Ask the Ambassadors
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.
Local disability activists lead Abilities Expo’s community outreach efforts through ambassador program
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.
Stephen David Belechak
DC Metro Ambassador
I was born July 13, 1961 in Oahu, Hawaii at Army Tripler Hospital to my loving parents, Florence and Capt. Stephen Belechak. A Navy brat, I moved 10 times before I finished high school. Because I was always starting over in a new place, I used sports like soccer, baseball and football to get "IN" quick because I knew I would be gone soon.
After a few years of college and a less-than-stellar GPA, I realized it was time for a change and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. I signed for 4 years, earned the title of Marine and became a Grunt and Anti-Tank Missile men. I was with 2nd BLT, 2nd Tanks, AT Tow Co and was part of the invasion of Grenada and in Beirut after the bombing of the Marine compound (1983-84). For two years, I also played for the All Marine Soccer Team.
I returned to college following my tour and found Norfolk State University to be a great fit. The Corps had been something I wanted and this time college was the same. I was inducted into Alpha Kappa Mu Honor Society, president of the Political Science Club and attorney for the Student Court System. In 1988, I graduated with a 3.4 GPA and BA in Political Science. I had learned that I had to perform better, exercise discipline to the max and be accepted for who I was. NSU set in motion my trip back into the DOD.
I went to work for the Air Force as a civilian budget analyst at several locations around the U.S. My mother and father both passed away within a year of each other at an early age (64) and that sent my world crashing down. But with help of the VA Hospital in Hampton, Virginia and my wife, I am writing this now. I am a combat disabled veteran, I have PTSD and I am bi-polar so, chances are, I understand where you are coming from and am here to assist in any way I can.
As it did when I was a child, soccer has always played an important part of my life. For the past eight years, I have been coaching the Tidewater Piranhas Power Soccer Team. Abilities Expo DC Metro attendees will get to see the team in action and then try it out for themselves!
I am alive today because of my incredible wife of 20 years, Rebecca. Our son, Stephen and his wife, Stephanie, have one son, Stevie, and another one on the way.
Ian James Brown
New York Metro Ambassador
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.
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."
Bay Area Ambassador
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.
New York Metro Ambassador
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!
Los Angeles Ambassador
Margarita Elizondo, Ms. Wheelchair California 2013, is a Spinal Cord Injury survivor who sustained a gunshot wound to the neck, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down after an intruder broke into her home in 2006. Now a single mother of three, and proud grandmother of two, she attends Grossmont Community College in pursuit of a bachelor's degree in Communication. She is employed by Axia Management where she holds the position of Director of Social Initiative Strategies, marketing wireless telecommunication services by True Wireless and Heart Mobile.
Her everlasting passion of encouraging individuals with disabilities of all ages to further their education, be self- advocates, and inspire others through the pursuit of their individual dreams despite their challenges is demonstrated through her involvement in numerous organizations, and volunteerism.
In 2007, she founded Blessed with Life, which is a faith based peer support program for people with disabilities and their families. In 2008, she became a Peer Support Advisor for SHARP Memorial Hospital and by 2009, she established the SHARP/HeadNorth Mentor Program for individuals affected by spinal cord injuries. In 2011, she continued to pursue her passions when she founded a Joni and Friends San Diego Chapter, which teaches and encourages churches to disciple and minister to individuals with disabilities. She is a motivational speaker and leadership development trainer for the San Diego Unified School District working with at risk middle school and high school students through 2nd Mile Ministry and she is a radio talk show host for an internet radio show she produces herself, Wheel Talk Wheel Issues, and celebrates diverse abilities through her blog, Celebrating ADA & Ability Awareness.
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.
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.
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.
Susan was born and raised in Massachusetts and currently resides in Wrentham, MA with her husband Joe. She graduated from Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton and went on to study Social Services at Massasoit Community College.
