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AZ Giving & Leading: An Arizona Horizon Special
Original Airdate: 2013-01-11

On a new Giving & Leading special, Arizona Horizon takes a look at two organizations devoted to improving lives: Veterans Medical Leadership Council and Native American Connections.
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SIMONS: Coming up next on this special edition of "Arizona Horizon," we'll visit a local fitness center designed for people with disabilities. We'll see what a Phoenix nonprofit is doing to help Native Americans in need of housing and other critical services. And we'll hear from the leader of a Valley nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and well-being of veterans in need. Those stories next on this special "Giving and Leading" edition of "Arizona Horizon."
Good evening and welcome to this special "Giving and Leading" edition of "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. "Arizona Bridge to Independent Living" is a nonprofit that provides a wide variety of services to people with disabilities. One of its newest offerings is the Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center, a $13 million facility that opened just over a year ago. Funding for the center came from private donations, with over $5 million from the 2006 Phoenix bond election. Producer David Majure and photographer Steve Snow take us to the fitness center, located near light rail at 50th Street and Washington.
The Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center is a sports and recreation center designed for people with disabilities. We've got a 4500 square foot facility. It's got two basketball courts. We have a pool, we've got a running track, we have a rock wall.
NARRATOR: Just off the main entrance is a rotunda featuring larger than life photographs of athletes at the top of their game. It sets a tone for what's possible with a lot of hard work and determination.
You got it!
JACKSON: The center has helped me train, put on weight, which was the hardest thing. Before I weighed 98 pounds. I'm 20 pounds heavier now.
NARRATOR: Twenty-three-year-old Joe Jackson, an ASU engineering student, is using the gym to train for wheelchair rugby. He was injured playing football for Hamilton High, he injured his spine. He says he never could have imagined life without sports.
JACKSON: I was competitive all my life. Being an athlete helps with everything you do. You have that competitive drive for school, sports, whatever, live life.
NARRARTOR: The Sports and Fitness Center makes it easier for people with all types of disabilities to lead more active lives. They can climb a rock wall, go swimming, and participate in all kinds of fitness classes and sports, both casual and competitive. Discounts are available for people on fixed disability incomes. Families earn courage to work out together.
GERBIC: This is one of a kind in the western United States. Unfortunately, your average gym doesn't cater to people with disabilities. You end up with a facility that's accessible to get in the door and ADA compliant. But they don't go to use the bathrooms or the doors.
NARRATOR: Dave is the fitness coordinator.
GERBIC: We wanted to design the entire facility around accessibility so, no matter who came through the door, it would be universally accessible.
NARRATOR: The center gives everyone an opportunity to exercise and puts athletes like Joe Jackson back in the game.
JACKSON: My goal now is to, let's say 2016, make the para-Olympic team.
SIMONS: And here with more on the fitness center is Phil Pengrazzio, president and CEO of "Arizona Bridge to Independent Living." Good to have you here, thanks for joining us. As far as ABIL, "Arizona Bridge to Independent Living," what exactly are we talking about?
PANGRAZIO: It's a center for independent living. There's hundreds of centers for independent living all over the country, that were originally established by the Rehab Act of 1973. And you know, we started in 1981 to provide a real core set of services, independent living skills, peer support, peer mentorship, information referral, and to do advocacy. The independent living movement really was a disability rights movement that pushed for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Centers for independent living really were born out of the disability rights movement, to provide those basic services for people with disabilities. But from there, many centers like ABIL moved on to lots of other services like doing home accessibility modifications, offering personal assistant services, employment services, Social Security work incentives, counseling. They've really expanded their array of services to people with disabilities.
SIMONS: I know the fitness center is on 50th Street and Washington, located on the campus or within this disability empowerment center. What exactly is that?
PANGRAZIO: We conceived of this idea more than a decade ago, to bring together a group of nonprofit organizations, all 501(C)3s, that serve people with disabilities. We thought to kind of create an incubator, an environment where all of these organizations -- it could make services to people with disabilities more convenient, more of a one-stop shopping place to get services. And to create more collaboration opportunities and create the synergies that bringing us all together under one roof would do.
