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  • Dedicating His Life So Others Could Live Their Own

    Andrew Cray

    Andrew Cray is being honored posthumously as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    Andrew Cray dedicated his life to making sure others could live their own.  

    Every day, Andrew fought tirelessly for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, Americans to be treated with dignity and fairness. His work touched so many lives in so many ways, from working to secure protections for LGBT homeless youth to collaborating with the Obama Administration to implement the Supreme Court’s marriage equality rulings. At the center of his work, however, was his belief that the foundation of equality rests on the ability of all Americans to access comprehensive, affordable, and inclusive health care.  

    Andrew was just 28 years old when cancer tragically took his life this past August, but his passion for equity in and access to health insurance existed long before his diagnosis. As a transgender man, Andrew knew the challenges and the needs of the LGBT community personally and was all too familiar with the common occurrence of transgender people being denied insurance simply because of their gender identity, as well as with the startling statistics. According to a recent Center for American Progress report, one in three LGBT people with incomes at or below 4 times the federal poverty line lacked insurance, and 72% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people reported experiencing discrimination when attempting to find coverage through their employer for a same-sex partner. The eternal optimist that he was, Andrew believed that, with the right reforms and the improvements, those numbers could change.

    Like many LGBT Americans, Andrew saw the Affordable Care Act as a vehicle for change and an opportunity to open up life-saving medical care to a community too often systemically and financially excluded. After passage, he worked with the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services to end discrimination against LGBT people by health insurance companies. He collaborated with the federal government and state governments to ensure accurate data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity, which will serve as the foundation of future LGBT health advocacy. Andrew also worked with various partners to ensure that many of the new insurance options were inclusive of same-sex couples and transgender Americans.

    As important as these reforms are, he also knew that, for the law to work, people needed to be educated and enrolled, which is why he, along with colleagues at the Center for American Progress, Sellers Dorsey, and the Federal Agencies Project, co-founded Out2Enroll. Over the last year, Out2Enroll has helped educate and connect countless LGBT Americans with their new coverage options under the Affordable Care Act. 

    All of this work took on a new meaning for Andrew when, in September 2013, he was diagnosed with cancer. Throughout his treatment, he continued his legal advocacy and outreach work but also decided to utilize his personal story to convince young Americans, including young LGBT Americans, to enroll in health insurance. In an op-ed in The Advocate, Andrew wrote, “Our LGBT community is resilient and strong, and particularly for those of us who are young and have our entire lives in front of us, it may feel like we are invincible. I’ve learned the hard way that I’m not.”

    Several months later, this past July, Andrew found out that his cancer had returned and that it was terminal. As his partner, and soon to be wife, I sat with Andrew as we discussed what he wanted to do with the time he had left. He said he wanted to continue his life’s work: fighting to ensure that all Americans, including LGBT Americans, can access life-saving medical care.

    One month later, Andrew passed away far too quickly and far too young, but the benefits of his work live on. As he wrote in The Advocate last March, “Cancer has taken a lot from me physically and emotionally. But it hasn’t taken away my voice…I want to make sure other young LGBT people understand why getting covered is so important. I hope that my community will listen when I say — please, take care of yourselves. Be out, be healthy, and get covered."

    Sarah McBride is the Special Assistant for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress and authored this blog post on behalf of Andrew Cray. Andrew Cray was a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. He was her husband and colleague.

  • At the Intersection: Community, Policy, and Engagement

    Niiobli Armah IV

    Niiobli Armah IV is being honored as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    Since the inception of the Affordable Care Act, the NAACP has remained committed to ensuring that communities of color understand the benefits provided by the ACA and the importance of its implementation. The NAACP began by forging a number of partnerships with organizations across the nation to guarantee that communities of color remain a priority demographic for the implementation of the ACA. The NAACP Board of Directors passed a resolution identifying health coverage as a critical civil rights issue and mandating that all 38 state conferences in the organization facilitate workshops around the ACA at their fall 2013 conventions. We have focused on making sure communities of color are aware of their options under the ACA and have opportunities to participate in Open Enrollment activities.

    I have found that ACA outreach is most successful when we focus not on health care but rather on upward mobility and quality of life. At its essence, health care affords millions of Americans the opportunity to go to work daily and provide for their families. Health insurance is a safety net that is often taken for granted. In designing our outreach strategy, I knew that we had to build a narrative that resonates with our communities.

    The issue of health disparities naturally rose to the surface. People of color are diagnosed later than others, and they often die early from preventable diseases. Getting other organizations to understand the uniqueness of engaging communities of color has been a high priority for our outreach efforts. Organizations have struggled with what they define as “hard to reach communities,” but I believe there is no such thing as a community impossible to reach. After participating in many meetings with organizations thinking through community engagement, I have come to understand that the traditional approach needs adjusting. Singular interventions and initiatives focused on one particular issue are less successful than those that are more comprehensive and view an issue in its totality. Neither advocacy groups nor the communities they serve have the option of choosing what issues will take priority. For example, the same communities experiencing poor health outcomes are simultaneously dealing with issues of unemployment, education, violence, and mental health. 

