Dr. Michael Brashears, Holland
For more than a decade Michael has been a respected and leading voice in strategies, systems, and outcomes that serve people with disabilities and mental illnesses. He has held senior leadership positions in a variety of county, regional, and state-level behavioral and community mental health systems. Ultimately these led to launching his own company, Outcomes That Matter.
“I am committed to ensure that all persons have access to work, school, community life, and meaningful personal relationships. I have dedicated my life to assisting organizations and individuals move from the ‘disease model’ to an ‘abilities model’ worldview, and to answer the question, ‘What truly matters?’ I challenge individuals and families to look beyond limitations and take responsibility for achieving a meaningful life.”
Jennifer DeWaard, Holland
As a West Ottawa special education teacher, Jennifer has been an exceptional instructor who serves as a champion for inclusion. She goes beyond the classroom to inspire friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, and complete strangers with positive experiences to make strong community connections for her students. Among her many efforts, Jennifer’s vocational programming helps students learn work skills through Community Based Instruction at local businesses.
“I want to make it possible for people with disabilities to access and truly belong in our community, but also make it possible for our community to see and access the potential of people with disabilities in an economy and region that needs their contributions and talents. I also work closely with Camp Sunshine, Special Olympics, and Hope College to establish and extend relationships from school to community to life beyond.”
Mark DeYoung, dorr
As chair of the Allegan County Community Mental Health Board, Mark was instrumental in providing effective leadership during a difficult period of transition. His nominator calls him a “pillar of strength who brought stability and sound management to the agency. Services needed by residents of Allegan County were not interrupted by internal strife, partially because of Mr. DeYoung’s efforts to heal past differences.”
“No matter what disability we may have, we all have some special ability within us that makes us unique. My goal is to find out what that is and help others to bring that out so it can be utilized to the fullest. I also serve on the Allegan County Board of Commissioners and County Parks Advisory Board, where I strive to provide accessibility to all persons.”
Jeff Elhart, Holland
Jeff is a business owner and founder and creator of the “be nice.” movement, a culture-changing education tool for schools, businesses, churches, and other non-profit organizations. In the time since his brother Wayne’s death by suicide in March 2015, “no one has done more for education around mental health, specifically suicide,” said one of Jeff’s Ability Award nominators.
“From the moment of Wayne’s death, our family committed to bring mental illness awareness and suicide prevention education to west Michigan and beyond. The journey to educate our community included collaborating with experts in the field of mental illness and suicide prevention. Since there is a cost to bring the ‘be nice.’ education model into an organization, and realizing the tight budgets under which schools operate, we established donor-advised funds through five different community organizations (located in the counties of Ottawa, Muskegon, Oceana/Lake/Mason, Kent, and Kalamazoo/Van Buren).”
Becky Kinsler, Zeeland
As leader of Herman Miller’s Disability Advocacy Internal Resource Team, Becky is a catalyst for increasing awareness around disabilities and implementing change so that people of all abilities are included. She is also a seven-year volunteer with the Renew Therapeutic Riding Center who has raised more than $10,000 as a board member.
“My vision is a world where equal access is built into our culture, consideration of people with disabilities is not an after-thought, and people of all abilities are valued for what they can contribute to society. My passion around disability is not about me—it’s about leading a team of many people that share the same passion. Working to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities is a core part of my life, and my feelings around disability inclusion run deep.”
Rose Redmond, West olive
Rose is a mentor to teachers and a dedicated, hard-working advocate for her Community Based Instruction (CBI) Young Adult Services students in the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District. She is always learning and pouring time and energy into helping students become as independent and successful as they can be. For more than 40 years she has been working with children and adults with disabilities. She has volunteered in high school camps for special needs children, helped run recreation programs for adults during her college years, and taught in a variety of programs. For three years Rose and her husband lived in an Adult Foster Care home with 10 young adults with cognitive and/or emotional impairments.
“Creating a community without barriers is about education and exposure. We are out in the community daily with our students, building positive relationships with community partners and strangers alike. All individuals with disabilities deserve to have the amount of independence they desire and are capable of handling. For some, this means full community inclusion: work, independent living, recreation, relationships, etc. For others, it may include all of these things but with additional supports for them to be successful.”
