DETROIT — Jan Little has dedicated her life to improving the lives of others — specifically, people with disabilities and veterans.
Little is the CEO of Michigan Ability Partners, an Ann Arbor-based organization that has worked since 1985 to create pathways to stability for veterans and individuals with disabilities. And because of her 30-plus-year dedication to the metro Detroit community, Little is the second Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers Game Changers honoree for July’s Disability Pride Month.
Little was motivated to help create Michigan Ability Partners more than 35 years ago when mental health institutions in the state began closing, forcing patients who desperately needed support onto the streets.
The initial goal of Michigan Ability Partners was to focus on helping people with disabilities to gain basic skills to get a job and give them a support system to become as independent as possible.
“There were a lot of people that were institutionalized that didn’t need to be, they really just needed treatment,” Little said. “So this was pretty innovative, and the idea was to try out some different interventions, try some strategies and see what works.
“It was pretty incredible. Some people that had long-term mental health issues were getting jobs and being integrated back into the community. We kind of evolved from a strictly vocational program for this population and we started looking at some of the other needs in the community.”
After a successful first decade of service in the community, Michigan Ability Partners expanded to provide several more services, including housing assistance, financial management training and more.
Little became focused on helping young people with disabilities prepare for a self-sufficient life as they became adults. She noted that education services focused on those with disabilities in Michigan end when they are 26 years old, at which point a lot of people within this community have nowhere to turn for help.
“Our work with youth has been a really strong component of what we’ve done for the last 20-plus years. And the focus has been on knowing that not all high school students will go onto college. So what do they need to know and do to be prepared for something else after schooling has ended?
“So we worked with youth doing a lot of job training, job shadowing, a lot of different vocational experiences during the summer to help gain some experience, to know what else was out there for them after school.”
Recently, Little and Michigan Ability Partners increased focus on helping young people with autism and disabled military veterans transitioning back to civilian life.
Michigan Ability Partners now employs more than 30 staff members and serves more than 1,500 people in the metro Detroit community. The organization owns and operates 44 units of affordable housing at seven sites in Washtenaw County, and currently serves Washtenaw, Jackson, Wayne and Monroe counties.
“Through Michigan Ability Partners, Jan Little and her team work every day to ensure young persons with disabilities and veterans have access to life changing services,” said Red Wings and Tigers director of community impact Kevin Brown. “We’re proud to honor Jan as one of our Game Changers for her tireless work in Michigan.”
Little said she’s honored to be recognized by the Red Wings and Tigers as a Game Changer in the community.
“I think all of us in this work just do it because we have the passion and can’t imagine doing anything else,” Little said. “So it’s very humbling to be honored for it. It’s been a lifelong career and I can’t imagine doing anything else, so I think it’s wonderful.
“I think it’s just amazing that these organizations are even thinking about this work and how much is happening in the community and in Michigan to make people’s lives better. And the fact that they’re recognizing that is just great. It’s amazing.”
Little said the most satisfying part of her job is knowing that she has a small role in helping people achieve success.
“Hearing the stories from the people that we serve when they get the keys to their apartment, when they get that new job, when they get the first paycheck,” Little said. “They have dreams and wishes, and it’s amazing to know that those dreams can come true because they’ve just had that little bit of help to be able to reach one of those milestones.”
And while Little loves her job and the joy that comes from all parties involved when someone achieves their goals of self-sufficient living, she said there is still a lot of discrimination and ignorance toward people with disabilities.
“I think the biggest misconception is that all disabilities are visible, but you never know what the person may be going through, what they’re dealing with on a daily basis,” Little said. “And I feel like people need to be much more tolerant of anyone that may be a little bit different. I strongly believe anyone with a disability that is given the right opportunity and the right tools can reach their potential and can have a very fulfilling life.”
As for what’s next for Michigan Ability Partners, Little is zeroing in on ending veteran homelessness in Washtenaw County, hoping to accomplish that goal by the end of the year.
Little said despite more than 30 years of service in the metro Detroit community, she doesn’t have any plans of slowing down any time soon, and she hopes that more people will get involved in her quest to create pathways to stability for veterans and individuals with disabilities.
“I just think that people need to know that everyday people with disabilities are improving their lives through some of the basic things that we take for granted, which are our jobs and our places to live and the support that we have around us,” she said. “So anyone can be a Game Changer. They just have to be looking for opportunities to help people reach their goals.”
For more information on the incredible work of Little and Michigan Ability Partners, visit MAPagency.org.