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NON-PROFIT/ Everything in an Embrace

Sharon Mollerus describes the non-profit Los Angeles Habilitation House, and how its founders left secure jobs with Walt Disney to help the disabled find work and hope.

Guido Piccarolo (far left) and Nancy Albin (far right) with some of the people they help Guido Piccarolo (far left) and Nancy Albin (far right) with some of the people they help

Guido Piccarolo, founder with Nancy Albin of the Los Angeles Habilitation House, which employs people with mental disabilities, joined a panel at the August Meeting in Rimini entitled "Young People and Formation:  All Are Able to Live as Protagonists." The former Walt Disney executive was working on a master's in finance when he studied American non-profit social enterprises. For his research, he travelled to Portland, Oregon to meet the president of a company, which employs over 1,000 individuals with disabilities. Subsequently, on the president's advice, Guido went on to write a business plan. Guido asked a colleague at Disney, Nancy Albin, to join him in the risk of the new venture. Their mission was: "Creating and maintaining job opportunities for persons with disabilities that will help them to develop, express, and apply their talents and maximize their contribution to the community and society at large." And they were ready to begin in the fall of 2008.

Their first task was to beg for everything: "chairs, tables, computers, printers, whiteboards, chairs, pens, paper." Then they hired their first three employees, young people with intellectual disabilities, including autism and mental retardation, to work as custodial specialists inside commercial offices. Along with the typical recruiting questions, they asked each applicant: "What do you want?". Each answered: "work".  Guido was struck by the fact that the "I" has a desire for a relationship with something beyond oneself and to be able to develop through this encounter.

Their colleagues at Disney were stunned at their choice to leave secure jobs for a seemingly risky non-profit start-up. Others working in their new field, many of whom had been motivated by afflicted family members, could also see their difference. It was not the "usual program". They asked Guido and Nancy: "What is pushing you to do this?" “Why are you doing this?” “Why did you leave Disney?”

Their task was all the more daunting because the country was already then in a deep recession with unemployment at 8%, the highest in fourteen years.  Since then, unemployment in California has risen to 12%.  Among them are the new veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom, one-third of them having suffered mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, acute depression and traumatic brain injuries.  These young people had given themselves for their country and were scarred by the trauma of war, and found few companies ready and able to help them in their reintegration.  As Guido read of the despair of one such man, he knew that what this young person needed was another who would embrace him with hope.