Improving lives for 50(+) years: Ability Works celebrating golden anniversary with an open house

The roots of Ability Works stretch back to the final days in 1952, when, according to information provided by the Perkins Township-based nonprofit, a group of parents known as the Erie County Ohio Council of Parents and Friends of Exceptional Citizens worked on behalf of folks with mental and developmental disabilities.

Things became more official in 1954, when those efforts were recognized by the state, which allowed for the people involved to do a bit more for those they were helping.

However, it wasn’t until 1974 – a few years after the formation of the Erie County Board of Developmental Disabilities – that Ability Works truly began, as Double S Industries established and provided day services for folks in need and, eventually, a work floor.

And so it is in 2024 – specifically on June 27, with an event open to the public – that Ability Works is celebrating its 50th anniversary. 

Having joined Ability Works in March 2022, coming over from Bowling Green-based Work Leads to Independence, CEO Doreen Ehlert wasn’t around for most of the organization’s history, which included the name switch in 2013 and the 2018 move to its current location on Columbus Avenue. She has been at the helm for more changes and growth, including the addition of day and community integration services in Lorain County – out of a space at 330 Cooper Foster Park Road in Lorain – with Ability Works now serving individuals in one or more ways in Erie, Lorain, in six counties, the other four being Ottawa, Lucas, Huron and Sandusky.

Courtesy of Ability WorksIn 2023, Ability Works entered into a partnership with First Christian Church on Hayes Avenue in Sandusky. At the back of the lot, the church has a farm and a garden.“We provide services for individuals with varying types of abilities,” Ehlert says during a recent phone interview. “We provided services from when kids are transitioning out of high school until the very end of life.”

Ability Works receives funding from the Ohio Department of Medicaid and Opportunities for Ohioans With Disabilities, as well as from area foundations and through various grants.  

“I came from Wood County, and we would maybe receive maybe one (major) grant a year,” she says. “And then I always had to go and try to find these bigger organizations to get grants from, where there’s a lot of internal support within Erie County. It’s a Godsend.”

In the conversation, she regularly returns to the topic of people, not just those Ability Works helps but the helpers themselves. A regular staff of a little shy of 45 full- and part-timers, which is supplemented in the summer by a five-week program for high schoolers, who work at various nonprofits and business Ability Works clients benefit from, as well as hired job coaches – teachers and others who have some time to contribute in the warm months.

“If you asked our staff if they liked working for Ability Works, I would venture to say just about everybody does,” she says, adding with a laugh: “I try to keep a finger on that pulse.”

As you might guess, this work takes a certain type of person. 

“God only knows you’re not going to get rich working in this field,” Ehlert says. “You have to have that heart, that big heart – lots of compassion. A lot of people that are in this field have been touched in some way (by) somebody with a disability; maybe it’s a relative or some experience they’ve had.

“I mean, I can’t say enough about the people that work for Ability works,” she adds. “(We) have a very strong staff – always wanting to do better for the individual, giving them better experiences, (to) include them more in the community.” 

Last year, that included the addition of what they call “community respite” outings – small-group trips to appealing locations, beginning with a trip for eight to Hocking Hills “for a weekend of hiking, laughter and all over fun,” according to Ability Works’ 2023 annual report.

Other trips have been to a baseball game, a basketball game and to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ehlert says.

“This weekend, we’re going down to Amish country to pet puppies,” she says, adding with a laugh: “We’ll probably eat well, too.”

If Ehlert sounds like a hands-on leader, you’re right – it’s not all paperwork and fundraising for her.

“I do a lot with individuals, but that’s always been my choice,” she says. “When I got into this almost 20 years ago, that was kind of why I got into it. Making the most of the experiences the individuals have is extremely important to me.”

She credits others with her being able to do that.

“Our management staff – we divide and conquer. And they are very committed.

“I was just looking at longevity today, and I think we’ve got somebody that’s been here over 20 years,” she says. “The four directors I have – I want to say (have been here) 12 years-plus. They know what they’re doing.”

Expect managers, staff and clients to attend what she refers to as an open house to celebrate the golden anniversary, set for 3-6 p.m. June 27 at the Columbus Avenue facility. RSVP at 419-626-1048.

“We’ll have lots of displays talking about the history – lots of pictures, lots of food,” she says. “We’re kind of aiming for something a little bit more low-key. A lot of the individuals we’re helping will come. It’s just kind of a community celebration.”