So we've got organizations like the Spinal Cord Injury Association, the Brain Injury Association, raising special kids, the M.S. Society, the Valley Center of the Deaf, Arizona Autism United, Statewide Independent Living Council, and of course ABIL.
SIMONS: And how important is this center to bringing those people in for those services? You've got the basketball courts, rock climbing wall, the whole nine yards.
PANGRAZIO: We do. The sports and fitness center definitely was the last piece of the puzzle to put in there and, again, make it another -- provide another reason for people to come to the Disability Empowerment Center and enjoy the Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center. We do, there's two basketball courts, the runners' track, rock climbing wall, 7500 square foot fitness center with every piece of equipment in there, accessible for folks with disabilities. But also useable by people who can walk and can ambulate. So it's not all for folks with disabilities necessarily.
SIMONS: Now, I read that this is one of only two such centers in the United States. And you're telling me that maybe it's really the only one of its kind.
PANGRAZIO: It's the only one of its kind that has combined the disability services campus with a sports and fitness center. There is a sports and fitness center in Birmingham, Alabama, called -- Health South actually built the facility. And they are more -- they are actually serving as the para-Olympic training site for the United States para-Olympic programs. It is a big facility, over 100,000 square feet. Our facility is 45,000 square feet. It is a little smaller on the sports end of it, but we also have the nonprofit organizations piece of it.
SIMONS: Where do you go from here, what's next?
PANGRAZIO: We want to get the word out so that people will come down and use the facility. It's already been -- we already have over 800 people that are members of the sports center. We just want people to know about it. We think we're still getting people to learn about that we're here. We're at 50th Street and Washington. We want people to come down and use the beautiful facility, because it's gorgeous.
SIMONS: Native American Connections provides behavioral health, affordable housing and community development services to thousands of families and individuals each year. Diane Yazzie-Devine is its president and CEO. It's good to have you here, thanks for joining us.
YAZZIE-DEVINE: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.
SIMONS: "Native American Connections," give us a better definition.
YAZZIE-DEVINE: As you said, we were founded 40 years ago to serve the Native population moving into the Phoenix area at that time. Unemployment rates were high in tribal communities. They didn't have access to higher education. And so you saw this migration of Native American people coming into Phoenix. When they got here, they found that they were pretty socially isolated and culturally isolated. "Native American Connections" was founded at that time, that really support of behavioral health and housing needs of Native people coming to the Phoenix area, disconnected from families and culture.
SIMONS: Has that goal over the years changed or is that still pretty much the target?
YAZZIE-DEVINE: It's almost exactly the same. We're a much larger organization. We have 18 service sites all throughout Central Phoenix. And we're still supporting Native American people. Right now we serve all populations, too. Affordable housing, in the Housing First model the mayor was talking about, and serving the homeless population. Supporting them when they have those needs that they have around substance abuse, mental health issues, domestic violence. And so we still really do pretty much the same thing. We use a lot of traditional healing practices, too.
SIMONS: I was going to ask about that. The culturally appropriate method of these kind of services, talk to us about that.
YAZZIE-DEVINE: You might be surprised if you knew we were operating a sweat lodge healing ceremony right in the heart of Downtown Phoenix, right on 3rd Avenue and Roosevelt. Two times a week we start the sweat lodge fire. In order to promote wellness and healing, the total mind-body-spirit, where a person needs to be healthy in their mind, healthy in their body, healthy in their spirit, there is still a need to do that right in downtown Phoenix.
SIMONS: The importance of honoring culture and that holistic approach, was that there from the beginning? Or again, something that developed?
YAZZIE-DEVINE: Well, it was supported by the founders. But it was important to everybody else who came after that, knowing that those ceremonies have been anchoring and grounding Native peoples for thousands of years. It is a best practice. We always talk about how do we treat people and the best practice method, whether it's research-based or successful. Those old practices are -- have been around for a long time. They really help support Native people in that holistic model of healing.
SIMONS: Is there a way to quantify the results? A way to say look here, I can show you X, Y and Z is working better than some alternative methods.
