United Ability to honor staff and pay tribute to the memory of Dr. Gary Edwards at Journey of HOPE at home

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Teachers and staff at United Ability’s Hand In Hand. Photo courtesy of United Ability

This year’s United Ability Journey of HOPE fundraising event will be extra special.

On August 29th, United Ability, an organization that serves over 5,700 children and adults with disabilities, will be honoring their staff and paying tribute to the memory of Gary Edwards —Dr. E—the group’s beloved CEO for nearly 38 years.

If you are looking for some inspiration mark your calendars – and attend this FREE Facebook Live virtual event. 

Unconditional Love

When the coronavirus pandemic struck in mid-March, even though the buildings were emptied and fell silent, United Ability never closed. It couldn’t. Too many people depended on them.

In days, the venerable 72-year-old Birmingham-based nonprofit transformed its business model. Some people would say they “pivoted.” 

After interviewing staff, I say they did more than pivot. They followed the example set by Dr. E, who passed away in June, during his lifetime. They displayed  “unconditional love.”

As a preview for the August 29th Journey of HOPE event, here are a few of United Ability’s stories.

Hello, I love You

Ability Clinic’s Dr. Law. Photo by United Ability

Alison Berman, the Chief Development Officer at United Ability described what it was like when the state and nation shut down because of the COVID-19 crisis.     

She told us how suddenly parents were losing their jobs. They had to take care of a child with disabilities full-time at home. She reminded us that people don’t realize how much is involved in taking care of a loved one with a disability. There are so many things to keep track of including wheelchair mobility or assistive devices to name a few.

“At United Ability, children and adults are receiving the highest level of quality services around medicine, therapy, assistive technology, care coordination, and more,” Berman said. “Parents rely on United Ability for so much.” 

On a dime, United Ability enacted a telehealth and telemedicine program as well as private Facebook groups to continue adult and early learning education. 176 adults were called weekly for a “check-in,” in addition to ZOOM groups. 

Everyone needed that interaction then and still needs it today.  

Berman added, “they needed to hear  ‘Hello, I love you.’ This (United Ability) is their family. Many of our folks don’t understand what has happened.”

With great pride, Berman told me that none of United Ability’s programs shut down. Six of the ten have already returned to campus.

We are Still Here

Deanna Lenzie and the We Are Still Here For You campaign. Photo by United Ability

Nurse clinician Deanna Lenzie had to move quickly after the shutdowns were announced. In some cases, what she does can be a matter of life and death. 

One of the few nurses in the state with certifications to serve children and adults with disabilities, Lenzie and her fellow staffers set up telehealth and telemedicine programs. 

“We have to make sure our patients are safe and that our caregivers are safe too. It is a package deal, we take care of the family. We love our families”

To lower the anxiety for her patients, Lenzie and the staff launched the We Are Still Here For You campaign, which included a video.

“They were so relieved. If they needed medicines, equipment, anything—we were going to be there to find a way to get them what they needed. I love it. It is a happy place.” 

Today, even though the Ability Clinic is treating patients differently, they are taking care of the same number of people, just in different ways, according to Lenzie. 

Keeping Kids and Teachers Safe

Students and staff and the Early Learning Program. Photo by United Ability

Much like everyone else, the Hand in Hand Early Learning Program went virtual in the early days of the pandemic, explained Lenor Harrison, Assistant Director of Hand in Hand Early Learning Program. 

“Our teachers rose to the challenge,” Harrison said.

When the kids came back in early June, they had a whole new set of hurdles, such as getting the children used to their teachers wearing masks or face shields.  

They also prepared for every new detail to keep everyone safe, even the new rule prohibiting parents from taking their child from the parking lot into their classroom. This was tough on kids and parents alike.

“Our teachers and staff really dug deep to make sure everything is done right, making more space for social distancing and wearing masks. The kids have done great—like it’s no big deal. It is all a testament to the teachers and the ability to prepare the kids and parents for to expect.” added Harrison.

And all the work is paying off. On August 10th, Hand In Hand reopened for the new year at full capacity. 

Job Training in the Midst of a Shutdown

United Ability Employment Services participants at the Birmingham Zoo. Photo courtesy of United Ability

One final example of United Ability staff during the pandemic was the work of Employment Services.

“I am so proud of our employment services staff!” exclaimed Katie Dumais, Assistant Director of Employment Services. “We were fortunate enough to have the type of program where we could work from home. Our staff, within 24 hours, changed to a virtual platform that worked. Honestly, we didn’t miss a beat. We were providing school-based training to clients and students within 24 hours.”

For United Ability Employment Services the hardest task they had to confront was whether they could operate their summer program. Every summer, the work program is able to place about 45 people with disabilities in jobs across Birmingham, but primarily in hospitals. Obviously, because of the coronavirus that was not possible.

United Ability Employment Services participants and Red Barn staff. Photo courtesy of United Ability

Employment Services reached out to over 200 businesses to help teach job skills. Three places came through—Birmingham Zoo, Highland Park Golf and The Red Barn. Twenty one students were placed and trained over the last six weeks, in the midst of the most devastating economic conditions in memory. 

For example, for the Zoo and for the Red Barn, the United Ability program was a godsend because they had been unable to meet their volunteer needs. United Ability’s Employment Services creatively filled the void.

Moreover, several students have already gotten job offers, according to Dumais.

A Tribute to Dr. E

Dr. Gary Edwards celebrating the 70th anniversary of United Ability with the adults at our LINCPoint Adult Day Program. Photo courtesy of United Ability

Initially, this year’s Journey of HOPE was going to honor for the first time the generous contributions of a local company, Brasfield & Gorrie. That honor has been deferred to next year.

For 2020, United Ability is honoring its remarkable staff and paying tribute to the late Dr. E.

“The staff— they are the ones living his legacy day in and day out. What they have accomplished in the midst of this pandemic has been nothing short of extraordinary,” concluded Berman.

Join Journey of HOPE on August 29, 6:30pm

Photo courtesy of United Ability

Start planning to attend the 2020 United Ability’s Journey of HOPE from the comfort of your home.

Invite your family and friends, create a watch party, be inspired and celebrate hope. The event will be FREE – LIVE – on United Ability’s Facebook page.  

Bham Now is also simulcasting the event. We look forward to seeing you virtually!

Sponsored by:

  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.