    The second Open Enrollment Period begins on November 15, and we charge ourselves and other community organizations to find innovative ways to bring the important message of health care to the constituents they serve.  No longer can we operate within silos by choosing what issue areas communities should prioritize. Instead, we must find the intersection of multiple issues so that we can address community problems holistically.  To appropriately address health equity, more work must be done at the interaction of multiple issues.

    Niiobli Armah IV is the Director of Health Programs for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

  • The Impact of Positive Change

    Vanessa Abernathy

    Vanessa Abernathy is being honored as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    Each generation has contributed to the social, political, and economic change that has made America great. I have been privileged to witness one of the greatest periods of change in American history, as well as to make a contribution to it by supporting the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. I am honored to be nominated as a White House Champion of Change and would like to thank Get Covered America for the opportunity to serve my country.

    The objective of the Affordable Care Act is to provide everyone with access to affordable health insurance. We are achieving this goal through positive and peaceful change. ACA was enacted after a nationwide discussion about what health insurance should look like. There were heated town meetings in communities across the nation. We witnessed negotiations and opinions from the medical industry, unions, and elected officials. We saw our democracy in action with the passage of ACA and are still experiencing peaceful and positive change as challenges to the law are argued in the judicial system. 

    The national movement to ensure affordable health insurance for all Americans has been a life-changing experience for me. I have joined thousands of volunteers throughout the country going door-to-door and church-to-church, asking my neighbors if they know about ACA and if they need health insurance. That personal contact reminded me of so many historic campaigns that required volunteers to spread the word and call Americans to action. It has been a humbling experience for me to join thousands of volunteers all over the country to help our fellow Americans understand how the ACA Marketplace works, that financial assistance is available, and that there are people certified by the federal government to help them navigate the process.

    I moved to Fairmont, North Carolina, in May 2013 and started my volunteer work with Get Covered America the following August. I spoke to churches and media outlets. I distributed flyers and talked to customers in small businesses, including nail salons, restaurants, professional service firms, and beauty shops. I felt a particular sense of pride and fulfillment when I visited Spanish-speaking businesses and offered flyers written in Spanish about ACA and local enrollment events because I knew that we were doing our best to reach out to all Americans.

    I’ve worked in six counties in southeast North Carolina. I’ve traveled hundreds of miles spreading the word about the Affordable Care Act and the importance of health insurance and helping to organize enrollment events. But I haven’t been alone in this movement. Pastors and community leaders have opened doors to me. Friends and family have continually reaffirmed my work. And Navigators and certified application counselors have been partners in supporting insurance enrollment under ACA. 

    Our work is not over. The second open enrollment period for insurance under the Affordable Care Act begins on November 15, 2014. Mahatma Gandhi is paraphrased as saying, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” We all can impact the future of our country through volunteering and advocating for positive change.

    Vanessa Abernathy works on Affordable Care Act outreach in North Carolina.

  • Puerto Rico is Ready to Work. ¡Ahora!

    The President is focused every day on strengthening the American economy and creating good jobs. As part of his year of action, the President will do whatever he can to help put Americans back to work.  Just last week, the Obama Administration announced several steps to promote employment opportunities, including a U.S. Labor Department grant of $7 million to develop the Puerto Rico Technoeconomic Corridor which will promote job training for the long-term unemployed. This grant was announced  as part of a nearly $170 million "Ready to Work" programs to support and scale innovative collaborations between employers, nonprofit organizations and federal job training programs to help connect ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs.

    Federal funds of $7,026,880 will be allocated to Puerto Rico’s Technoeconomic Corridor to provide long-term unemployed workers with individualized counseling, training, supportive and specialized services that lead to rapid employment in the western municipalities of Aguada, Aguadilla, Añasco, Moca, Rincón, Cabo Rojo, Lajas, Hormigueros, Maricao, Las Marias, Mayagüez, San Germán, Sabana Grande, Isabela, Guánica, Quebradillas and San Sebastián.  The Puerto Rico Technoeconomic Corridor is a non-profit established to enable Puerto Rico’s economic development by stimulating innovation-inducing collaborations among industry, academia and government.

    This grant aligns closely with the job-driven training principles outlined in Vice President Biden’s report reviewing federal employment and training programs, which highlights successful job-driven training strategies, details executive actions that are being taken by the Federal Government, and includes new commitments by employers, non-profits, unions and innovators to share best practices and help Americans attain and advance in in-demand jobs and careers.

