Thank You and Farewell to Rolf Kotar

Submitted by Angela Nevin on May 17, 2018 - 10:56am

Thank You and Farewell to Rolf Kotar

Saturday, May 5th, a small group of folks from the Colorado Cross-Disability (CCDC), the CHARG Resource Center, and family members said goodbye to Rolf Schwartz Kotar.   He died on April 21, 2018, as a result of complications from his disabilities - including decades of psychiatric medications that he had to take to manage several major mental illnesses.    I know few people that worked harder than Rolf, and I see a lot of very hard workers. Many CCDC members might not have known Rolf unless they paid attention to the name on the blog posts they loved so much.

Rolf was one of the “quiet advocates.”   Usually, the attention goes to those of us who are not silent...people like me that are comfortable in the spotlight, in front of the cameras, and who have titles associated with leadership.  The quiet advocates are those who make sure that the work can actually happen, and those that provide support to individuals that are often left behind. Rolf spent a lifetime as a quiet advocate and had an impact on our community beyond what credit he will ever receive.

Rolf was our first grant writer.  Like many nonprofits, CCDC was started by a larger organization, the Community Resource Center (CRC).  CRC and our founding director Jean Parker had secured seed grants to get us started. In these situations, it is up to the organization to find funding that is more stable after the seed money is gone.   When I became the de-facto director there was little ongoing revenue...and I had no experience with grant writing. When Rolf introduced himself and offered to write grants without pay until he brought in enough for a tiny salary, I took him up on it.  I had no idea at the time just how good of a decision that was. Rolf was the one that got The Denver Foundation to fund CCDC. It was not so much the small amount we secured as our first grant, but the fact that The Denver Foundation supported us. They are a very rigorous funder, so when one gets their money, it is a sign of credibility for the organization.  

It is tough for constituent-led organizations like CCDC to break into mainstream funding.  We have been around close to 30 years, and are fortunate enough to have a full-time development professional.  We now receive funds from most of the mainstream foundations which makes it seem odd that getting $7,000 from the Denver Foundation was such a cause for celebration - but it was, and it was the start of a growth that led us to where we are today.   Lots of us at CCDC have gotten credit for the growth and success, but without Rolf, it might not have happened. Like it or not even with a mostly volunteer staff, it takes money to do social change, and when we practice what we preach by doing things like paying employees, it involves so much more money.

Rolf also was responsible for the first time in Colorado (that I am aware) that a government council compensated “client members” for their expertise.  The compensation was a small sum for “consumer” members of the then named State Mental Health Planning Council. It was not about the money, but about the respect.  

Even recently as his health was failing, Rolf supported several people in his building with writing professional resumes.  He was bursting with pride when he would tell me how these individuals obtained employment and gained confidence through someone helping them create a resume that reflected their skills and experience, whether these skills and knowledge were acquired in a traditional way or via life experience.    Rolf had a significant other, Dawn, who died more than ten years ago. Rolf was a strong advocate for her. She had several disabilities, and she was a transgender woman. This was way before it was acceptable anywhere to be trans. Rolf was her most forceful advocate. He always made sure Dawn had the support she needed and that she was treated with respect.   I remember a staff member in one rehab facility used the wrong pronoun in a deliberate and mean-spirited manner. Rolf handled it, and although I am not sure exactly how it never happened again. She was shown the utmost respect for the remainder of her stay.

In those days we all shared a big room as an office, and I would hear his tone soften as he would talk to her on the phone.   They did not share a living space but supported each other in the same way as those who did. I am sure that his support enabled her ability to live independently in the community and to have pride in who she was as a person.    In our community, we often talk about how everyone is valuable and deserving of support, but we do not all live those values. Those values rightfully include supporting people that society casts off - those who are not necessarily the “beautiful people.”  Rolf did that through his actions, his friendships, his writings, and the way he led his life. His blogs, which are on and will remain on the CCDC website, are full of his chronicles of living with multiple disabilities and how this is not a tragedy but an opportunity for making the world a better place.  

The small service for Rolf yesterday was a reminder to me, as one of the loud advocates, to always remember and respect the many quiet advocates out there who do the real work, day in and day out, and who embody what our movement is all about.

Thank you, Rolf, for everything.  Rest in power!

Julie Reiskin, Executive Director, CCDC

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