Looking Beyond Disabilities

A working mom, Maisha Hughes worried about sending her 9-year-old daughter Asantewa to an after school program. Asantewa has autism and finding the right program was always a challenge—until she connected with AbilityFirst, a non-profit organization that provides programs for adults and children with disabilities.

Not only is the AbilityFirst center on Crenshaw Boulevard brand new, it is literally around the corner from Hughes’ home in Inglewood.

“It has been very helpful and convenient,” said Hughes. “If it wasn’t for AbilityFirst, I wouldn’t have another option. I am extremely blessed to have this.”

6,500 square foot Joan and Harry A. Mier Center

During the week, a school bus drops off children at the brand new 6,500 square foot Joan and Harry A. Mier Center after school where they can socialize, play outdoors, cook in a chef’s kitchen, draw, paint and even swim at the new indoor pool.

The center and its swimming pool is the only one of its kind serving children who live in South Los Angeles, Inglewood, Hawthorne and Gardena. During the summer, the center offers full day activities such as swimming lessons and even going to the movies.

“For more than 88 years, we have been looking beyond disabilities, focusing on capabilities, and expanding possibilities,” said Lori Gangemi, President and CEO of AbilityFirst. “We offer a broad range of programs and services to help children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities realize their full potential throughout their lives.”

AbilityFirst has 25 locations, including 10 group homes, three work centers, one camp for adults and children with disabilities, eight community centers and an Ability First Employment Services office.

“Simply put, AbilityFirst’s enrichment programs are first rate,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose office contributed $50,000 to complete the building and has a courtyard named in his honor. “They focus on what is possible and that philosophy has changed the lives of countless people with disabilities and their families. It has been a pleasure supporting them.”

Board Unanimously Approves Consolidating Health Departments


HEALTHSEAL2The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved looking into consolidating the Department of Health Services, Department of Public Health and Department of Mental Health into a single integrated department. In addition, the board is considering whether to transfer medical services for inmates currently overseen by the Sheriff’s Department to the Department of Health Services.

The board has asked for a report back in early spring on how this consolidation would occur and how services would be provided without compromising quality.

“I do see it as three independent departments working together, each learning the best from one another,” said Mitch Katz, director of the Department of Health Services. “This is just about providing better services where we can.”

After more than two hours of public testimony from individuals concerned about any changes, the Supervisors clarified that the consolidation would not diminish much needed mental health services.

“We will find the best way to find our clients and families the services they need,” said Marvin Southard, director of the Department of Mental Health. “LA County will continue to be a national leader in wellness and recovery.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas stressed that any changes would be done with public input and through a transparent public process.

“This is not about cutting dollars or services,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “This is about maximizing the quality of care for the people of L.A. County who depend on these critical services. It is important we consider consolidation of all health services that the County provides, including the health care provided to our inmates.”

He noted that Los Angeles is the only county in the state in which the Sheriff’s Department provides health services to inmates. The goal of this motion, which is supported by the Department of Health Services and the Sheriff’s Department, is to improve integration, coordination of care, collaboration and quality of care for inmates.

Betsy Pfromm, president of the Los Angeles Child Guidance Clinic, a mental health provider near USC, urged the board to hold forums with constituents who want to be heard on the issue.

“As a former public mental health director, I was able to meet directly with the elected officials and keep them informed as to ensure accountability,” she said.

Board Moves forward on Child Protection Recommendations


Moving forward with key recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Protection, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has approved pairing public health nurses with social workers to investigate every allegation of abuse for children under the age of two.

This move, based on a motion co-sponsored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, will help medical and child welfare professionals evaluate if a child is in danger of abuse or needs immediate medical attention. The Board also moved forward with the recommendation to make sure these children get referred to special medical clinics (called “hubs”) to get immediate health screenings if the public health nurse deems it medically necessary.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Hub will be the first site to begin this partnership between social workers and public health nurses as part of the first phase of recommendations. The MLK Medical Hub will serve residents in Compton and the Vermont area of the DCFS regional offices. These enhancements will also make it possible to protect children and minimize disruption to families by having public health nurses evaluate children in their own homes.

