Cooking, cleaning, vacuuming, doing laundry. For the average person, this might amount to nothing but a list of mundane household chores, but for someone who is developmentally disabled, mastering these ordinary tasks can be a gateway to independence. That’s where Marliese Bankert and Elevation come in.

There’s a childlike innocence and sense of wonder that lies within the patrons of Elevation, a new program for the developmentally disabled of Truckee/North Tahoe. The folks who participate in the program are not children, however. They’re adults, and despite their disabilities, they want to be seen as any other grown person would — as contributing members of society. Bankert is working to help foster her clients’ sense of independence.

When Choices, the only such program in the area, shut down at the end of August 2020, its former director knew she had to step in to fill the void left by the closure. Within weeks she’d filed the necessary paperwork to set things in motion. Choices had given its clients not only a place to go, but a place to further their lives through programming featuring topics such as art, nutrition, shopping, money-handling, and cooking. Once the licensing process is complete and Elevation moves into its new facilities in the coming days, Bankert’s clients will learn the ins and outs of running a business as they work to become entrepreneurs.

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“I feel excited to open up the store to try to sell many rainbows,” said 25-year-old Teddy Parelius on a recent, sunny spring day at a gathering with his peers in the driveway of the Truckee home he shares with his parents. (The group’s been meeting at various locations until they move into their facility, among them Sierra Bible Church, which has welcomed them to meet there twice weekly.) Parelius has a deep love for rainbows and the hope they represent. He enjoys painting their vibrant colors and plans to sell his artwork at Elevation’s yet-to-be-named store.

It was important to Bankert for her patrons to have a hand in everything when it comes to designing the new space. Such involvement will continue as they begin brainstorming business ideas, from selecting a name and designing business cards, right down to running the retail  store. They will even be part of the interview process when it comes time to start hiring.

“This isn’t my program, it’s the clients’ program,” Bankert told Moonshine during a walk-through of the new location. “I want [them] to have input in everything.”

Elevation has acquired two neighboring spots on Donner Pass Road in historic downtown, with one office in the Chase International Real Estate building and the other just across the parking lot. The Chase building site will house an art room, kitchen for cooking classes, and a space where participants can learn to sew. It’s where they will plan and design and create for their retail store. The other will be more sensory-issue friendly and includes a cozy room painted in calming shades where people can go to reset and recharge if they might be feeling over-stimulated. It will also house the retail shop itself.

“I’m excited so I can sell my Tahoe Dog Gear and drawings and paintings,” said Michaela Welch, who, together with her father Mike, already has a successful business. Mike helped his daughter, who has cerebral palsy, develop Tahoe Dog Gear, a line of dog leashes, collars, and other accessories that is often found at local artisan festivals like Made in Tahoe, Truckee Thursdays, and Reno’s Truckee River Festival.

Welch’s products are also sold online through her website, tahoedoggear.com,
so she’s got some experience to share with her peers about running a business, as online sales will also be a large part of Elevation’s retail store. Its website will have smaller online “shops” for the clients’ wares, similar to the way Etsy operates.

SKILL SET: Located just across the parking lot from the above-pictured location, the other building has rooms for art, cooking, sewing, and more. Photos by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink

Isaac Zermeno, whose smiling face and friendly demeanor are familiar to many from the days he worked at the Truckee Safeway, is also eager to sell his creations, which he said will include paintings of hearts, houses, and flowers — all themes that make him happy.

“I am so excited,” Zermeno, 42, shared. “I am so ready.”

For Bankert, it’s all about fostering that sense of independence and self-worth for her clients. It’s the joy they find in the little things that others take for granted on a day-to-day basis.

Parelius, for example, works jobs at Squaw Valley and New Moon Natural Foods. He beams with pride as he recites the list of things he’s learned to do for himself: washing his clothes, cooking, using his smartphone, taking the bus to work at Squaw, vacuuming, putting away clean laundry, cleaning bathrooms. He then extends his arms around Zermano and Welch and tells of their great friendship and the trust he has in them. Parelius releases his friends’ shoulders and shares his most favorite things he is now able to do for himself: Above all, he said, “I enjoy making my own coffee every morning and taking a shower.”

WE ARE FAMILY: Throughout their years with the Choices program, the new Elevation’s clients have built a special trust, forging a strong bond between them, and they consider themselves to be like family. Courtesy photo

Aside from the Choices program and its post-closure offshoots Elevation and Tahoe Ability Program, folks such as Parelius, Zermano, and Welch have honed-in on their independency skills through working with Tahoe Community Integrations, which centers on individualized plans, goals, and support for the developmentally disabled. There is also the University of Nevada Path to Independence, a two-year, non-degree certificate program offering a college experience to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Welch recently completed it and is now about to live on her own for the first time. In fact, both she and Parelius have scored apartments at the new Truckee Artist Lofts. 

“They love being able to do things for themselves. They want to be on their own,” Bankert noted. “I would like for them to go as far as they can go.” 

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