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By Kathryn Wells

Photos by Monique Kuhlman

In the heart of Long Beach exists a place fueled by hope. 

AbilityFirst is not just an organization but a vibrant community where limitations are transformed into stepping stones for growth and empowerment. At the core of this transformative space is Katie, a middle-aged woman whose unique style—a pixie-ish haircut paired with understated glasses—belies her fervent anticipation for Mondays, a day most dread. For Katie, weekends are a countdown to her return to a place she considers more of a home than anywhere else.

Katie’s journey is intertwined with echolalia, a speech impediment where she involuntarily repeats the speech of others. Yet, this has not hindered her ability to communicate effectively. "She doesn’t need words to express herself," says April Stover, the Executive Director of AbilityFirst. "Katie has a way of making her intentions and feelings known that is unmistakable."


This magical campus, discreetly located near the DMV, is where Katie and others find their second home. 

The ethos of AbilityFirst is rooted in the belief that everyone deserves to lead a rewarding and full life, irrespective of the challenges they face. The organization offers a myriad of programs, including after-school activities that inspire creativity, adult day programs that foster independence, and vocational training that opens doors to new career opportunities. 

Katie's life is rich with experiences and milestones celebrated within the AbilityFirst community. Her parents recount tales of her culinary adventures and her eclectic taste in music, ranging from the folk tunes of Peter Paul and Mary to the soulful melodies of Whitney Houston, and her recent exploration of Joni Mitchell’s discography. Many of these stories highlight the opportunities Katie has been afforded through AbilityFirst, including memorable trips to Las Vegas with friends from the program, emphasizing the organization's role in fostering independence and social connections.

When asked what the most rewarding benefit of the program has been for them as parents, dad answered, “Well, I think the number one thing, she’s got companionship. You know if she was just with us old fogies (mom chimed in, ‘speak for yourself’)... she has friends here, she’s probably one of the old timers.”

Community Commitment To Inclusivity 

The sense of community and dedication at AbilityFirst is palpable, embodied by individuals like Martha, a devoted staff member of nearly two decades. Martha’s dedication to the arts, education, and community engagement enriches the lives of participants and bridges the gap between the center and the local community. Through initiatives like the sale of artwork created by participants, AbilityFirst showcases the talents of individuals like Katie, fostering a sense of pride and contribution. 

April Stover encapsulates the mission of AbilityFirst with profound clarity, "We aim to create an environment where every individual feels valued and empowered to explore their passions." The center is designed to cater to a wide array of interests and needs, from play equipment that promotes physical activity and motor skill development to cooking areas where culinary skills are nurtured. The personalized approach at AbilityFirst ensures that participants, whether children or adults, discover activities and programs that resonate with them, be it in the realms of art, music, or sports.



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