YP: Did you grow up in Naples?
MM: I did not grow up in Naples, but I grew to love this location from vacationing since I was a child. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where I received an M.S. in Adapted Physical Activity and a B.S. in Community Programs with American Disabilities, both from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.
YP: Since moving to Naples you’ve accomplished quite a bit. How did you start?
MM: In September 2016, shortly after moving to Naples, I helped create the Trailblazer Academy with the STARabilty Foundation from the ground up. The Trailblazer Academy is a community-based vocational training and life skills education program for people with disabilities who have aged out of school-supported services. This was the first program of its kind in Collier County and continues to be the only day program here that is focused on community-based inclusion with a holistic curriculum.
YP: What specifics has your role with the Trailblazer Academy entailed?
MM: When I accepted the position of Program Director, I was a part of an immediate and significant growth of the STARability Foundation, which has seen its enrollment increase by more than 100 percent since 2014. When I started, I was faced with the challenge of beginning and developing a program that was unlike any other program in Collier County. I knew how important it was for the program to succeed because there were such limited options for young adults with disabilities after they aged out of school at age 22. My role was to develop the curriculum, build a team of instructors and make contacts in the community for vocational partnerships. This was especially challenging because I was so new to Naples. I am proud of the fact that within almost 4 years I have built an amazing team of instructors, developed partnerships with dozens of local businesses and organizations, and raised awareness of the unique abilities of people with disabilities and the value they can add to the community.
YP: And from your incredible success with the program, you’ve recently been recognized for your outstanding work?
MM: Last year I was honored and humbled to be selected as part of Gulfshore Business magazine’s 40 under 40, Class of 2019, which recognizes young leaders who have distinguished themselves in their professions and in their communities. At age 25, I was the youngest honoree. In addition, I am currently involved in Associate Leadership Collier (ALC), Class of 2020.
YP: How has STARability gone above and beyond to help create community in Naples?
MM: STARability Foundation has taken initiative and has recognized four local businesses that have hired individuals with disabilities in our community by presenting them with a “STAR Award.” Our latest success story was when STARability Foundation presented BCB Homes the STAR Award. This award was presented in appreciation of the business’s community partnership and commitment to inclusive employment. By employing a STARability member and maintaining an active partnership with the STARability Foundation, BCB Homes and other businesses are taking steps to strengthen awareness and respect for individual abilities.
YP: Have other STARability members been hired as well?
MM: There have been 10 participants who have been hired in the community that have been a part of the Trailblazer Academy, and we hope that the numbers only continue to increase.
YP: Do you engage in other meaningful work outside of the STARability Foundation?
MM: In addition to working full time at the STARability Foundation, I am a part-time caregiver and job coach for almost four years for one of my participants in the Trailblazer Academy, who lives Autism and Epilepsy. I volunteer at the Naples Zoo with him 3 days a week and assist him at his job at BCB Homes 2 days a week. This experience has been life changing and remarkable.
YP: You’ve served as a remarkable example of what someone with a big heart and a lot of ambition can accomplish. How has COVID-19 changed your efforts?
MM: During this uncertain time we are all facing due to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., it is important for us to continue to reach out and help whoever we can. Recently, I had the opportunity to team with Waterside Shops in donating 30 pizzas from California Pizza Kitchen to Youth Haven. During a session at Youth Haven through Associate Leadership Collier (ALC), I not only discovered who they are as an organization, but their mission and purpose opened my eyes and heart to wanting to help. In addition to the pizza from CPK, we were able to donate candy and Easter bags to Youth Haven as well. STARability Foundation was supposed to be the beneficiary to the Easter Event at the Waterside Shops, but because it was canceled, we chose to give the candy away to other organizations who can still celebrate, with Youth Haven being one of them. Youth Haven currently has 50 on campus including children and staff and I plan to continue to volunteer and help however I can moving forward. It is important for us to give back however we can. Connecting with others in the community is what keeps us together.
YP: What kinds of accommodations has the STARability Foundation made to continue serving their participants?
MM: STARability Foundation pivoted quickly to digital platforms and focused on social distancing and virtual programming for our 300 + participants. Our instructors have been creating various videos and scheduling virtual zoom programs to keep our participants engaged any way they can be. Every day I lead our Fit-5 Program, partnered with the Special Olympics to encourage our participants to exercise five days a week, eat five fruits and vegetables a day and drink five water bottles a day. This has been a wonderful journey and it is amazing to see what our participants are doing to stay active and healthy! In addition, I have scheduled daily programs through Zoom for our participants in the Trailblazer Academy so that they have a variety of programs to choose from. We are in this together.