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Colorado Quarterly Magazine 

"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"


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Voices From the Disability Community:  

Tim Thornton: A  Committed Man, A Generous Spirit

by Homer  Page

The Atlantis Community holds a unique and honored place in the history of the struggle for disability rights. For the first two decades of its existence, its leader was Wade Blank, and after Wadeís death, Mike Auberger led Atlantis. But in January 2002, the Atlantis Board of Directors named a new co-director. The new leader is Tim Thornton.

Tim was born in Viet Nam. During the first ten years of his life, he was subjected to the horrors of the war. He was adopted by a young nurse and brought to the United States where he grew up and was educated. He is married to Julie Thornton. The couple has three sons, Jonathon, Tyler, and Trevor.

Tim is a new voice in the Disability Community. He is deeply committed to the perpetuation of the legacy of advocacy, which is so much a part of the Atlantis Community. He also brings a spirit of generosity to his new position. We are delighted to introduce this unique new leader to our readers. Here is what he told us. .

The Colorado Quarterly: Please tell us something about your background.

Tim Thornton: I was born in a small village in Viet Nam in 1962. My birth parents were killed when I was a small child. I had brothers and sisters, but we did not live together. We were spread among others in the village. I remember the war. Dogs would drag body parts into the village. When I was nine years old, I walked into a minefield and was blown up.

I landed in an American hospital. I had no family, I was badly injured, I had no place to go, and I thought I was at the end. A young nurse, she was 24 years old, took care of me. I could only speak a few words of English, but I managed to ask her if she would adopt me. She said that she would have to think about it. She didnít have to think very long. The next day she told me that she would.

I landed in America on March 15, 1972, in Detroit. Soon we moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan. My mother worked in a clinic serving migrant workers, and I began my education. In a few years she got a better job in South Texas, and then a little later we moved to Dove Creek, Colorado. Thatís how I got to Colorado. I graduated from Delores High in 1981.

I played baseball in high school, and received a baseball scholarship to Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely. I have some permanent damage to my left hand and I have some scar tissue as the result of my injuries, but that didnít stop me from playing ball. My size was probably more of a problem. I was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds, and that wasnít big enough. However, I was a starter while I was there.

After graduation I moved to Denver and started at Metro State. It took me a while to finish my degree. I worked at several jobs, got married, and started a family. In 1995 I got an internship with Atlantis. I finished my degree in Human Services and Non-Profit Management, and joined the Atlantis staff as a permanent employee. I have been here since then.

TCQ: Atlantis has a very unique and challenging legacy. What is it like to be the leader of such an organization?

TT: It is an honor and a responsibility. I never met Wade Blank, but I admire the legacy that he and Mike have left the organization and the disability community. Now I, along with many others, have the responsibility to perpetuate that legacy.

We need to honor our history, but we also need to focus on the present and future. We have to be responsive to the present and future without forgetting where we came from.

TCQ: What are the most important services that Atlantis provides?

TT: All of them are important, but two stand out for me. Personal assistance and housing seem basic to an independent life. We serve 42 consumers in our personal assistance program, and we administer about 240 housing units. We own properties that include 108 units. At the end of last year we opened a new property that has 42 units. These are integrated sites. We also administer 130 Section 8 certificates from a variety of State and Federal programs.

Affordable, accessible housing and high quality personal assistance services are my first two priorities. When a consumer has these services, they can build an independent life.

TCQ: Atlantis and ADAPT have been closely associated. What is the relationship between the two organizations?

TT: They are two separate organizations with separate purposes. ADAPT is a leading consumer advocacy organization and Atlantis is an Independent Living Center.

ADAPT keeps us all honest. It helps us to remember why we are here. I am very committed to the success of ADAPT. One of my priorities is to see ADAPT develop funding. Atlantis canít fund ADAPT. If Atlantis has any surplus, it needs to reinvest those funds into programs.

Atlantis, on the other hand, provides independent living services. The two organizations historically have been close, and they need to remain close, but the separation has to be recognized.

TCQ: What do you consider the most important challenges that you face?

TT: We have many opportunities brought about by the State budget crisis. The need to save money in the Medicaid program gave us a chance to work together to do some creative things. The disability community has to continue to work together. That is a big challenge.

We also have the opportunity to get large numbers of people out of nursing homes, but we have to have housing and personal services that people need to live in the community.

At the administrative level Atlantis has to operate in a more business like way. We have to follow the rules and regulations that apply to us. We also have to do a better job of keeping records. I am committed to preserving our legacy of advocacy, but I also want to balance that with good management practices.

TCQ: Tell us about your family.

TT: Julie, my wife, works in a dentist office. She is in school, working on a certificate in Dental Hygiene. She wants to improve her career in dental health care.

We have three sons, Jonathon who is 16, Tyler who is 13, and Trevor who is 11. They are active kids. The middle one may be a baseball player. I coach and love spending time with them. My mother lives in Denver and is very close to the boys.

TCQ: Your life has been quite a journey. Out of all the things that you could be doing, why do you want to work with persons with disabilities?

TT: When I was injured as a child, I had no life. My mother gave me a life. Now I want to give back for all that I received. Some of my life has been very hard, but I have to say that it has been worth it. I have my family and I have my work. I will give Atlantis all that I have, as long as they want me.

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Copyright 2002 A&H Publishing Corporation