YAZZIE-DEVINE: We can show that through the stability of people as they move through certain levels of care. Then they go into -- the mayor was talking about permanent housing. If we can connect somebody who is probably homeless on the street, you might have a woman who is using methamphetamine, she was pregnant, she was going to have a baby that would have been addicted to the meth and had to go to the county hospital. Instead, we wrap her with health care services and house her. She went on to find permanent housing. We were able to provide job development services that help women reenter back into the community. Her children are enrolled in school, she's in stable housing, she's got a job, she's a taxpayer. She's being supported in her cultural environment. So many times Native American people feel disconnected or lonely or isolated. Here they get to remain in that cultural community and feel that support right here in Phoenix.
SIMONS: Sounds like there are 18 service locations? The idea of a one-stop service, kind of the big kahuna there. Talk to us about that.
YAZZIE-DEVINE: In 2005, the Phoenix Indian center, the Native American connections, native health and now people of color network, we came together and said, you know what, our people are having a difficult time trying to find these services. They are not people that have isolated problems but they are people that have -- when they come in for health care they also need jobs and housing. We said, why don't we come together and we found a building on Central, it's 4520 North Central, across from Central High School at the light-rail stop. Now we have seven nonprofits operating out of that same site. So they can get Job Services, dental services, medical services, behavioral health. And there's an alternative high school for Native American use. It's a center where they come in looking for a single service, and they get wrapped in a variety of services.
SIMONS: My goodness. The operating budget I read was reported at somewhere around $8 million.
YAZZIE-DEVINE: It's over $9 million now.
SIMONS: How are you raising the money?
YAZZIE-DEVINE: Well, I think we have a really good strategy. I think we have a very diverse strategy. Just like everyone else, you want your money to come from a variety of different places. Some of our income comes from rents that people pay in our affordable housing communities. Some of it comes from government grants. We're certainly supported by the foundations. There's a lot of foundations that are -- I hate to mention one, because there are many that support us.
YAZZIE-DEVINE: We have fee for service contracts with the tribal community, government contracts, a pretty wide portfolio of the way our money comes to us. It allows us to be a little more stable if something goes away.
SIMONS: I read where you embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. Talk to us about that.
YAZZIE-DEVINE: I think "Native American Connections" itself, we are one of the largest nonprofit affordable housing developers. So Divine Legacy on Central, right next door to our community service center, divine legacy is the first affordable housing community to be LEED platinum certified. That's a green standard of certification. When we build our affordable housing communities, we build from the low-income housing tax credit program, the State Department of Housing is issued future tax credits from the federal government. And they are then allocated to our nonprofits or other developers. We sell them to investors who need future tax credits. So we're actually building with private equity investment, rather than using government funds or creating debt, you know. and that's how we create affordable housing and keep our rents low for families that, you know, want to live in a community where they can stabilize their family with low rents.
SIMONS: That sounds like it would have been a dream 40 years ago. You've been with the organization 33-some-odd years. You have to feel like you're making a difference. You have to feel good about what's going on with this organization.
YAZZIE-DEVINE: Our employees say that we are -- you know, our organization, some of our services are life-saving services. We touch some of the community's most vulnerable people. You know, women that need to be in care when they are pregnant, domestic violence, homeless youth. We have a homeless transitional program named Home Base for homeless youth. You know, we're out on the streets outreaching them and bringing them in off the streets into care. A lot of those kids were the ones that transitioned out of foster care and found themselves homeless on the streets of Phoenix. I do. Our employees, the board of directors, the community, we really make a difference in people's lives. We change lives.
SIMONS: The Veterans Medical Leadership Council helps Valley veterans with a variety of financial and health care needs. I recently spoke with VMLC president and retired Air Force colonel Sam Young. It's good to have you here.
YOUNG: Thank you very much, Ted, good to be here.
SIMONS: Let's start with the basics. The "Veterans Medical Leadership Council," what is it?
YOUNG: It's kind of an interesting name. But essentially it's a volunteer organization consisting of volunteers who are veterans, who have served during time of combat, that have come the towing kind of give back to those veterans that need some assistance. It started in 1999, was put together essentially through the V.A. medical center, volunteers to kind of help articulate and encourage initiatives to help veterans. And then ultimately to help sponsor the parade and then follow on to help the troops that have fallen on hard times.
