Spirit of ABIL Event Honors Community Advocates, Celebrates the Independent Living Movement

By Phil Pangrazio, ABIL President & CEO

Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL) recently held its annual Spirit of ABIL award ceremony to recognize a community member who has helped to advance the goals and principles of the independent living movement.  This year’s celebration marked the eleventh anniversary of the Spirit of ABIL event.

ABIL Board Member Max McQueen

The recognition ceremony was held on Tuesday, March 26th, in the Nina Mason Pulliam Conference Room at the Disability Empowerment Center (DEC).  Lynn Larson, ABIL’s Board Chair, gave a warm welcoming address to the attendees.  Board member Max McQueen performed Master of Ceremony duties throughout the evening.  During the award presentations, members of ABIL’s Board of Directors read short biographies of each recipient, followed by a brief speech from each of the awardees.

In addition to the Spirit of ABIL Award, the event also recognizes the contributions of volunteers, peer mentors, and employees of ABIL’s Personal Assistance Services (PAS) and Employment programs.

ABIL President & CEO, Phil Pangrazio, said that the Spirit of ABIL award began as a way to highlight exceptional volunteers and consumers who “exemplified the independent living philosophy”.  The Spirit of ABIL award winner is someone who personifies the IL philosophy of consumer control, self-advocacy and peer support.

“The award ceremony has become our way to annually recognize individuals who don’t really get a lot of recognition, but are great advocates,” he said. “When we created this whole idea it was so that we could honor some of those folks.”

The Spirit of ABIL award winner for 2012 is Leah Ferrazzi.  Leah was unable to attend the ceremony due to her declining health.  Professionally, Leah was a physical therapist, specializing in working with consumers who had spinal cord and/or traumatic brain injuries.  Leah has been involved with ABIL’s Personal Assistance Services (PAS) program for over 20 years.  She was instrumental in the original PAS training program on Body Mechanics and continued in the training of caregivers.  Leah’s passion was training caregivers to take better care of themselves so they could take care of others.  She promoted safety in performing body transfers and correctly utilizing equipment.  Leah has been a tireless advocate for people with disabilities to support their own independence and safety. Jolene Thomas, Leah’s long-time friend and colleague, was present and accepted the Spirit of ABIL Award on Leah’s behalf.

In addition to the Spirit of ABIL Award, the other awardees included: General Volunteer of the Year, presented to Annette Denny; Peer Mentor Volunteer of the Year, presented to Jim Pearson; the Independent Living Leadership Award, presented to George Lopez; and the Employment Achievement Award, presented to Alan Carroll.

Six personal care attendants, who work with ABIL’s Personal Assistance Services (PAS) program, were also honored.  The PAS Employee of Year award for Pima County was presented to Martin Lugo.  The PAS Employee of the Year award for Pinal County was presented to José Corralejo.  The PAS Employee of the Year award for Maricopa County was presented to Donna Sofie.  Evangelina Dow and Gilbert Muniz each received honorable mention for their dedicated PAS work.

Annette has been a valuable ABIL volunteer since 2007 and is an excellent mentor to new volunteers, always offering support and making them feel welcomed.

Jim Pearson has been an ABIL Peer Mentor since 2010 and has a particular interest in helping individuals with mental health disabilities reach their independent living goals.  Jim connects his mentees with resources and activities at ABIL to help establish a necessary and integral support system.

George Lopez has been on the ABIL Consumer Council for three years.  He facilitates communication between ABIL and other DEC agencies to the Council.  George exemplifies the IL philosophy in his daily life and encourages peers to try “everything”.  George and his family recently volunteered to paint the Mast House as part of the “Mast House Remodel Project” for consumers who are in need of transitional housing.

Martin Lugo was selected for his dedicated, excellent work with his consumer who has a brain injury.  Aaron is 40-years-old and was injured more than 20 years ago.  Aaron cannot walk or speak.  Martin assists Aaron with all activities of daily living and the two connect when playing checkers and other activities.  Aaron’s mother stated that she is thrilled with Aaron’s progress, that he is happier and makes singing noises and exhibits a better attitude in his daily life.

José Corralejo has been a personal care attendant for over 12 years.  He has endured multiple personal tragedies in his lifetime, and throughout it all, he has not let anything keep him from providing exemplary care to all of his consumers.  José never misses work and says that “even if I’m having a bad day or when I’m under the weather, I would rather go to work than let my consumers down.”

Donna Sofie has been an ABIL personal care assistant for her son Jeremy for 11 years.  She has provided excellent, full-time care for her son for 18 years.  Donna always has a positive attitude, is compassionate, caring and goes out of her way to help others despite having no family support system of her own.

Evangelina Dow has been caring for her consumer for 10 years.  Her consumer requires total care and has no family support in Arizona.  Because of Evangelina, the consumer continues to live in her own home without having to transition to a nursing home.

Gilbert Muñiz has worked with consumers with all types of disabilities and different levels of care.  Gilbert always goes the extra mile.  He has helped consumers pack, move and clean their new apartments.  Gilbert is hardworking, encouraging and always willing to fit more consumers into his work schedule.  As one consumer summed it up, “Gilbert is the best!”

Alan Carroll was one of the first people to join ABIL’s Ticket to Work program when it began in 2002.  Alan’s employment goals included completing his education.  He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Northern Arizona University in 2008.  Afterward, he landed a temporary position in the Office of Enterprise Technology with Maricopa County.  Following a hiring freeze, Alan was hired on permanently one year ago as a Project Administrator.  Alan’s success is a powerful example of how ABIL’s Ticket program helps participants achieve success.

There is a plaque displayed at ABIL, which is engraved with the names of the past Spirit of ABIL award winners.  It will soon include our eleventh Spirit of ABIL awardee, Leah Ferrazzi.  Congratulations to each of this year’s Spirit of ABIL event award recipients!