Susan was born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect resulting in paraplegia. When she was born the doctors told her parents "she would never walk, never sit up and would probably have intellectual disabilities" they were advised to put her in an institution and go on with their lives. One nurse advised them to "take her home and treat her like the rest of your kids." She is forever thankful this is the advice they took. As a child, she used long leg braces and crutches for her mobility, but these days she uses a manual wheelchair for the increased mobility and independence it provides her.
Due to the dedication of a favorite high school, teacher Susan became actively involved in advocacy at an early age, often attending protests and legislative hearings in Boston pre-ADA. As a high school senior she was elected to attend the 26th Annual Student Government Day at the State House in Boston; where she spent the day performing as a State Senator. After graduation Susan had the honor of attending the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped in Washington, DC.
Susan has worked since she was 15 when she spent summers teaching arts and crafts to children with disabilities as part of her town's summer kids program. After college, Susan was employed in the Durable Medical / Custom Rehab Equipment industry. Susan is currently the Branch Operations Supervisor for Hudson Seating and Mobility in their Franklin, MA branch. As an industry professional Susan had previously served several terms as a board member for HOMES (Home Medical Equipment & Services Association of New England).
Susan continues her advocacy work by serving on several boards and commissions, including current President of the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts Foundation, Chairperson of the Wrentham Commission on Disability and President of the Massachusetts Hospital School Alumni Association. For the last several years, Susan has attended the National CRT Leadership and Advocacy Conference in Washington, DC to lobby for Custom Rehab Equipment to become a right rather than a privilege for people with disabilities.
Susan's hobbies include a monthly book club, weekly trivia competitions, attending shows and dining out with friends, and spending time with her husband and family.
National Parent Ambassador
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.
Los Angeles Ambassador
In 1993 at the age of 22, Paul Lane was involved in a multi-car collision that put him in the hospital for eight months. Lane went from being told he had 72 hours to live to over 20 years later living a happy, thriving life. A series of events led him to the Academy of Radio and Television Broadcasting in 2006 where he graduated with honors.
In 2007, Lane became Bureau Chief for NBC News Radio KCAA 1050 AM in Southern California's Inland Empire as well as the host of their weekday morning show. Just this year, he found a new home as Bureau Chief of ABC News Radio KMET 1490 AM. In his new morning show, "In the Fast Lane," Paul can express himself freely, including a wacky sense of humor. It is this humor and positive outlook towards life that not only makes him shine as a radio personality but has enabled him to thrive physically.
"You'll have ups and downs but don't allow fear of the unknown keep you from achieving great things," he says. Today, he has a passion for inspiring people of all ages and walks of life to thrive in spite of circumstances. In addition to being a radio personality, he is also a motivational speaker and MC.
Bay Area Ambassador
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.
Ashley Lyn Olson
Bay Area Ambassador
Ashley Lyn Olson has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area all her life, but ventured south to go to school at the University of Southern California where she received a full-ride scholarship and graduated with honors. She is motivated for life and becoming paralyzed at fourteen has not slowed her down one bit. To Ashley, everyone has their barriers to overcome—some are even unseen.
Ashley wants to see and experience the world, so after more than three years at her first job working as the Executive Assistant to Marketing and Production for the Concerts at Wente Vineyards she left to invest her full time into wheelchairtraveling.com—a California not-for-profit. The site is a community for people with limited mobility who are interested in travel, whether it is a far-off destination or local gem. Wheelchairtraveling.com also provides the tools and tips for people to plan an independent adventure or organized tour, including resources on lodging, transportation, activities and the equipment that makes access possible
Ashley was an all-star athlete before her injury and has carried this drive into all she does. She is very active with all kinds of outdoor recreation from hiking to skydiving. Additionally, she is a peer mentor for the Christopher Reeve Foundation to help the newly injured with the transition. There have also been many barriers Ashley has overcome, but she loves life and knows her journey is as unique as everyone else's. She successfully advocates accessibility around the world while she travels and speaks to universities, support groups and other institutions about the progression and realities of travel. She wants everyone be able to get out and interact with people and their environment if they so wish.
