Ability Award

Ability Award 2015 - Deb Stanley

The 2015 Ability Award recipient has a vision of improving the lives of people with disabilities by seeing them fully integrated into our communities…. working, living, worshipping and celebrating, side by side with others in the community.

Knowing first-hand what it feels like to be the underdog, tonight’s recipient has spent most of her life protecting and defending the underdog.  Experiencing teasing and bullying and longing to fit in but not knowing how, this person could only imagine what people with disabilities must feel like as they watch from the outside.

When asked if there was a specific incident that motivated her to promote inclusion or a community without barriers, she talked of something that happened when she was in 7th grade. Upon seeing a room of children, sitting in wheelchairs and with other disabilities, she asked the teacher why these children could not be with the rest of the class. The teacher replied, “Because they have disabilities and cannot be with other children.” This did not make sense; they looked like nice children and she wanted to get to know them and be friends. She would never forget peering into that classroom window and wishing there was not a barrier between them.  She shared in her essay, “this specific incident shaped my life, although I did not realize it at the time.”

Tonight’s recipient has spent her life, teaching, advocating, and bridging the gaps in our community. Her passion for helping her students with disabilities goes far beyond the classroom. In fact, knowing how hard it was for her students to successfully find their way into the community, she brought the community to them. She started a Transitions Class and brought presenters from various agencies, careers and backgrounds to talk with the students in the classroom. Before the students graduated, 3 of the 9 in her classroom had employment.  Once the people from the community got to know her students, they were willing to hire the student.

In her essay she wrote, “I love stories of people like Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan who overcame tremendous challenges through pure grit and determination, and the people who help them achieve success.  I hope to become a part of someone else’s story of achieving goals beyond their wildest dreams.”

And that is exactly what she is doing…her career of teaching and influencing students over the years has transitioned to helping people achieve success and fulfill their dreams by connecting them to the community through meaningful employment, mentors and volunteering. She recently resigned her position from Grand Haven High School and started a non-profit called Transition Bridges.

Her goal with Transition Bridges is “to create a profile of our adults so that employers see the person they are hiring with a set of unique gifts and skills, instead of someone with special needs. People in our community need someone to be a community liaison---someone who will connect them with employment, resources, and who will be a consultant to businesses.”

“There is no blue print for this journey that I am on, just one person’s dream of answering her younger self’s question of why people with disabilities are not living, working, and participating in the same activities as those without disabilities. We all deserve the same opportunities to live, work, and experience life side by side. I have made it my life’s mission to do everything possible to make sure that happens.”

We are thrilled and honored to introduce this beautiful, humble, compassionate and genuine woman, Deb Stanley as the 2015 Ability Award Recipient! 

Deb, 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 2015 Ability Award.



Helen Brownson - 2014 Ability Award Winner

This year the Ability Award goes to a person that has spent her life advocating for people with disabilities.  From a young age, God placed in her a love for those that are marginalized, institutionalized and often overlooked and forgotten in our world.  When talking with her, she emphasizes that her focus has always been on working WITH those with disabilities rather than deciding FOR them.  She believes we are enriched by people who are different and when asked what else needs to still be done – her response was there is “always a need to educate people – ignorance is appalling.”  Through all of her advocacy she has been a quiet champion who just kept going never asking for recognition for herself.  Her efforts are even more commendable when you realize she began them in an era before women commonly went on to higher education and spoke out on such matters.

This year’s Ability Award winner is Helen Brownson.  Helen’s service began when she grew up in a home with four sisters and one brother with a disability who was institutionalized almost his entire life.  It continued after she and Bill Brownson married and had four sons — two of them developing disabilities. 

Helen’s oldest son Billy at seven years old came down with Measles which turned into encephalitis. His life was spared but his brain was scarred. He lived the rest of his 27 years of life with a whole host of physical and mental disabilities. Helen went back for her Master’s in education and taught Special Education at Holland High School for many years, and in some of those years made it possible for Billy to graduate from Holland High School. After teaching, Helen went on to administration in the public school system continuing to advocate for other children with disabilities.

The trauma of son Billy’s illness triggered her son David’s nervous breakdown. David taught her not only about some of the torment of mental illness but also the tenderness of grace in the midst of it. She was privileged to help David form a support group for people with mental illness which, even after David’s death, still meets together socially to this day.

