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Joe Surkiewicz: Md. Disability Law Center is moving on, literally

This year, Maryland Disability Law Center is hosting a “two-fer” at its Breaking Barriers awards gala.

In addition to honoring Marylanders who helped pave the way to integrate people with disabilities into community life (more on that later), the gala is the kickoff for a capital campaign to fund MDLC’s move to new office space.

“The capital campaign has a specific purpose,” said MDLC Executive Director Virginia Knowlton. “While our Breaking Barriers gala helps MDLC raise flexible monies that we can use for public policy work, the capital campaign will raise funds to cover our relocation costs. We want to ensure that our advocacy resources remain fully deployed toward providing legal help to people with disabilities.”

The new offices will be in Union Mill, a Woodberry renovation of the one of the oldest stone mills in Maryland, to affordable housing and office space for nonprofits. It’s based on a similar project, Miller’s Court, an award-winning restoration that provides low-cost housing for teachers and office space for nonprofits.

“The shared space allows nonprofits to be more cost-effective in their operating budgets,” Knowlton said. “We can share common areas such as conference rooms, a kitchen area and a large courtyard.”

That’s not all.

“Synergies develop by clustering nonprofits together,” she added. “Plus, the office design will enhance internal communications because we’ll be in a large, open area, rather than cubbyholes.”

The move is planned for April 2012. The goal is to raise $75,000.

“MDLC will be the anchor tenant in a green urban infill project reusing an important historic building,” Knowlton said. “Developer Don Manekin and Seawall Development went beyond the legal minimums for accessibility. They’ve attempted to create a disability-friendly environment and worked closely with our staff to make sure it really works for us.”

In addition to the capital campaign, the Breaking Barriers event will honor three people and a law firm.

First up is Sandra Spears, coordinator of CityWide Special Education Advocacy Project, a coalition that was launched by MDLC. She’ll receive the Grassroots Advocacy Award for her leadership in CityWide, a group of parents and other caregivers who work with the Baltimore City school system to improve academic outcomes for special education students.

“It’s a parents-helping-parents model,” Marsh said. “Advocates help a parent navigate the complexities of the system. Then the parent trains other parents to work with the school system — a ‘pay it forward’ concept.”

Venable LLP’s Legal Advocacy Award will be accepted by former MDLC board member Mitchell Mirviss and current MDLC board member Thomas Lingan. Venable is getting the award for its history of helping MDLC, which includes taking pro bono cases.

“They demonstrate for other law firms what a partnership with a nonprofit should be,” Knowlton said.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin will receive the Lorraine Sheehan Lifetime Achievement Award for his support of civil and disability rights throughout his career.

“It is difficult to describe the magnitude of Senator Cardin’s impact.” Knowlton said. “His intelligence and courage were really on display during the recent debate over federal health care reform. His efforts will go a long way in helping people with disabilities realize their community integration goals.”

Del. James Hubbard of the Maryland General Assembly will receive the Public Policy Award for his ongoing leadership.

“People with disabilities are not a heavily resourced group, so it takes guts for politicians to stand up for them,” Knowlton said. “Delegate Hubbard has done it time and time again. He has been a stalwart defender of disability rights for many years.”

The Breaking Barriers event is especially important because it raises critical unrestricted funds.

“Most of the grant money we receive can’t be used for legislative work, which is where we can achieve significant changes,” explained MDLC staff attorney Meghan Marsh, who is organizing the event.

“For example, there was a death last year in a state psychiatric hospital that we believe was preventable. We successfully advocated for legislation that will implement needed reforms to keep people safe,” Marsh said. “If we don’t have unrestricted funds, we can’t do this type of work.”

A silent auction will feature a list of items that include Grand Prix, Ravens and Orioles tickets, roundtrip tickets on Southwest Airlines and Amtrak, and one-week stays in vacation homes in Portland, Ore., and Bethany Beach, Del.

Breaking Barriers is being held at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, in Baltimore, 6 to 9 p.m. on April 28. Tickets are $100 and include light fare and cocktails. To purchase tickets, go to www.mdlclaw.org or call MDLC at 410-727-6352.

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is jsurkiewicz@mdlab.org.