Philanthropy Supporting Those Who Are Disabled

Laura Bond

Dozens of organizations in Metro Denver work across a spectrum to support the thousands of people with physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities who live and work in our community. From research, advocacy, and policymaking to housing, job-training, and benefits management, nonprofits attempt to lift up Colorado’s 500,000 disabled residents.

Two impactful organizations-- Very Special Arts Colorado/Access Gallery and Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition serve the disability community in very different ways. But both make a big difference in the lives of those who are overlooked, underrepresented, and often the most vulnerable among us.

Very Special Arts Colorado/Access Gallery

Like Michelle Sie-Whitten, Damon McCleese has dealt with disability in his family. His mother died last year at age 90 of Alzheimer’s, a fatal disease that causes profound cognitive impairment. The experience Deepened McCleese’s dedication to his work.

As executive director of VSA Colorado/Access Gallery, McCleese uses art to help creative young people with physical and intellectual challenges access economic opportunities. Although he's developed programs to help “people who are blind to take photographs, people who are deaf dance, and people that don’t have arms to paint with their mouths,” he’d never used art to help those who, like his mother, who were losing so much to Alzheimer’s.

The idea was seeded one day in the nursing home when McCleese’s mother said she wished she could join her son on an unusual outing: painting a mural with a group of youth. 

“She said, ‘I’m so sick of doing coloring books I could just spit’‘I’m so sick of doing coloring books I could just spit’,” McCleese recalls. “It really challenged my assumptions, because I’d never thought of doing programming for people who are cognitively like she was.”

From that experience, McCleese developed “Granny Does Graffiti,” which pairs seniors with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia with graffiti artists and youth; together, they make murals. In January, the program received an Art Tank grant from The Denver Foundation’s Arts Affinity Group. “Granny Does Graffiti” murals can now be seen around town and via VSA Colorado’s website,

Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition

Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (CCDC) is driven by a vision of a future in which Colorado is the nation’s most accessible, welcoming, comfortable, and supportive place for people with disabilities. Founded in 1990 by a group of disability rights advocates, CCDC works to protect the civil rights of Colorado’s citizens with disabilities through legal support, advocacy, and policymaking, among other services. CCDC pushes for legislation that protects and empowers people with disabilities. The organization also works on the ground, helping individuals and organizations understand their rights and connect with available resources. CCDC members-- people who themselves have disabilities-- choose the issues the organization pursues.

Of course, Colorado has a long way to go before it’s the most friendly and accessible place in the United States. Budget cuts continually threaten vulnerable populations and, as population growth in Colorado accelerates and real estate prices rise, people with disabilities face huge challenges in securing affordable housing. But there are some new rays of hope. In late September, CCDC partner Atlantis Community Foundation announced a new affordable housing initiative that brings some hope to the crisis. Atlantis Community, Inc. was approved to move forward with a $17 million housing project for people with disabilities. Groundbreaking on the new facility, which will have 60 units, begins in 2017.

Contact us

Senior Communications Officer: Laura Bond |

Communications Associate: Dele Johnson |


  • Community Impact
  • Collective Impact