Strive earns certification for pairing people with their passions

Thomas Love with Strive describes to a visitor how the butterflies in the butterfly house at the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens pollinate the hibiscus flowers like the one he is cradling in his right hand. Love helps care for the butterfly house and works in the shop at the gardens.

To say Thomas Love is passionate about gardening would be a tremendous understatement.

He loves identifying plants, sharing interesting details about them, and giving visitors tours at the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens. From pointing out the dinner plate-sized hibiscus flowers to showing off the salmon-colored shrimp plant blooms, Love prides himself on his ability to share knowledge and his enthusiasm for this place. He points out an empty chrysalis that a Great Southern white butterfly hatched from the previous day, and shares that the red Marshall butterfly might try to fly up your sleeves to your armpits because it’s attracted to the smell of human sweat.

“It’s like perfume, I’m not kidding!” he said, smiling at the surprise from visitors at that bit of trivia.

Not only is Love an ambassador for the gardens, he’s also an example of what happens when an organization charged with supporting the developmentally disabled becomes committed to a person-centered philosophy. This focus on individuals and supporting them with their own choices and interests has earned a local nonprofit a rare designation. Strive is the only organization in Colorado to earn certification from the Council on Quality and Leadership, which works with human-services organizations to improve quality of life for clients and quality of services.

Love has Down syndrome, and joined Strive as a client in 2012 after his mother died. He learned to garden from his father when they lived in Nova Scotia, before his father died and Love moved to Grand Junction with his mom in 2010.

He works at the gardens five days a week, giving tours to visitors and school groups and cleaning as well as doing other tasks. He’s a repository of information about everything that grows here and lives here, including the detailed habits of Muggins the turtle and the heron that visits and catches the koi in the Japanese Garden’s pond. He started here in 2013, after staffers with Strive discovered his interests and the organization took on management of the botanic gardens, which provided an opportunity for Love and other clients to work here.

Since Strive started helping Love with his living arrangements and work, he has learned a lot and gained skills to become more independent. He lives in a group home, and staffers help him and his roommates cook and do other living tasks, and the work program provides a job at the gardens where he earns minimum wage.

The process for attaining and maintaining the CQL certification forced Strive’s philosophy to change, said Doug Sorter, Strive’s vice president of development. The nonprofit first started trying to get the certification in 2009, received its first accreditation in 2012 and was recertified this spring. It was a rigorous process to revamp how Strive served more than 500 people and changed the culture to one that empowered clients to pursue what really matters in their lives, and CQL checks in every six to 18 months to monitor progress.

Having and maintaining this certification means not just putting a client where they could do something for the day, but making sure the client is pursuing the way he or she wants to live and finding the best fit possible.

“What are their dreams? What are their aspirations?” said Sorter. “Sometimes there’s not that clear vision because they haven’t had the opportunity to experience enough to really make a decision on what they want to do.”

This means making an effort to not only communicate with the client about what they might want, but also exposing them to different things so they can form their own opinions. Because Strive serves a wide variety of clients with different needs, this varies greatly.

For example, Strive believes that a woman living in a group home who needs skilled nursing 24-7 and is nonverbal, with a diagnosis of cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities still deserves to make decisions about how to control her environment.

So staffers learned to communicate with her and she said she wanted her room painted pink. Fulfilling a simple request like this can make a huge difference.

“I’m telling you, their whole world changes,” he said.

“A lot of times, some of the folks have never had the opportunity to be asked what they want to do,” he said. “They’ve lived in an institutional-type of setting ... and everybody says, this is what you’re gonna do, this is how you’re gonna live and we know what’s best. And that’s not a very good way to live your life.”

It really comes down to a paradigm shift, he said, which emphasizes that individuals deserve individual care and consideration about how they want to live and grow. And for some of Strive’s clients, it’s the first time anyone has bothered to ask them what they want.

When Love’s mother died, it was a hard adjustment for him but he’s grateful the people at Strive helped him become more independent. If he encountered someone in the same situation, he said he’d recommend they get help from Strive, too.

“I’d tell them it’s OK. I know it’s hard to lose your parents but try very hard to reach your goals,” he said. “People will help you. Just keep going and don’t stop.”


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