    This grant follows a significant investment announced in April 2014 by Puerto Rico’s Governor and the Department of Commerce regarding Lufthansa Technik’s plans to build a new aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul ("MRO") facility in Puerto Rico to service short-haul and medium-haul aircraft. The government of Puerto Rico secured this investment through the efforts of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico, the Department of Commerce’s SelectUSA’s program and the advocacy of several high-level U.S. officials, including the Vice President and the Secretary of Commerce.

    And today, the Department of Agriculture announced $237 million in new funding for 91 projects in 38 states, including the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to establish broadband and wireless internet services, install infrastructure, and provide advanced communications technology to help rural public television stations complete the transition from analog to digital broadcast signals. This funding will provide critical resources to further bolster Puerto Rico’s economic development. The Obama Administration is committed to working through the Puerto Rico Task Force to identify collaborations that will advance Puerto Rico’s economic development priorities. This recent grant and initiatives to help long-term unemployed with opportunities to get back to work and maximize their full potential are part of a series of steps taken by the President to continue to expand opportunity for all and ensure that Puerto Rico’s best days are ahead. 

    Chris Lu is the Deputy Secretary of Labor. James Albino is the Executive Director of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico.

  • Hands On @ Hyatt – A Public-Private Partnership That Works

    John Ficca

    John Ficca is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    As the Director of Hands On Education, it is an honor to accept this recognition on behalf of our program and our partners—Hyatt Hotels and State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies funded by the U.S. Department of Education. I owe the program’s success to a unique public-private partnership and to our focus on the individuals that we serve.

    Hands On @ Hyatt is a state-funded training program that prepares individuals with disabilities for employment in the hospitality industry. Our students are paid employees of Hyatt and learn from some of the best chefs and managers in the industry.  Graduates leave with increased confidence, employability skills, a certificate of completion, and the ability to use Hyatt as a recent employment reference.

    The program began in 1998 at the Grand Hyatt in Tampa Bay. The Florida State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) took a chance and funded the program on a fee-for-service basis. DVR’s mission is to help individuals with disabilities get a job, keep a job, or return to work. Our challenge, then, was to prove that people with disabilities could be successfully employed in this work environment. The first summer of our program was incredible—all of our students obtained employment.

    Our Hyatt partners began asking why we just trained in the kitchen. “Why not other departments? Why are we just training at one Hyatt Hotel? Why not Orlando and Miami?” 16 years later, Hands On @ Hyatt is operating in 32 Hyatt Hotels in states all across the country.

    Thanks to the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR), our expansion has been a relatively easy process. CSAVR is a professional organization made up of VR Directors in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the territories.  This includes the Directors of the vocational rehabilitation agencies that serve individuals who are visually impaired. CSAVR sponsors the National Employment Team, and they have been extremely involved with every new Hands On @ Hyatt location. Also, local school districts have helped us identify youth who could benefit from this type of training.

    To date, the partnership has trained over 1,500 individuals with disabilities and observed above average post-training employment outcomes. It is with great pride that I accept this award on behalf of our program, our partners, and the individuals that we serve.

    John Ficca is the founder and Program Director of Hands On Educational Services, Inc.

  • That Won’t Work—Let’s Do This Instead

    Tim Springer

    Tim Springer is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    During the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, I was a student at Stanford working on the problem of the day: how to make it big. My friends and I were discussing a recent overseas trip. One of my fellow students, a wheelchair user, commented that some of the places he visited were inaccessible to him and that it would have been helpful if there had been a resource to consult regarding accessibility when traveling. That gave me a great idea about how to provide a valuable service to individuals with disabilities—by creating a website to provide this type of information online.

    As it turns out though, we were not the only ones with this idea. While we were building the website, we found out that at least four other firms were working on similar projects. We realized that our project was probably not going to be successful.

    But as part of our work, we had become familiar with the concept of web accessibility, which means ensuring websites and applications can be used effectively by people with disabilities. So, in industry parlance, we pivoted. A pivot is what an entrepreneur does when he or she is too dumb to quit when finding out that the business plan no longer makes any sense—“That idea clearly won’t work, so let’s do this other thing instead.” That pivot, however, gave us the chance to have a far larger impact. Instead of making one website accessible, we could make them all accessible. Out of this was born the heart of SSB BART Group. We had a vision of creating a world where all digital systems were accessible.

    From the very early days we understood the value of hiring technologists with disabilities. Uniquely qualified to identify and develop working solutions to digital accessibility challenges, these creative, knowledgeable, and dynamic professionals have brought an unrivaled level of insight, passion, and dedication to our company. Today, nearly half of our team of accessibility analysts, developers, and consultants are individuals with disabilities. At SSB, we see this as a compelling competitive advantage. It allows us to offer solutions to our customers that address their core concerns. I am honored to work with such remarkable people on a daily basis.

