And the 2013 Ability Award Goes to ....

 ... Donna Bunce

2013 Ability Award Recipient, Donna Bunce, Executive Director of Compassionate Heart Ministry.

2013 Ability Award Recipient, Donna Bunce, Executive Director of Compassionate Heart Ministry.

How does an unlikely dream or vision become reality?

It’s one thing to recognize gaps that cause vulnerable people to fall through the cracks and miss out on essential parts of everyday life that many of us take for granted.

It’s yet another thing to figure out ways to address those gaps, so that a single individual — or 2 or 3 individuals — might be included in those essential parts of everyday life.

And, it’s still another thing to envision how to communicate those same gaps to an entire community of people — gaps that have no direct bearing on the everyday lives of most people.

And finally, it’s still one step more in the progression to enlist others to rally in support of a vision so they respond to the gap that does not directly their life.

That’s hard work. It’s long, time-consuming work that demands persistence and endurance and fortitude and resolve, all of which are essential to overcoming obstacles and barriers of indifference.

The recipient of the 2013 Ability Award has overcome those barriers and more.

During the past 10 years, through her tireless leadership and advocacy efforts, she has engaged and empowered people with disabilities. More than that, she has engaged and empowered able-bodied people as well, increasing awareness and expanding the horizons of possibility.

She is creating an increasingly inclusive community that removes barriers and affirms the gifts and abilities of every single person in it — communities where everyone can participate, contribute, and belong, regardless of ability.

This year’s Ability Award goes to Donna Bunce, the executive director and founder of Compassionate Heart Ministry, an after-school drop-in center for teens and young adults with cognitive disabilities.

From 3 to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, Compassionate Heart provides a fun, safe place to meet others, interact with peers, and make friends.

When Donna Bunce formally launched Compassionate Heart in 2007, she started with 1,500 square feet at City on a Hill, the non-profit center that occupies the old Zeeland Hospital facility. She thought there might be 25 teens and young adults with disabilities in Ottawa County who would come now and then.

Within the first year there were 80 participants, plus volunteer mentors.

Today, Compassionate Heart occupies 5,000 square feet at City on a Hill, attracts 150 young people with disabilities a year, and relies on 300 typical peers and mentors who log more than 6,000 volunteer hours a year.

Rather than a handful of young adults from Ottawa County, Compassionate Heart today attracts participants from a range of counties including Allegan, Van Buren, Kent, and Newaygo, not to mention a young woman with Asperger syndrome whose family lives in Memphis, TN, and spends their summers in Holland.

Compassionate Heart participants also represent a cross-section of disabilities — Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, learning disabilities…or, as Donna says, “those who just don’t fit in.”

Compassionate Heart is not a “program” as much as it’s a “drop-in center” where people can hang out, play games, learn life skills, and “do what teenagers do.” The $5 daily admission fee buys participants an environment where “the place is the program.”

Although the official “hours of operation” for Compassionate Heart are 3-8 p.m., in truth it’s a round-the-clock endeavor for Donna and the rest of the Bunce family. In Donna’s words, it’s what the Bunce family often “eats, lives, breathes, and sleeps.”

In fact, just a few weeks ago, during the Art Prize competition in Grand Rapids, most of the Bunce family was getting up at 4 o’clock one weekday morning so that Compassionate Heart could make a 6:30 appearance in the gallery of WOOD-TV/Channel 8’s morning show. They loaded up vans of Compassionate Heart participants and volunteers on a chilly Thursday morning to wave and hold up signs — and some were interviewed on-air by meteorologist Terri DeBoer.

Although the idea of Compassionate Heart went through an incubation period, it was far from Donna’s lifelong ambition. As a high school and college student, Donna Bunce was feeling drawn to a career as a youth minister. A disability vocation was not on her radar, nor was disability part of her experience growing up.

Donna, with her husband Craig, at the Ability Award Ceremony.

Donna, with her husband Craig, at the Ability Award Ceremony.

Donna and her husband Craig have 2 sons and 2 daughters — Jacob is the oldest at 21 and Jonah is the youngest at 12, with Courtney and Caitlin in the middle.

When Jacob was 5 or 6 years old, they realized that he wasn’t developing at the same pace as his peers or his sister Courtney. Eventually, Donna and Craig learned that Jacob was cognitively impaired and mildly autistic.

They have been on a long journey over these past 15-20 years. As Donna says today, “It’s a journey I never planned on, and now I can’t imagine life without it.

“I’m still doing youth ministry, but it’s to a different population than I anticipated.”

Two years prior to the 2007 launch of Compassionate Heart, Donna had successfully moved another ambitious undertaking from dream to reality — “Summer SERVE,” which is a 3-day mission trip experience for youth with disabilities.

Recognizing how important “giving back and making a contribution” is to the development of every person’s self-esteem — disability or no disability — Donna pulled off the first Summer SERVE in 2005, and it’s now entering its 10th year.

For 3 days, young people with disabilities are matched 1-on-1 with a mentor, and together they spend their days working at various job sites in the community, they spend their evenings engaged in fun social activities, and they spend their overnight hours sleeping in a church.

Summer SERVE has been so successful that there are now 2 sessions each summer — one hosted by Faith Reformed Church in Zeeland and the other hosted by Maplewood Reformed Church in Holland.

Planning for next summer’s two sessions of Summer SERVE began in September. Registration opens January 1, and it will fill up within a month’s time. People pay $350 per person, and participants come from as far away as Iowa, New Jersey, and Ontario.

Before calling Donna Bunce forward, listen to these comments about Donna from an expert on supporting people with disabilities and creating inclusive environments in schools and churches. These observations come from Barbara Newman, who first met Donna when young Jacob was a student in Zeeland.

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What impressed me through the LONG process from dream to thriving and well-supported Compassionate Heart is the way Donna shared the vision with others. Her conversations were always to cast this vision in the community. As part of this vision, Donna wanted to have a service component. She felt persons with disabilities did not often have a chance to serve others. Donna not only gathered a powerful team to create Summer SERVE, she also gave opportunities for PEERS to serve alongside the individual with the disability.

Compassionate Heart and Summer SERVE focus on opportunities for persons with disabilities, but these are ALWAYS done within the context of typical peers. As individuals hang out together in a well constructed and honoring setting complete with multiple activities around which interaction can happen, the community of Compassionate Heart is a place many want to experience.

The delightful fact, however, is that the desire to get to that location is just as compelling for persons with disabilities as it is for their peers.

"I so appreciate Donna and what she has done for our community. What a gift she is!"  - Barb Newman

Indeed, Donna’s passion for inclusion is contagious, and her vision, drive, and relentless advocacy are gifts to us all.

Tonight we honor you as an individual who advocates for inclusive communities, where everyone can participate, contribute, and belong — regardless of ability.

On behalf of Disability Network/Lakeshore, we present you with the 2013 Ability Award.