Local disability activists lead Abilities Expo’s community outreach efforts through ambassador program
Abilities Expo has appointed Ambassadors—members of the local community of people with disabilities and their families—to spearhead 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.
Meet the impressive individuals who have chosen to represent Abilities Expo to the Community.
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 adult 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.
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.
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.
Meridith completed a bachelors degree in psychology with focus in child development and family studies from University of Houston and a masters degree in psychology from University of Houston Clear Lake. During graduate school she began working with special populations at an ABA (applied behavior analysis) clinic. After graduate school she continued to work with special populations in clinics, adult transition programs as well as rehab/ recovery centers. Meridith has worked with many populations of all ages with various diagnosis from autism and other developmental delays, to brain injuries including TBI and acquired. In her current role as Director of Adaptive Programs for the YMCA of Greater Houston, she provides adaptive sports and social opportunities for children and young adults with special needs across the city.
Meridith adopted a medically fragile child in 2008 when she was just under 2 years old. Her daughter was born at 24 weeks and still needed a feeding tube, multiple surgeries and in home therapy. Two short years later they were done with the feeding tube and surgeries but were about to embark on a new journey with an autism diagnosis. After many years of doctors, therapists, and school meetings Meridith has built an amazing team to support her daughter as she grows.
Meridith completed the Wrights Law Special Education Law and Advocacy training in 2014. This training has helped her advocate for her own children in school as well as help others through the ARD and 504 process.
As a professional, parent and advocate Meridith wears many hats when working with special populations. This gives her a deep understanding of the needs of the individual and their caretaker which she uses to serve in our community.
National Disability Law Ambassador
Stephanie Woodward is a passionate Disability Rights activist and proud disabled person. She is the Director of Advocacy at the Center for Disability Rights, Inc. (CDR) a disability led, not-for-profit Corporation that works for national, state, and local systemic change to advance the rights of people with disabilities. Stephanie is also a member of ADAPT, a national grass-roots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom. Stephanie has been arrested multiple times while advocating for Disability Rights.
Prior to joining CDR Stephanie worked as a litigator in Miami, Florida focusing on Disability Rights. Stephanie attended Syracuse University College of Law where she earned her J.D. with a certificate in Disability Law and Policy and her M.S.Ed. in Disability Studies. Stephanie previously worked for Senator Tom Harkin (IA) and assisted his Disability Counsel on the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions by researching, drafting legislation, and making recommendations for legislative action in regards to disability rights issues. Most recently, Stephanie, along with fellow members of ADAPT, assisted in drafting the Disability Integration Act (DIA) – a piece of legislation that, if passed, would affirm the rights of people with disabilities to receive long-term services in their homes, rather than nursing facilities and other institutions.
While Stephanie’s work spans across all areas of Disability Rights, she is particularly interested in deinstitutionalization, community living, ending violence against people with disabilities, and improving access in the community. She loves talking about legislation that will impact the Disability Community and helping others to become activists for Disability Rights. When Stephanie is not doing Disability Rights work, she can be found playing with her adorable nieces, taking care of her four cats, and eating copious amounts of cheeseburgers and onion rings.Pre-Register for Abilities Expo Today...It's Free!