ACHIEVA President and CEO Marsha Blanco On the Nonprofit’s Nationwide Impact
By Colleen Ferguson
Photograph by Michael Fornataro
Sponsored by CONSOL Energy
For most Americans, every morning begins the same: hop out of bed, run downstairs, and catch the bus or drive to work. For many others, not one part of that sentence is possible.
It is estimated that nearly one in five Americans lives with a disability, where independence and societal integration are difficult to achieve. Thankfully, there are organizations like ACHIEVA — a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit service that provides life-long support, resources, and care for people with disabilities and their families — who are focused on supporting and empowering those working against an imperfect societal structure.
With over 40 years of experience in the field of disabilities advocacy, including spending the last 36 with ACHIEVA, president and CEO Marsha Blanco has witnessed, and contributed to, changes to public practices regarding disabilities. The most significant is witnessing the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in the White House’s Rose Garden in July 1990.
The ADA mandates equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation, as well as prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities. As we remember the ADA’s 25th anniversary this month, Blanco and her team look to the future for further development in the public and social inclusion of people with disabilities.
“For as long as history has been recorded, people with disabilities have been isolated and segregated, and the ADA simply opened up the rest of the world and the wonderful communities in which we live,” Blanco says. “At ACHIEVA, we, as an organization, believe we all have so much more to learn about the full inclusion of people with significant disabilities, that there’s still so much more room for innovation.”
Changes in the Pittsburgh area alone since the ADA was enacted include debuting the first wheelchair accessible Port Authority bus in 1991; founding the City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities in 1994; creating the Pennsylvania Visitability Tax Credit Program, which provides tax incentives for the incorporation of accessibility features in residential construction or renovation plans, in 2002; and efforts by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council in 2010 to improve the inclusion of people with disabilities into the artistic and cultural community.
Blanco leads a team of dreamers and thinkers at ACHIEVA through a common goal: empowerment. In order to be effective in the community, the team encourages those with disabilities to live and work independently. Blanco also motivates the team members to constantly improve themselves. “I’ve always felt that if you surround yourself with the most talented people in your field, and provide a vivid vision, then you get to encourage the people around you to be creative in coloring in that vision,” she says. “It usually leads to a beautiful mural.”
It’s Blanco’s strong vision that is making strides in the field of disability advocacy. ACHIEVA’s recent over-achievement of its annual capital campaign means better resources for new and exciting programs at each of its 110 Southwestern Pennsylvania locations. As the first organization in the U.S. to become court-appointed to manage special needs trusts for individuals with disabilities and their families, ACHIEVA gives people the chance to secure their financial futures. ACHIEVA’s leaders and innovators have developed a program as a financial supplement for people with disabilities that operates independently from income or personal assets.
Through this program, Blanco and her team manage a $94 million trust, aiding over 2,000 beneficiaries to lead a “real life.” “We’ve built homes for individuals, we’ve done adaptations to vehicles, we’ve been able to send a person on a trip with a companion — it’s really whatever the individual and the family most need,” she says. “Each beneficiary has their own personal account, and we have a team of social workers and attorneys who work with families and the individual to make sure they’re getting what they want out of life and still maintaining their eligibility for government benefits.”
While financial security is an important step for many, personal independence is where ACHIEVA truly shines. Through a program called “A Home of My Own,” ACHIEVA matches individuals seeking home life independence with other individuals striving for the same thing, which can help alleviate financial burden or speed along time spent on lengthy state waiting lists.
Future endeavors this year include the 17th Annual Million Dollar Golf Outing on August 17, one of the organization’s major fundraising efforts of the year, as well as further development of the “A Home of My Own” program. While major improvements have been made in eliminating disabilities discrimination, ACHIEVA’s vision of a “community where disability is a distinction that makes no difference” is still a goal to be met. But Blanco is optimistic for the future.
“We’re dreamers,” she says. “We truly believe there’s still so much room for creativity and innovation in our efforts to fully include people with disabilities in local life. You have to set that vision, and let people go.”