Two worlds collided one day when Tonia Nifong was performing with the Flourish Dance Company in Colorado Springs.
On that stage, Nifong took her first step toward her job as communications manager for The Arc of the Pikes Peak Region, which provides a range of services and advocates for people with disabilities and their families.
Nifong, 32, a Cañon City native, has always loved writing and dance. She studied communications at Colorado State University Fort Collins. After graduating in 2009, she worked in marketing and communications in the Fort Collins area until moving to Colorado Springs in 2011.
Nifong has taught dance in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs and served as choreographer, marketing coordinator and in managerial roles for dance groups including Flourish.
Nifong spoke with the Business Journal about how a dance performance became a path to her job and a passion for the people The Arc serves.
What brought you to Colorado Springs in 2011?
My husband and I both have family in this area, and we wanted to be closer to them. And we love Colorado Springs. We love the beauty, and even though it is spread out, it also feels kind of like a small town.
What did you do after moving here?
I worked in marketing for Garden of the Gods Club [now Garden of the Gods Collection]. It was a huge job, because there were so many different departments. I got my feet wet in all things marketing and communications, because I was marketing essentially what felt like six different businesses — the sports, the fitness, the membership, the golf, the actual lodge itself and the spa. I had a great mentor when I was there who really drew out my passion and love of writing, and I was able to expand that with a ton of different skills, including video editing and design. I’ve really grown to love video for telling a story because that’s what draws people in and can help communicate your brand.
What led you to go to work for The Arc?
I had actually been dancing with a nonprofit here called Flourish Arts, with their dance company, Flourish Dance. [During one performance,] there was a young woman in the front row who was in a wheelchair. She just caught my eye, and for some reason, I stopped what I was doing, completely forgot all the choreography, just made something up, because of the look on her face. It just stopped me in my tracks. Afterward, I found her and started talking to her. It turned out that she had cerebral palsy and could only move her arms, but she always wanted to dance. At that point, I started to create an accessible dance class for her. That experience was kind of the catalyst of my communications and dance worlds coming together, and this desire to learn more about people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the fact that they really just want opportunities and independence and freedom, just like anybody else. That experience kind of led me here. I started out part time working as the social media manager in 2015. Since then I have been learning a ton about the people we work with and what it means to actually be truly inclusive of them, and to respect them in our community.
What does your job entail?
It varies from day to day — anything from telling the community about our capital campaign, Building for Change, to just getting the message out to the community about what we’re doing, about the resources and trainings that we’re offering here, and about the advocacy that we’re doing for people with disabilities, to just being out in the community. I also work closely with our public relations team to help get the word out. I think about, ‘OK, what if I could put myself in somebody else’s shoes who doesn’t know about us — how would I communicate that?’ When I first started here, I was familiar with people who had disabilities, but I didn’t necessarily know the term intellectual or developmental disability and what that really meant. So keeping in mind that people might not understand jargon, you know, I’m just explaining it in real, everyday terms.
Tell us a bit about the Building for Change campaign.
It’s just a really exciting time here at The Arc of the Pikes Peak Region because we are in the middle of our Building for Change project. The building [at 10 N. Meade Ave.] is Phase I, and we’re pretty much done with Phase I. This building houses the conference room, and we have all of our trainings and weekly webinars on all disability-related topics here. A lot of the work I have been doing is promoting this room. And this room is open to businesses to use for trainings, meetings and networking events, and there’s just a very small fee attached to that.
Construction is just starting on the building next door [at 12 N. Meade Ave.] that will be the life skills resource center for people with disabilities and their families. There will be a teaching kitchen, a garden, a computer lab, a library and a movement room. It’ll be kind of like a joint campus. We’re hoping [it will be completed] by the end of this year, but we don’t fully have the completion date, because with construction, it just kind of varies. We’re hoping that it’ll take about six months.
We so far have had the support of the El Pomar Foundation and the Daniels Fund, and we are engaging the community as well. If people are interested in learning more, they can check out our website or give us a call. We can take them on a tour or plug them in in any way they would like to be involved.
What is the best thing about your job?
I think the absolute best thing about working here is that we are very future-oriented, and that grounds our day-to-day reality of what we do. We want to think outside the box for people who have disabilities and their families. We want to help them dream up the best possible future. … We want to change the culture for people who have disabilities, and we want to equip people and families so they have the skills that they need to be included in their communities.
What do you like to do when you’re off work?
I do still dance. I do contemporary ballet and lyrical dance styles, mainly, and I love anything outdoors. I love hanging out with my family. I have a 3-year-old little boy. I love writing as well — I really love writing poetry and short stories. I love choreographing and I’m working on a piece right now, for a group of women that are a part of Flourish.
You have a special project coming up soon. Would you talk a bit about that?
I am traveling to India next week with an international dance fellowship for a dance and culture study tour. I got a degree in dance ministry last summer [through the fellowship and Unity College Australia] — using dance as a tool for community building, and I will be presenting some of my research and also do a dance and culture exchange. The project that I’ll be presenting is about the physiology of our reactions and how the energy tied to certain emotions is passed on for up to three generations through DNA. I did a dance video that addressed like, if we choose mercy instead of judgment in reaction to difficult life realities, how does that then rewrite our histories and how does that affect our community? We’ll be learning Indian dance styles and teaching and experiencing the Indian culture, and really just bringing messages of hope and life to people through the art of dance. It’s also a way to teach children and youth about compassion and empathy — something that’s really lacking in our culture right now. That also feeds the work that I do here at The Arc of the Pikes Peak Region, because having compassion and empathy toward people with disabilities is a stepping stone toward working to have them be included in society.
What advice would you give to other young professionals?
I would say to find a mentor, first and foremost, that you trust who will just be there to have coffee with you, dinner with you, whatever, to talk about the things that you’re going through. Because, you know, life isn’t just about work, it’s about you as a whole person. And so if you can be healthy as a whole person, then what you bring to your work is going to be much better. I think that cross-generational mentorship is very important and also something that is lacking in our current culture. And then also just learn everything that you can and never stop learning, because things change very quickly. So just be very open to learning and to exploring new possibilities. And also to live fully from your heart, I would say is very important, because if you can’t bring who you truly are to the table, then the world is missing out. And so I would say take care of yourself and take care of your heart, and bring all of that into your job.