In order to enhance all six medical hubs at county hospitals, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services will allocate $2-million to fund 14 new positions for doctors, nurses and one fellowship position. Annually, the Department of Children and Family Services estimates nearly 17,000 infants under the age of two in Los Angeles are at the greatest risk of being harmed.

“The time is now to move on the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations. The protection and well-being of children in our care should always be top priority,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-sponsored the motion with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “All children in L.A. County deserve a fighting chance. They should be able to grow up healthy, free from abuse and in nurturing environments.”

Added Supervisor Kuehl, “I am very happy there are steps we have taken today reflecting the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission for Child Protection was formed last year, based on a motion by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, to improve the safety and well-being of children in the child welfare system. The commission, comprised of experts in child welfare, social work and other areas, has issued two reports with recommendations for improving the system in Los Angeles County.

Grant to Increase Public Transit in West Carson Approved

Carson story picWest Carson is poised to become a regional transportation hub near the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center now that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a state grant to develop a plan aimed at improving transportation, sustainability and increase housing in the area.

The Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning will receive $491,770 to create a master plan that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing a sustainable community project within a ½ mile radius of the West Carson Metro station.

The plan is funded through voter-approved Proposition 84, which was passed in 2006 and authorizes the legislature to appropriate funds to support urban greening projects and sustainable community planning.

Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, one of the county’s leaders in creating and supporting biomed technology, is expected to serve as a crucial partner in the plan as a significant employer and community hub. From 2001 to 2010, the biosciences industry in Los Angeles County grew nearly 12 percent, outpacing the national bioscience industry by 6 percent.

“The West Carson regional transportation plan will bring environmentally friendly growth and innovation that will benefit the community and the county as a whole,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “With Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, one of the county’s leading biomed institutions next door, West Carson is destined to become a prime location for biotechnology.”

Teens Explore Technology

After graduating from college, Oscar Menjivar, a computer science professional who grew up in South LA, returned to Watts to teach. Out of the 60 kids in his class, only five were familiar with coding. He was determined to change that.

And so, Menjivar founded Teens Exploring Technology (TxT), an organization that encourages inner city teenagers to use technology as a tool for promoting positive development and leadership, as a path to higher education and eventually a career in sciene, technology, engineering or math related fields.

“I knew we needed to bridge the digital divide,” he said. “We needed to bring confidence to young people of color.”

Geek hours at the “Cube”

Today, he has more than 50 students from high schools around the South Los Angeles area who ride their bikes, take the bus or walk to the 750 square-foot location he calls the “cube” on West Adams Boulevard or to USC, where they hold their summer academies. They are there every day (even on Saturdays) from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. doing homework, learning to code, building websites and creating apps. Menjivar sees this as more than a techie endeavor.

“They learn life skills here,” he said, looking around proudly at the tiny office space with ceiling tiles brightly colored in orange, blue and green. TXT partners with USC, Google, IBM and the Annenberg Foundation for funding and resources.


Teens explore technology at the TxT “Cube”

The students embrace their inner geek by competing for “Geek Hours—“ whoever spends the most time at the cube, earns a gift card or movie tickets. The teens love the taste of success. When 200 people downloaded Xavier Clark’s SAT app, he couldn’t believe it.

“It felt great to see that happen,” said Clark, a 17-year-old at View Park Prep High School. “I believed more in my dreams when that happened. If I say I can do it and put in the time and work, then things can happen for me.”

Kenia Cruz, 22, was one of the first students to join TxT six years ago when it began—and one of the few females. She recently graduated from UC Santa Barbara but came back to help train the next generation of tech leaders. She said TxT was invaluable in her education.

TxT Founder Menjivar speaks with LA County CIO Sanchez and LA County CDO Fahani

“I pushed myself a lot. I learned to think logically, have patience, to trouble shoot and find solutions to a problem,” she said. “We are giving kids the tools they need with whatever they want to do in their lives.”

The program could lead to potential collaboration with Los Angeles County, said Ali Farahani, chief data officer for Los Angeles County, who visited TxT in December with Richard Sanchez, the county’s chief information officer.

“I was very impressed by the caliber and talent level of the program participants and the vision and passion that Oscar has for this program,” said Farahani, noting that as part of a partnership students could create apps or bring innovative ideas to improve services in LA County.  “It is a model for other students and a positive environment to grow in and get involved in technology.”