Brieann Richardson, Holland
As the program director for Camp Sunshine—a four-day, three-night camp experience in an inclusive environment that embraces one’s recreational, emotional, physical, spiritual, and relational needs—Brie’s heart for people of all abilities shines through her efforts to provide a positive, accepting, grace-filled camping experience. Beginning as a college volunteer more than 10 years ago, Brie also has served as counselor and office manager before following in the steps of the longtime director/leader who guided Camp Sunshine for more than 20 years.
“I have been drawn to individuals experiencing injustice my entire life. Inclusion is a way of living and being that is infectious. It is a call to a perspective shift that honors the light within each of us, embracing the unique set of abilities and gifts this world needs. This is less about us improving their lives and more about creating a sacred space where all abilities can shine.”
Eduardo Ruiz, Holland
A hopeful person who encourages others through music, words, and actions, Eduardo writes devotionals and songs for worship in his church and beyond. Out of his own challenges and hardships, he empathizes with others and sees value and purpose rising out of the deepest pain of the human condition.
“My faith in God motivates me to maintain a positive outlook and to envision a community without barriers where we accept our differences and live with purpose. By building up and never tearing down, words have a powerful impact and can determine the course of our lives. Our disabilities should not limit what we can do but should empower us to reach and accomplish our dreams.”
Elizabeth Schultz, Holland
Since long before the #MeToo movement became popular, Elizabeth has been an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities. She lives with cerebral palsy and speaks personally and courageously about the “silent epidemic of abuse.” She challenges people to stand against abuse so that people with disabilities can receive the respect that is rightfully theirs and fully participate in society on an equal basis with others. Through Ottawa County Community Mental Health, she teaches a class twice a month to those who have been hired to be caregivers to people with disabilities. After Kandu Industries was closed, she lobbied elected officials about the need for new services.
“I encourage other people with disabilities to do as much as they can for themselves. Even though I dealt with severe abuse from my childhood, over the past 20 years I have confronted and become aware how prevalent abuse is for people with disabilities. My vision is a society in which all people are treated with dignity and respect, and all people understand that no one has a right to mistreat others.”
Jennifer Sunderlin, Nunica
As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, Jennifer is an advocate for inclusion who is bringing awareness to schools in northern Ottawa County through the Graceland Farms Foundation. For three years Graceland Farms Foundation has provided funding for local teachers and paraprofessionals to attend national conferences that equip them to include and support students with disabilities in their classrooms.
“Graceland Farms Foundation was started after trying to figure out how to have children with special needs included in their neighborhood schools. Many schools lack funding to properly educate their teachers on the ‘how-to’ aspects of inclusion, and many teachers are scared because they were not taught how to modify class work at all grade levels. We send teachers to national conferences, but the long-term goal is to bring more conferences to the lakeshore.”
Renee Veltema, Jenison
From founding board member in 2000, to administrative assistant/human resources director hired in 2004, and then to her 2013 appointment as the executive director of Harbor House Ministries, Renee for 18 years has been living out her belief that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. She gives leadership to a facility that’s home to 36 residents and a day program, with more than 100 employees.
“We provide quality care for the men and women who live at Harbor House Ministries and promote strong community inclusion between them and local businesses, churches, neighbors, and schools. One way we do this is by ‘RAKing’—performing Random Acts of Kindness in our community. Daily we are going out into the community to local parks, museums, beaches, malls, churches, grocery stores, etc., where our caregivers help the men and women interact with people, which is important both for residents and for community members.”
Kevin Walker, Holland
Kevin developed a vision to launch the Ability Centered Employment (ACE) program at Herman Miller in 2016, following Kandu’s closing in 2015. Today, 52 people with disabilities are employed in Herman Miller’s four west Michigan production facilities in Holland, Zeeland, and Spring Lake. Through a partnership with several agencies from Allegan, Ottawa, and Muskegon counties that provide support, more than 90 people have been trained through the ACE program, with some graduates successfully employed at other west Michigan companies.
“ACE team members are completely integrated with other Herman Miller team member during breaks. They participate in potlucks, employee retirement parties, and all other plans celebrations. They have even won safety awards. I have hosted visits from area companies, offering my time to be part of setting up cells elsewhere in west Michigan.”