Teen turns birthday bash into charity dance

15-year-old Jeslyn Szapo is pictured with a large variety of items ranging from clothing to an electric guitar at her family home Thursday evening. Szapo has taken initiative to raise funds from the merchandise and donations to help the Colorado Discover Ability which has had to lay off workers due to the recession.



A fundraiser dance and silent auction will take place from 6-11 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln Park Barn in Grand Junction.

All proceeds will go to Colorado Discover Ability, a program that helps disabled people enjoy outdoor sports using adaptive equipment.

There will be coffee from Starbucks and sweet treats from Homestyle Bakery.

Entrance is on a donation basis.

Several clients of Discover Ability will be at the event, dubbed “Heaven is a Place on Earth: Come Dance with Our Angels.”

Most teenagers probably want a big party with friends for their 16th birthday.

That’s what Grand Junction High School sophomore Jeslyn Szabo wants, too, but with a twist.

Szabo, who turns 16 next week, instead will celebrate by throwing a fundraiser Saturday for her favorite nonprofit group, Colorado Discover Ability.

“I just always wanted to do something to help more,” she said. “I figured why not use this occasion to help.”

Like most nonprofits during this recession, funding has taken a nosedive while needs for services have remained steady or increased.

Szabo has worked every summer since she was 10 as a counselor at Camp Freedom, a Discover Ability camp for severely disabled individuals. She can’t imagine a summer without the program, an experience that can be the first time some clients are away from their parents in the outdoors.

Instead of lamenting about budget woes, Szabo decided to take action. She pestered her next-door neighbor who works for the city about renting Lincoln Park Barn. She enlisted one of her friends to be a disc jockey for the event, then worked to get sound equipment donated. She went door to door to solicit about 30 items from local businesses for a silent auction.

“She said, ‘I don’t want some dorky sweet 16 party,’ ” said her mother, Michelle Szabo, who requires both of her children to volunteer in the community. “She told me what she wanted, and I just took a deep breath and said, ‘OK.’ Her biggest freak-out when she started this was what if nobody comes.”

According to Steve Gunderson, president of the board of directors for the group, funding for Discover Ability had dipped 30 percent in the past year. Board members eliminated three paid positions, and board members, along with a large base of volunteers, took on many of the duties to keep the program running.

While operating on a lean budget, numbers of programs and the group’s number of clients served have increased.

Discover Ability, which was started in 1980, offers a wide range of outdoor activities for people with disabilities.

In the winter, volunteers take clients skiing or snowboarding on adaptive skis or have an able-bodied skier use tethers to guide a skier.

In the summer, volunteers take clients rafting, kayaking, bicycling, climbing and waterskiing. The group provides activities at low costs and offers scholarships to those on a limited budgets.

“We’re all about helping people discover abilities they didn’t think they had,” Gunderson said.

Program Director Jeremy Steinhauer said the group has taken a hit in funding as more clients are becoming hooked on adaptive sports. Steinhauer was hired three months ago to pursue funding through grants.

Discover Ability guided rafting trips for 17 days last year and served 237 clients in all its activities. The group is working on gaining funding for a snowboarding gate for its racing team.

“It’s just about doing what a lot of people enjoy doing in western Colorado,” he said. “There’s so much to do: rafting, skiing, hiking. We have adaptive sports, so some people can enjoy the same experiences that everyone else gets to.”


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