    At the end of the day, our team views access to technology as a profound empowering force in the lives of individuals with disabilities. On a fundamental level, I believe that everyone has the right to participate in society to the fullest extent of their abilities. It is my belief that society works best when we focus on accepting differences among people and facilitating broad participation in society. My goal is to provide a base for that participation and an even playing field in an increasingly digital economy. As CEO of SSB BART Group, I am dedicated to the realization of that dream.

    Tim Springer is the founder and CEO of SSB BART Group, which provides technology accessibility compliance solutions to corporations, government agencies, and educational institutions.

  • Catalyst for Change

    Jennifer Rojas

    Jennifer Rojas is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    As with most things, “disability” means different things to different people. It can be empowering and shameful, unifying and divisive. To me, it is a way of life—it is in the air I breathe, the steps I take, and the choices I make each and every day. While I take pride in how far I’ve come, I believe it is important for society to remember that I am not particularly brave or courageous. While I am disabled, I am just like you.

    Yet, I also recognize that individuals with disabilities often experience moments in which they are seen as something less than themselves. Maybe they are left out of office activities and daily conversations with co-workers. Maybe they miss out on employment benefits—or employment opportunities. I have found that many people believe that individuals with disabilities have unique sets of experiences. And while this may be true, it gives credence to the notion that individuals with disabilities cannot take full part in society. It reinforces societal myths, fears, and misunderstandings that hinder progress for individuals with disabilities. So, the question is, how do we change this?

    I see it as my job to help dismantle these impediments. In 2013, McLane Company introduced the SPARK initiative. The initiative aims to increase awareness and provide meaningful employment opportunities to people with disabilities by implementing inclusion strategies that recognize talent, increase engagement, and drive business results.

    As Inclusion Manager for McLane Company, I recognize two ideas that lead to successful disability employment—disability awareness and change leadership. These ideas are inherently co-dependent. Disability awareness draws on the understanding that education is powerful and lends itself to breaking barriers of perception. After all, you don't know what you don't know. At its core, successful change leadership is ultimately about unity. Significant changes towards policy and inclusion are formed not only by instituting large-scale programmatic change but also by encouraging the individual understanding of both the problem and the solution. I believe change leadership is not something that can be pushed on to people; it must start small and be given room to cultivate.

    I came to McLane with over 10 years of experience in the public workforce system and disability employment. I knew that the programs and systems in place were good, that they were valuable, and that they could produce favorable results. I also knew that the individuals coming out of these programs could be successful only with industry at the table. However, this kind of innovation must extend beyond individual companies and be felt across the nation. With the passing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, the country is creating better avenues for preparing job seekers with disabilities to compete. This is the kind of change that we must all work for to continue to create a new era of disability employment.

    Jennifer Rojas is the Inclusion Manager for McLane Company, Inc. 

  • Innovative Opportunities for Entrepreneurship

    Dan Hromas

    Dan Hromas is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    I am the owner and operator of Prairie Pride Poultry, a small pastured chicken operation located on the northeast edge of York, Nebraska. I started the farm in 2013 in order to support the growing local food movement by providing healthy, farm fresh eggs to area consumers. 

    At the farm, we pride ourselves on the humane treatment of the flock of heritage Rhode Island Red chickens. The farm’s standards and practices are conducive to a happy and healthy flock. Coops are moved around the acreage, each one having plenty of floor area, roosting space, and nesting boxes. The flock’s pasture diet is supplemented with feed that does not contain any chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, or animal byproducts; the feed comes from only 14 miles away from a cooperative that has recently achieved HACCP Certification, the highest level of accreditation for food safety in the United States. 

    In addition to providing the local community with farm fresh eggs, Prairie Pride Poultry also assists in educating consumers and potential farmers about the “Incredible Edible Egg” by sharing interesting facts and information about the widely used and versatile protein source, as well as fostering an environment whereby everyone can feel welcomed at and connected to the farm. I’ve engaged local communities through the York Chamber of Commerce, establishing a great working relationship with Grand Central Grocery in York and participating in the Center for Rural Affairs’ “Farm to School” initiative by selling eggs to York Public Schools, setting up at local farmer’s markets, and raising awareness about importance of a healthy diet that can include eggs. 

    Before working on the farm, I served in the U.S. military in Iraq. I have also served as a Captain in the Nebraska Army National Guard as a Transportation Corps Officer. I am fortunate enough to have had my hard work receive national recognition through the Farmer’s Veteran Coalition’s national marketing campaign, “Homegrown by Heroes.” I have utilized services from the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, Center for Rural Affairs, and the Farmer Veteran Coalition as a platform for outreach to other fellow disabled military veterans so that they know a future exists for them in the field of agriculture.

    I am honored to receive this Champions of Change award. I hope that other veterans with disabilities will similarly find their own entrepreneurship opportunities, gaining meaningful employment and contributing to their local communities.

    Dan Hromas is the owner and founder of Prairie Pride Poultry, a pasture-raised egg business in York, Nebraska.