Anthony R. Orefice III
Los Angeles Ambassador
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!
Bay Area Ambassador
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.
Los Angeles Ambassador
Chris Rohan served as publisher of Disabled Dealer Magazine of CA, NV & AZ from August 2001 until the last issue August 2013. Chris and her husband of 43 years, Jim, have been actively involved with the disability community since 1989, when their oldest son, Bobby, became a quadriplegic after when he was seriously injured in an auto accident. Their youngest son, Matt, became a physical therapist in order to better understand and help his brother.
In 2001, Bobby heard that Disabled Dealer Magazine of Southern California was for sale and told his parents they should buy it—and they did! Chris put her heart, soul and impressive knowledge of resources, services and products available to the disability community into every issue of the magazine. Her endless energy and desire to bring the best articles, resources and equipment to people with disabilities and their families made Disabled Dealer Magazine of CA, NV & AZ an outstanding book each month as well as a must-read.
Children's needs have always been a priority with Chris. Having raised two very active, wonderful sons, she knows the importance of fun as well as education. Although Chris has published her last issue of DDM CA, NV & AZ, she is not retiring! Chris is bringing this same level of dedication and expertise to the Abilities Expo as an ambassador. If you need help finding a product or service, just ask Chris.
The Rossiter Family: Ainsley, Briley, Kamden, Rooster and Lori
As the first ever National Ambassador Family, the Rossiters are truly honored to represent Abilities Expo across the nation. Ten-year-old Ainsley is an amazing young girl living with INAD, an extremely rare, terminal, progressive disorder of the nervous system. Years ago, Ainsley participated in a marathon where her father, U.S. Marine Major Kim "Rooster" Rossiter, pushed her in her stroller. Ainsley's elation over the experience was the inspiration for Ainsley's Angels of America, an organization which helps people with disabilities participate in long distance events as a team. They are the "captains" in the wheelchairs pushed by "angels" through the races. Many of you might have met the Rossiter family during the 2014 Houston Abilities Expo, where they offered expo guests the unique opportunity to test drive the Ainsley's Angels athletic ride-along experience created for children, teens, adults and veterans with disabilities who normally would not be able to experience endurance events.
Rooster, currently in his 20th year of active duty service, serves as the President of Ainsley's Angels of America, the Vice President or Executive Director for more than a dozen independent Ainsley's Angels public charities, and as the Chairman of the Board for Team Hoyt New England. He and Lori, his wife of 16 years, hail from Lake Charles, Louisiana and are parents to Briley, Kamden and Ainsley. After serving tours in North Carolina, Washington DC, California, Okinawa, Africa, Korea, Norway and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the Marine Corps currently has the family stationed in Virginia. Over the last four years, 13-year-old Briley has pushed Ainsley in more than 30 road races as a way to ensure the two sisters share special moments together. When she was 11-years-old, Briley wrote the children's book Born an Angel to share their inspiring true story and to spread the message of inclusion in all walks of life. Published in 2013, the story of sibling love will warm your heart and encourage any reader to change someone's world for the better. For more information about the family and their efforts, visit www.AinsleysAngels.org.
Los Angeles Ambassador
Donna Russo was born with Turners Syndrome and now has adult onset FSH Muscular Dystrophy, a condition that robs your muscles of movement slowly. She is 4' 5" tall, many women with Turners are of small stature. Donna started dancing at age 10 taking ballet and tap later including jazz, modern and acting classes.
A graduate of Mercyhurst College with a BA in Dance she toured with Alvin and the Chipmunks and the Magic Camera, performed in Lord of the Rings, Passions, Power Rangers and in multiple roles as characters in television and film. Though she had her heart set on joining a ballet company, she found that, for many companies, she was considered short. Determined to dance, she did find a place in the dance world performing as elves, aliens, dolls and monsters in television, film and music videos.
