Nonprofit helps locals with developmental disabilities, but with ever tighter funds
By Melanie Wong
For Vail residents Larry Vasquez, Ian Bauer and Eric Bell, running an errand to the bank or going grocery shopping can be a confusing task.
The three men, who have various developmental disabilities, say they often find things like managing their finances or making wise food choices at the store somewhat overwhelming. But thanks to the nonprofit Mountain Valley Developmental Services, they can get help to navigate those troublesome aspects of everyday life.
Let’s be clear – Vasquez, Bauer and Bell are incredibly self-sufficient. They rent a place together in Vail and all have steady jobs. The all love their independence, but they say that independence wouldn’t be possible without the help of Mountain Valley.
The organization, which operates in Eagle, Garfield, Lake and Pitkin counties, mostly serves adults with developmental disabilities, helping fill the gap of care that is needed outside of school and family. Services range from full-time care in the nonprofits’ facilities, to help with everyday tasks as with the three Vail residents, to organizing social activities to get its clients out into the community.
“We’re there to support them and enhance their lives as much as possible, and make sure they’re getting out in the community and having fun,” says Dana Peterson, director of philanthropy for the nonprofit. “In Vail, we have some true community-based programs – they go to the park, go hiking, biking and go bowling. In the winters they’re on the ski slopes and snowshoeing.”
Equally important for those who are able, Mountain Valley helps clients seek and train for jobs.
“If they’re capable, we’re moving them toward a job,” Peterson says. “One client has been directing 747s at the Eagle airport for the past seven years. We help them learn things like what it means to complete a task (or) follow directions, which for some people might sound simple, but for people with developmental disabilities, it’s a huge accomplishment.”
Connecting to the community
Hadley Emmons, the program’s residential coordinator, checks in on Vasquez, Bauer and Bell five days a week.
“I make sure they get to work, and I help with healthy eating habits, getting them out and helping with finances,” Emmons says.
One particular day last week, Hadley took Bell to a dentist appointment, and it was an opportunity for all three men to hang out in Edwards and chat at Starbucks.
Vasquez, 45, and Bauer, 42, are both from Leadville and were among the first to join the Mountain Valley program in Vail. For Vasquez, his choices after high school were slim – live in a group home or live with his family – until he heard about Mountain Valley.
“I didn’t want to be put in a group home, then someone said they were going to put up a program in Vail,” says Vasquez, who has worked at Beaver Creek’s Spruce Saddle for more than eight years. “Without the program, we wouldn’t be able to live here. I’d probably still be up in Leadville, walking the streets.”
Bell, 41, who works at Walmart, is originally from Silt. His family now lives out of the state, but Mountain Valley’s services allow him to keep living in Vail.
“I still have trouble with my money, and it would be difficult to live on my own,” Bell says, thoughtfully. “I don’t think I would want to try it.”
Bauer, who works at Safeway, agrees he couldn’t live independently without support. His family now lives in Buena Vista, too far to provide day-to-day help.
“It’d be too much,” Bauer says, shaking his head.
A very important part of the program is getting Mountain Valley clients out of their homes and participating in the community, says enrichment coordinator Gesine Dommer.
“It’s very rewarding seeing these guys out and being served,” Dommer says. “We make sure they’re not left out of things.”
On May 15, the Law Enforcement Torch Run for the Special Olympics came through Eagle County, and Dommer and Emmons brought a group of Mountain Valley clients out to join in the excitement. Eagle County law enforcement personnel joined the run in Avon and were also accompanied by Vasquez, Bell and Bauer on their bikes partway down valley.
The torch run was particularly meaningful for the three men, as they’ve participated in various Special Olympics events. Mountain Valley helped connect them to those opportunities, too.
Vasquez went to the Special Olympics world games in 1999 and 2003 for road biking and mountain biking. The 2003 games were in the wake of his father’s death, and he says initially he planned to withdraw.
“At first (I) didn’t want to go, but one of our staff encouraged me to go and dedicate it to my dad. I got first place,” Vasquez remembers.
Doing more with less
As Bell points out, the program greatly enriches their lives. Besides local activities, it also provides outings like Denver trips to the museum, the zoo, Rockies and Broncos games, and even monster truck shows. But as with many nonprofits, Mountain Valley Developmental Services has taken a financial hit in recent years, and those outings are much rarer.
Despite huge community support, Peterson says the state, where the program gets the bulk of its funding, has cut nearly $1.5 million in support over the last three years, funneling a lot of that money to the Front Range. The program is mandated by the state, but the state doesn’t commit to funding the program, putting the mountain chapters of the program in a tough spot.
Mountain Valley has cut its staff down to less than a tenth of its budget and recently had to close down one of its facilities in Edwards. They’ve also been unable to accept most new clients, Peterson says.
Another branch of the program offers free physical therapy, speech therapy and testing for children up to three years old who show a delay in development. About 100 Eagle County kids receive the services, but unfortunately, the nonprofit only has funding to cover about 65 percent of those costs.
“It’s 100 percent free to the family, regardless of their financial status,” Peterson says. “It’s great in giving kids a head up in those first three years. If kids are bored or don’t understand, they get into trouble, and we are trying to get them as caught up as possible before they go to school. It’s making such a difference in our community.”