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An inspiration to others, herself


Ali Koehler is an artist and singer. Her paintings have earned her national honors and have been purchased for inclusion in private and corporate collections.

One was selected to appear on the label of an Imagery Estate wine. Just last month, the 32-year-old Sebastopol woman was invited be an artist-in-residence at the prestigious Chalk Hill Artist Residency Program at the Warnecke Ranch in Healdsburg.

As a vocalist, Koehler took first place in Becoming Independent's talent show with her heart-felt rendition of "Part of Your World."

Developmentally disabled, Koehler takes pride in expressing her many abilities. And she can now add to that list of accomplishments "leading fundraiser."

Koehler has emerged as one of the top individual fund-raisers for the Human Race, an annual walk/run benefitting area nonprofits.

In her first year in 2011, she raised $6,995, placing her fourth among all individual fund-raisers and making it a banner year for her designated nonprofit, Becoming Independent, which provides support and employment to some 1,000 people with developmental disabilities.

Every year since then, Koehler has reached high, last year inching close to $6,000. Those totals actually double when her parents, Peter and Jayne Hamel, kick in a matching pledge.

"She's amazing. She's just so willing and excited about fund-raising," said Alicia Alexander, special events coordinator for the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, which sponsors the annual event.

This year's race pushes off at 8 a.m. May 10 from Herbert Slater Middle School with some 1,165 individual and entrants signing up for either a 3K up to Howarth Park or a 10K that surrounds Spring Lake.

Koehler, in her green tie-dyed Becoming Independent T-shirt, will take on the full 10K with her dad, Pete.

"I do like to walk. It keeps me focused," said Koehler, who says she is personally challenged to "stay in the moment." It is her mantra, and one she shared in a small hand-made book with inspiring reminders and her own illustrations.

"I work really hard," she said. "Sometimes our minds will get overloaded. I need to be right here and right now ... what's happening now."

Koehler joined Becoming Independent about nine years ago after moving to Sonoma County with her parents from Sherborn, Mass., where she attended the Living Experience School.

She participates in Becoming Independent's ProArts program, which provides studio space, classes, enrichment and marketing support to help intuitive or outsider artists like Koehler.

Koehler is among the first developmentally disabled artists to be invited to be an Artist in Residence at the Warnecke Ranch on historic Chalk Hill.

"The great thing about Ali is that she had the self-confidence and perspective of herself as a professional artist," said Alice Sutro, who oversees the Chalk Hill Artist Residency program and who also co-chairs the Collector's Circle for Becoming Independent.

"She applied and made the time and commitment and her family helped to get the caregivers needed for her to spend two nights and three days. Some people are up there for weeks and don't do as much as she did."

The public is invited to an Open House at the Warnecke Ranch from 1 to 4 p.m. May 4.

Visitors can tour the studio and surrounding area, view art and meet Koehler and two other artists who have served recent residencies at the ranch, the family home of the late internationally known architect John Carl Warnecke.

Five days a week, Koehler takes the "BI" bus from her Sebastopol home, which she shares with two assistants, to Becoming Independent, where she works in the art studio and helps in the garden.

She took up the cause of fund-raising for the Human Race three years ago, soaring to success with her own hand-written letter of appeal, which she sends to some 40 friends and family members around the country.

She also set up her own page through the Human Race website so supporters can learn more about her and track her progress.

Luana Vaetoe, chief executive officer for Becoming Independent, said Koehler's efforts on behalf of the Human Race ignited a spark of enthusiasm for the event within Becoming Independent.

Now there are active fund-raising efforts going on throughout the agency's headquarters on Corporate Center Parkway, with lunch specials, bake sales, craft fairs and other enterprises to get people to open their wallets.

It pushed their fund-raising total to $30,000 last year, all of which goes back into programs like ProArts, Vaetoe said.

Most employees and clients raise about $100 to $150. And while there are others now nipping at her swiftly walking heels, Koehler is, hands-down, the fund-raising champ within the agency, Vaetoe said.

"She's a very courageous person, as are all of the participants at Becoming Independent, courageous in the way they face their lives," said her mother, Jayne Hamel, who was inspired by her daughter to become a special education teacher and who now sits on the board of Becoming Independent.

(You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey @pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.)