ST. CLOUD – An Oregon-based organization focused on helping adults with special needs build skills and become active community members has expanded into the St. Cloud area.

Ability Training Services (ATS) offers individual and group programs for people with intellectual or physical disabilities focused on topics like health and wellness, communication skills, independence, life skills, safety and pre-employment skills training.

Unlike many organizations focused on adults with disabilities, ATS staff members work with clients entirely out in their communities.

“There’s no ATS facility,” explained founder Danya Ochoa. “We don’t pull people into a building to come and sit with us and work on these skills in large classes. We have individualized lesson plans based on their needs, and then we work on them in small groups out in the community in real-life settings.”

Ochoa says a major goal of ATS is to help people with special needs gain independence.

“Maybe they don’t have access to transportation,” she explained. “Or, they don’t have someone to help them cross the street more carefully, or make sure they keep track of their money a little more carefully. That little bit of extra support can help them so much out in the community – and that’s what we’re working toward.”

Ochoa, a Minnesota native, founded ATS in 2014 after many years in the field of disability services. She says she often observed adults with special needs struggling to find programming and support suited to their individual needs and goals.

“When folks leave special education, they go into transition programs to learn life skills,” Ochoa explained. “But after that, there’s a huge cliff. People fall into depression. They lose a lot of their communication skills. When you don’t have the support systems that neurotypical people have, seclusion becomes a really big issue.”

Ochoa says ATS has developed a robust online program to keep clients connected during COVID-19.

“We’ve had to shift away from all those supports we provide in person and really morph in order to become COVID-friendly,” Ochoa said. “We’ve developed a huge online program to keep people from losing those skills. Even though we can’t see them in person in groups, we’ve developed online classes that really network individuals, and we can have extraordinary learning.”

ATS began offering one-on-one and group programs in St. Cloud in November, and is available virtually to people throughout Minnesota. Ochoa says they aim to work with around 25 people total in the St. Cloud area.

“We’ve stayed really small,” she said. “We have about 13 staff members and around 50 to 70 customers and participants – permanently. We have the infrastructure – we could grow all we want – but we want to keep our work really centered on the person. When you get too big, you sometimes lose that.”

In the near future, ATS clients in the St. Cloud area will have access to an adaptive physical fitness program through a local gym

“It’s completely inclusive for all abilities,” explained Leah Muller, a St. Cloud-based ATS manager. “So, people in wheelchairs, people with missing limbs or sensory issues – we thought it would be pretty neat to team up and offer something a little bit different and get individuals out and socializing.”

“It’s been really exciting to see the community response to ATS, wherever we go,” Ochoa added. “It just lights up. We get comments all the time how beautiful it is to see people working toward the betterment of their communities.”

ATS will be holding an informational meeting for St. Cloud/Minnesota families via Zoom on February 9 from 6:00-7:00 p.m. Residents interested in learning more can join the meeting by contacting Leah Muller at leah@abilityts.com.

Here's how you can make Homemade Jambalaya