for AbilityFirst.

The center’s renovations and improvements are an extension of this philosophy—its improvements are all aimed at bettering the experiences of its participants, Stover said.

“I think the big thing that really is going to make a huge impact in our participants’ lives is the fact that we’re able to do more, we’re able to serve more individuals,” Stover said. “It’s really going to broaden the scope of what they may want to do with their futures, and give our families a lot more choice and opportunity to learn more about what AbilityFirst does.”

Through AbilityFirst’s capital campaign and subsequent fundraising efforts, the organization was given the opportunity to connect even more to the community and establish awareness, Stover said.

Critical to the fundraising process were community groups like AbilityFirst’s Long Beach Guild who have supported the organization since 1978, Stover said.

Other funders of the campaign included The Ahmanson Foundation, Alpert & Alpert Foundation, the Raymond and Barbara Alpert Foundation, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.

“It put a smile on my face,” Stover said of the community’s support of the capital campaign and center’s reopening. “I am so grateful to our donors, to our families, to our staff, to the committee, and to the community for opening up their hearts, and honestly their wallets, and allowing us to complete this renovation that is going to allow us to have more individuals meet their goals and have an amazing quality of life, and have that true choice and independence that we all want out of life.”

The nonprofit is currently gearing up for its upcoming “Stroll and Roll” fundraiser on Sunday, Nov. 12 at 9:30 a.m. at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. Find more information at p2p.onecause.com/22strollandroll. To tour AbilityFirst’s new facility, contact April Stover at astover@abilityfirst.org.