Suite 102 at 11025 Pioneer Trail is what you’d call a work in progress, with storage boxes and furniture stacked here and there, newly installed hardwood flooring, and walls eagerly awaiting a fresh coat of paint in new colors. If those walls could talk, they would tell of the possibilities that await participants of the Tahoe Ability Program. A community integration program for developmentally disabled adults, TAP is picking up where Choices, the site’s former occupant, left off.
“It was a shame. It put our participants in a really hard position because not only did the program close, it closed during a time when they were already feeling social isolation,” explained TAP Executive Director Kimberly Whitington, who served as Choices program manager from 2012 until she took a full time position with Achieve Tahoe last January.
For 15 years, Choices had filled a need in the Truckee/North Tahoe community that was suddenly left vacant. It not only gave developmentally disabled adults a place to go and something to do, it allowed them to learn and grow and to feel like valued members of the community.
“The majority of our participants grew up here. They grew up together. They’ve known each other since they were 5 years old or maybe even younger,” Whitington said. “So, they have a strong relationship with each other. They’re best friends. They’re family.”
Although Tahoe Ability is open to developmentally disabled adults age 18 and older, the current 13-person group is mostly made up of individuals in their 20s and 30s, as well as one in his 50s.
“Even before the pandemic, they were feeling isolated because of their disability — and then you add a pandemic on top of that. We had some people who hadn’t left their house in a month,” Whitington said. “If you’re not leaving your house and you’re not having any social interaction, that, mentally, will do something to you. Especially when you’re used to going somewhere five days a week, seeing your friends, volunteering and maintaining community relationships — then everything just stops. Some of our participants get it, but a pandemic is a hard concept
Despite having taken the position with Achieve Tahoe earlier in the year, Whitington maintained a close bond with those in the Choices program. After all, she had started out as a volunteer there nine years earlier when she was a personal trainer at its Pioneer Trail neighbor, Performance Training Center, donating time teaching exercise classes for the group. Upon the abrupt closure of Choices, Whitington received phone calls from several participants questioning what was going to happen because there was now no place for them to go.
“It broke my heart and I started to cry,” she recalled. “My husband said, ‘Don’t just cry about it. Do something about it.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll just start my own program.’”
Whitington immediately reached out to the Truckee Tahoe Community Foundation, which had often supported Choices, for guidance on starting her own nonprofit 501(c)(3). As timing would have it, there was an upcoming grant opportunity through the Placer County Shares Program. That following Monday, only three days after the closure announcement, Whitington filed paperwork to open her own organization in the same site that had housed Choices.
In all, the group had been left without an option for only three weeks while Whitington figured out all the logistics. Their first official gathering as TAP was Sept. 18.
“Typically, to start a program like this it takes six to nine months to get everything in order,” she explained. “But because there was no other program in our region, and no other services at all, the Alta Regional Center, which is who we’re vendored through, basically did an emergency vendorization. I put together a program design, threw together an employee handbook, and kind of just hit the ground running.”
As a community-based organization, Whitington said TAP is fortunate to be able to have a physical location. Similar programs in more urban areas like Sacramento meet in public spaces throughout the community. This worked fine for TAP during its first month or so with the participants congregating at places like Truckee Riverview Sports Park, Glenshire Pizza Company, and Magic Carpet Golf. As the weather turned colder, however, Whitington sought a temporary indoor gathering spot for the group to meet until their space is renovated and licensed.
Given the harsh Truckee/Tahoe winter climate, having an actual place to go is a huge plus. TAP had been meeting at Alibi Ale Works Truckee Public House, which allowed use of the tap room until the current increase in COVID cases resulted in tighter restrictions. The group’s activities are now limited to Zoom workshops. Though a challenge at first since not every participant had a device to connect, the $10,000 grant the organization received made it possible to purchase laptops so they each had one.
Whitington recently received an offer from Tahoe City resident Mark Kackley, who owns several North Shore vacation homes. With the rentals typically vacant during the week, Kackley offered use of the homes as a meeting place for TAP, a kind gesture that left her filled with gratitude. He was sure to note that one of the properties comprises 11 acres, making it a prime spot for sledding and snow play.
While Zoom has enabled participants to continue things like cooking lessons, exercise classes, arts and crafts, and other activities, they really love their time in the outdoors doing things like hiking, snowshoeing, skiing — really anything outside, explained Whitington.
Aside from sports and the outdoors, however, the thing that the participants love most is volunteering in the community, forging a feeling of belonging. TAP was designed to create community inclusion, foster independence, and promote progress for people with developmental disabilities within their community. Volunteering at places like Hospice Thrift and Gift and the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe played an integral role in achieving these goals.
“Everyone wanted to be signed up at every volunteer site they possibly [could],” said Whitington, who plans to continue providing volunteer opportunities for participants once COVID protocols are finally eased. “They want to work and be an active part of the community. How would you feel if all you did was sit at home? You wouldn’t feel like an active part of the community.”