Helen has also co-authored a book with her husband Bill entitled Billy & Dave: From Brokenness to Blessedness.  And while this book definitely tells of the struggles of Billy and Dave and how the family endured those struggles, it also tells the extraordinary beauty in how a community of people grew up around them to provide care, love and concern.  If you haven’t read the book yet, I highly recommend it.

After working for the Holland School District, Helen worked with several non-profits and ended her career with service at Christ Memorial Church as their Minister of Outreach. Even in retirement, Helen is still helping her son Jonathon raise money for an elevator to make the church he pastors accessible to all.

It’s possible that Helen’s approach of working WITH those with disabilities rather than deciding FOR them is coming full circle as she deals with disabilities of her own. Heart disease, Parkinson’s and diabetes have not been able to stop her, but they have slowed her down considerably. She has come face-to-face with the stigma of being in a wheelchair and adapting to memory lapses - although she approaches both with tenacity and a sense of humor.  When asked how she handles being in a wheelchair she stated “I want to get out of it” and went on to explain how she was doing physical therapy and was taking some steps now.   And when asked how she handles lapses in her memory, she laughingly replied “I’m not aware of it, so it doesn’t bother me.”

I want to leave you with one passage from Helen and Bill’s book when Helen was discussing her concerns about her parenting skills related to Billy’s outbursts in public.  Helen wrote:

“With Billy’s problems, I began to wonder what people would think.  One day I read in my devotions about our Lord coming ‘not to be served but to serve and to give his life…’ The truth burst upon me that my calling was not to be personally successful, but to serve my family.  I realized that I no longer should think of my reputation, but concentrate on taking up the cause of handicapped persons and loving them as our Lord did.  I have become a stronger person, more able to understand and empathize with others who suffer.”

Ladies and gentleman, please help me in welcoming to the stage Helen Brownson and her son Jonathon.

Helen, 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 2014 Ability Award.

What's the Ability Award?

When a person has a disability, talk around town about that person tends to center on the disability.

With its Ability Award, Disability Network/Lakeshore is changing the conversation.

“When you look at people in terms of the abilities they bring to the table, you find there is so much more to say,” said Michele Chaney, who chairs the DNL board. “There are people in our community who have overcome significant barriers to contribute. They deserve community-wide recognition.”

That’s why DNL created the Ability Award, to be awarded to one nominee annually at a dress-up event.

The award is intended to reflect the goals of DNLs founding director, Ruth Stegeman, whose passion to build an accessible community which embraces peoples of all abilities still guides the small, nonprofit agency today.

The tenacious leadership qualities of the nominees never ceases to astound Chaney. Most share a life-long passion for advocating for people with disabilities.

Past Ability Award nominees are:

·         2011 -- Dan Wedge, who as director of the Allegan County Transportation Department helped create the county’s public transportation system, which provides transportation for the disabled, seniors and others. Wege has used a wheelchair since he lost use of his legs in a car accident.

·         2012 – Louise Schumaker, who created the Disability Services Department at Hope College in 1987, the same year she graduated from the college and three years before the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated the services. Schumaker has been advocating for people with disabilities on campus and in the Holland community ever since. Schumaker was born blind.

·         2013 -- Donna Bunce, executive director and founder of Compassionate Heart Ministry, an after-school drop-in center that provides young adults with mild to moderate cognitive impairments opportunities for recreation and socialization. Bunce has a son on the autism spectrum.

·         2014 -- Helen Brownson, who taught special education at Holland High School and later advocated for students with special needs as a district administrator. Two of Brownson’s four sons had disabilities. She and husband Bill wrote a book about their family’s experience titled “Billy & Dave: From Brokenness to Blessedness.” She continues to advocate for the disabled despite formidable physical challenges of her own.

A call for nominees who live or work in Ottawa or Allegan counties goes out to the community each summer. Criterion includes leadership, advocacy, engagement and empowerment.

A selection committee interviews nominees personally to verify information in the nominating letter. All nominees are recognized as “champions” during the Ability Award event.

The winner is presented with an etched crystal trophy.

In 2014, a scholarship to attend the nine-month training program Leadership Holland was announced in connection with the Ability Award. Participation will promote awareness of DNL and the goal of inclusiveness in the community, Chaney said.