In addition to dance, Donna has been in the hospitality industry for 30 years, working her way up to Entertainment Sales Manager position where she assists music industry/television production clientele with accommodations. Donna has received awards for sales and was voted "Top Dog" award recipient two years in a row by music industry professionals.
As part of the community, Donna believes in supporting the arts and became active in The Entertainment Industry Group Los Angeles Kiwanis Club. The Kiwanis Club brings arts and culture to school children and exposes the children to performances in local theaters and music centers.
Currently, Donna can be seen on Youtube in the video choreographed by Tam Warner, "I won't Give Up Donna Russo." She feels the passion to dance and loves the connection with other dancers and the audience.
These conditions do not hold Donna back from reaching for her dreams though the dreams themselves may be altered to adapt to her abilities. Because of this perspective Donna has often been asked to speak to various groups, which has led her to becoming a motivational speaker.
"It is very exciting and an honor to be an Ambassador for the Abilities Expo where I have had the pleasure of performing "I won't Give Up" live," said Donna. Visit her website at motivatemedonna.com.
DC Metro AmbassadorMy name is Ebonee Sanders I am 39 years young, I have been married for 16 years and have two beautiful girls.
I was honorably discharged from the Army in 2004 after serving a total of 8 years; 2 active and 6 reserves. The last 2 years in the reserves I was activated in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and finally deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. My military career and civilian life was in the IT field. During my years of working IT my heart had always been with working with children, from teaching inner city teens computer skills in a summer entrepreneurship program, running a family child care home, to implementing technology into child and youth service programs on military bases.
In 2006, a month before my husband left for Korea, he told me that it was time for me to finally follow my dreams and pursue the things that make me happy. Following his instructions, I decided to begin my journey to become a Special Education teacher and began teaching in 2006.
During the school's winter break of 2007, I experienced my first symptoms, of numbness, pain, loss of balance and movement issues. After going to the emergency room, being admitted to the hospital, undergoing several test there and more to continue over the next months, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
The past 7 years has brought many challenges and allowed me to find strengths that I didn't know I had. It has been years of ups and downs, physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. The ups consist of some of the best times of my life because I now take the time to appreciate the small things. The downs, well, times got pretty bad, but I truly believe that all things happen for a reason. I was a teacher of students with disabilities and now I live each day with Multiple Sclerosis. Some days others can see what MS does to me, but most days it is invisible. I thought my dream of teaching was destroyed when I had to stop in 2008, but it was only the beginning. Now I live to be an example, an inspiration, a drop of hope for someone who may think that all is lost. So when you see me out and about, regardless of how I feel, I always give my best for that day and refuse to give up.
New York Metro Ambassador
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.
Bay Area Ambassador
Ellejay Volpe, author of Frill-Ability.com, previously a museum educator in science and technology, now uses her professional background as an educator and her personal experiences as a person with chronic disease to solely focus on disability advocacy by working with various organizations and blogging. In 2010, she earned her B.S. in Natural Science with minors in Chemistry and Mathematics. Among other issues, she has a rare vascular disease called Klippel-Trenaunay Syndrome that affects, as far as she knows, the deeper muscular tissues and potential lymphatic involvement in her right leg from hip to knee. This causes mobility issues, extreme, constant pain, and carries life threatening risks like aneurysm, deep vein thrombosis, and pulmonary embolism. Her disenchantment with the state of widely available mobility and adaptive products inspired her to create Frill-Ability so that others could be encouraged to remember that creating their own beauty and style doesn't stop when disability starts and that additional resources exist to make their lives easier and fun. It encourages compassion and effective communication between people of every level of functional limitation so we can strive for equivalent rights in our society. "Make Good with Your Ability" is the sign off you'll see in posts and the brand's motto, as a reminder to always create something wonderful with whatever you have and that whatever you have is definitely wonderful.