By Sue Botos
For New Avenues to Independence Executive Director Tom Lewins, Christmas arrived on Nov. 15.
“WE WON!” the Rocky River resident exclaimed via e-mail, after learning that his organization, which provides education, training and group homes for individuals with disabilities, was one of 100 nationwide recipients of a Toyota vehicle, through the auto manufacturer’s Toyota 100 Cars for Good program.
The process, which eventually resulted in winning the van, began for Lewins and his organization in July, when thousands of applications from nonprofit organizations were submitted to Toyota 100 Cars for Good. Each was required to explain their program, what type of “good” they do and why they deserve a new vehicle.
In August, the applications were reviewed by a panel of judges, and 250 finalists were chosen. The organizations were notified in early September, received a “marketing kit” and were assigned a “voting day.”
Just like local politicians during that time of year, Lewins and his organization went to work and campaigned for online support. “We contacted all of our Facebook friends and asked all of our vendors, family members and staff to vote,” Lewins recalled. Then each day, between Oct. 1 and Nov. 19, five finalists were profiled on the contest’s Facebook page, and viewers voted. At day’s end, the two with the most votes were awarded a new set of wheels. New Avenue’s day came on Nov. 15.
“We asked for a Sienna Mobility so we can transport men and women with disabilities who do not have cars and are not on a bus route to their jobs at Buckeye Industries, eliminating a common barrier to success and independence,” Lewins said. The Mobility van offers special adaptations, such as a seat that rotates 90 degrees, extends and lowers out of the vehicle, allowing easier access to a physically challenged person.
Lewins added that it’s uncertain exactly how many votes were received, but the information may be eventually after the conclusion of the contest. He said that his organization could apply again next year. “Toyota can change the rules at any time. We hope they don’t,” Lewins continued.
New Avenues was founded in 1952 by parents of special needs children to provide educational, vocational and recreational experiences for their children. The organization, which was then known as the Parents Volunteer Association, grew, and in 1971 became the owner-operator of the first private, nonprofit group home in the U.S. In 2000 the name was changed to New Avenues to Independence to better reflect the goal of allowing those with disabilities to be as independent as possible.
Currently, the organization serves 500 individuals ranging in age from 3 to 100 years in Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake and Summit counties.