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Colorado Quarterly Magazine 

"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"

 

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A Little Hope

by Homer Page

 On March 26, 2003 the Statewide Independent Living Council (SILC) conducted an advocacy training workshop in collaboration with the Colorado Springs Independence Center. The SILC has collaborated with independent living centers around the state to build an advocacy network capable of presenting an effective voice on issues important to the disability community at the local, state, and national levels. The Colorado Springs workshop was the fifth of ten events that the SILC will sponsor. Independence Center staff, consumers, and local elected officials who participated in the workshop once again affirmed the importance of strong advocacy if persons with disabilities are to achieve independent lives. The work of the Colorado Springs Independence Center (CSIC) provides a strong advocacy voice in its community.

The Center grew out of a grass roots effort led by a group of persons with disabilities. Its Executive Director, Vicki Skoog, founded the Center in the mid 1980’s. Its first home was in Vicki’s garage. Initially CSIC offered transportation and home health services. These services were essential for persons with severe physical disabilities. “I was injured in an auto accident in 1971. I’ve been a wheelchair user since then,” Vicki said. “I know from my own experience what services are needed to live independently. I don’t think you can ever fully know what it is like to live with a disability unless you live it everyday.”

According to Vicki, the CSIC is what the independent living movement means when it calls for IL centers to be community based, peer led and directed, and cross disability. CSIC serves persons with cognitive, sensory, emotional, and physical disabilities. The Center is a force for change, always seeking ways to make the Colorado Springs community more accessible to persons with disabilities. CSIC works with local governments and other agencies to offer the range of services that are needed to support the aspirations of the disability community.

Advocacy is a high priority. In addition, CSIC has a diverse set of services that compliment the Center’s advocacy mission. The Center is divided into two administrative areas. One focuses on the home health program and the other all remaining services. This second area is known as independent living services. Nancy Hunt directs the independent living programs. Nancy teaches independent living skills classes, supervises a housing program, an assistive technology center, and a nursing home transition grant. She also works directly with consumers who need assistance. Her work often requires that she become involved with policies in the community. “I often advocate for changes in the system”, she said.

Nancy moved from Chicago a number of years ago to be near her three grown sons. Before coming to Colorado Springs she worked with the Catholic Church. She holds a Masters degree in ministry and carried out a lay ministry in Chicago. She worked for a short time with the Church in Colorado, but when her position was eliminated, she found employment with CSIC. Initially she only taught the independent living skills classes. When a staff member left the Center, she became the Program Coordinator for the Independent Living Department. “I believe what I am doing now is more of a ministry than anything I have done before,” she said. “We try to give our consumers a little hope. That’s what it’s all about.”

Ms. Hunt’s independent living skills classes involve three to five consumers for ten weeks. She teaches food planning and preparation, home management, money planning and preparation, home management, money management, transportation planning, and personal hygiene and health care. The classes teach students to live independently. She also teaches consumers to advocate for themselves. Ms. Hunt says that it is her goal to prepare a person to speak for himself or herself. Some of the areas in which she works are Social Security, Medicaid, and housing benefits.

Recently the CSIC staff has worked with El Paso County legislators regarding the State proposed cuts in the Aid to the Needy Disabled. Cuts will reduce the monthly amount of the AND program from $269 to $100. Legislators have told Nancy that this program is discretionary and, therefore, can be more easily cut to help the State close its budget short fall. She has tried to make legislators aware of the hardships that such a severe cut will create in the lives of already needy persons, but the cuts seem unavoidable. She expresses deep concern for the well-being of those who face trying to make ends meet with such meager resources.

CSIC recently was awarded 60 new housing vouchers by the Colorado Department of Housing to raise the number of vouchers the Center now administers to 120. Cindi Brennan, coordinator of the Nursing Home Transition grant, says that the voucher program is essential to successfully transition persons from nursing homes to the community. She has assisted eight persons making the move in the past year and has several more individuals in the process of moving back into the community.

Ms. Brennan has worked with CSIC for one year. In addition to coordinating the Nursing Home Transition grant, Cindi coordinates the assistive technology program and teaches computer skills to the Center’s consumers. Prior to joining the Center staff, Cindi worked with the Red Cross Homeless Shelter in Colorado Springs. She is concerned that the Shelter program may be closed. She estimates that 200 CSIC consumers have also received services from the Shelter. The closure of the Shelter would place a heavy burden on the Center and its consumers, she believes.

The disability community faces cuts in services and funding to its members very livelihood. However, strong leaders, such as Vicki Skoog, Nancy Hunt, and Cindi Brennan refuse to give in to cynicism and defeat. They are organizing a coalition of consumers and agencies to work with their government to find solutions. One of the participants in the advocacy workshop was the newly elected Mayor of Colorado Springs. CSIC plans to use its contact with Mayor Lionel Rivera to build a closer working relationship with the City. They are also working with their County Commissioners and State Legislators. They recognize the challenges that lie ahead, but they are ready to confront those difficulties.

Each woman affirms that the consumers who they serve are severely disabled. They are among the most impoverished persons in our society. They face homelessness, hunger, and institutionalization. They are persons with cognitive and emotional disabilities, and they need assistance. They are also persons who long for dignity and independence. Nancy seeks to leave each of her consumers with a little hope. As she says, “That’s what it’s all about.”

There are heroic people like the staff at CSIC who are struggling to keep the promise of the last several decades alive in the disability community. This is a harsh unpleasant time in many ways. Our society needs to support and learn from these heroes. Our leaders need to learn that keeping hope alive among our most vulnerable citizens is truly what it is all about.

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Copyright 2002 A&H Publishing Corporation