SIMONS: Was it the kind of thing where not necessarily outside voices, these are veterans for the most part here. But was it a kind of thing to get a different viewpoint on things at the V.A.?
YOUNG: People have been there and done that. It hard to articulate what the military is about in the civilian community. There was some identification with that. The large veterans medical center handled about 87,000 patients. Veterans can kind of talk a different language.
SIMONS: Indeed. And they can also help with fund-raising that goes on there with V.A. with the patients and programs. How much of that falls outside of maybe state and federal funding?
YOUNG: A large part has to do with the individual needs of the people. Say for example the paying of utilities or a car that breaks down. Or sometimes you need to put food on the table or clothing or whatever it happens to be. That's one category for the actual veterans themselves. And then you also have other initiatives for example in the state home. We were able to put together a project to remodel the outside patio, so it was safe. And we came towing help do that. There are little initiatives like that. As you indicate, things outside of federal and state government.
SIMONS: Things that fall through the cracks and occur in day-to-day living.
YOUNG: That's correct.
SIMONS: Some of the programs, you referred to the Returning Warrior Program.That deals with things like jobs, getting your car fixed, these sorts of things.
YOUNG: The returning warrior program, with the -- with 9/11 and certainly with Iraq and Afghanistan, we started to find some of the veterans that were coming back, they were in need of support. So as that number grew from 3,000 to 6,000 to 9,000 to 15,000, we put together a program called returning warriors. It's very unusual, in that we deal directly with the social workers at the V.A. hospital. It's all anonymous. We don't want to know who needs help and who dozen. The social workers works with that particular veteran to see what funding is available for them. We provide a little bit of a financial safety net. The fact that there's only 18 of us, we're able to cut a check in hours to help somebody that may be evicted or if they are shutting off their utilities or their car is broken and they can't get to work or a medical appointment or something like that.
SIMONS: How common are those sorts of things?
YOUNG: Very common. We were able to raise and spend over $200,000 just this year. We consider veterans, whether it's Vietnam, whether it's Iraq, Afghanistan, you know, we reach out to all of them. But we rely primarily on the social workers at the V.A. medical center. It's a great partnership.
SIMONS: Some need more assistance than others. Support to homeless veterans, you're involved in that, as well. Everything from dental care to providing a way to have a reunion with their family.
YOUNG: That's exactly right. We work with U.S. airways, a veteran from World War II in Iwo Jima. He couldn't go because he needed a caregiver. We were table fund the caregiver to escort him to satisfy a lifelong dream for him.
SIMONS: Wow, that's fantastic. As far as community advocacy, we first met in the dedication for the Herrera way. That was there on 3rd street?
YOUNG: Yes, that's correct.
SIMONS: Those kind of things you're involved with, as well.
YOUNG: We kind of reach out and touch whoever needs help. For example, there's an annual stand down run by a specific organization. We help support it financially and then volunteer to go down. This last year they helped almost 1300 veterans that were essentially living on the street, homeless or those that needed assistance. Whether it's a haircut, a good meal, registration through the V.A., whatever it happens to be.
SIMONS: And the state veterans home, that needs some help along the way and you provide support?
YOUNG: We go to them and say, how can we help, essentially. We were able to help in one case when they needed like those special insulated covers for the meals. You know, so, we try to give back wherever we can. In some cases we can make a difference.
SIMONS: I notice, as well, that women veterans were a focus. Sometimes people forget that their needs are there, as well.
YOUNG: There's roughly 46,000 female veterans in the state. A lot of times the homeless female veterans kind of like go unnoticed. We were involved with a place called Emily's Place. And essentially that was to kind of like take an existing facility and paint some walls and work with the city, and also Veterans First to put together that for some of the homeless women.
SIMONS: Biggest challenge now VMLC is facing.
YOUNG: The conflict's not on the front page anymore, but the veterans are. It's a 365-day requirement.
SIMONS: When things quiet down, the veterans are still there, but the interest seems to fade.
YOUNG: That's exactly right.
SIMONS: Sound like you're fighting the good fight, and continued success. Thank you so much for joining us.
YOUNG: Thank you.
SIMONS: And that is it for this "Giving and Leading" edition of "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us, you have a great evening.
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