"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"
Vicki Skoog is the Executive Director of the Colorado Springs Independence Center. Over the last fifteen years she has guided the Center from its origin in her garage to its own building, a staff of 71, and a prominent place in the Colorado Springs community. In 1971 Vicki was injured in an automobile accident. The accident left her with a C 3-C 4 spinal cord injury. In the 32 years since her injury she has raised a son, founded the Independence Center, developed a profound philosophy of independence, and proven that a strong spirit can overcome a multitude of challenges. The story that Vicki has to tell is one of frustration and challenge, acceptance and learning, and creativity and triumph. Here is what she told us.
The Colorado Quarterly: Tell us about your background
Vicki Skoog: I was born in Michigan. My father was the hockey coach at the University of Michigan. He had played professional hockey, and I think I learned to skate before I learned to walk. I grew up hiking and camping. We lived a very active life.
My father had asthma, so we moved to Colorado Springs for his health. We moved in 1959, when I was twelve. He joined the coaching staff at the newly created Air Force Academy. My father was very well known in the community. Doors have been opened for me when people learn that I am Victor Heyligerís daughter.
I attended the University of Michigan for a year and Parks Business College in Denver, where I graduated. After graduation I held a number of jobs in Colorado Springs with the Federal Civil Service. I got married and had my son. He was seven months old when I was injured. We were on a family trip to Kansas. There was a hail storm near Limon and the van rolled over. I was the only one injured. I spent a month in intensive care and then transferred to Craig for my rehabilitation. In an instant my life changed forever.
TCQ: You had lived an active life. You had a husband and a small child. What was it like to come home?
VS: It was very frustrating. Perhaps the worst part of it was that I had no way to get out of the house. For many years I could only leave the house on rare occasions. We could not afford an accessible vehicle, and there was no accessible transportation in the community. Fortunately, our house had quite a bit of accessibility. For a number of years my mother-in-law provided most of my personal assistance. There were no full support home health agencies in the community. Even after my mother-in-law stopped doing my care, I needed to find family members to work with me on the weekends.
I spent a great deal of time with my son. He says that he never thought of me as a person with a disability. I was just Mom. I helped him with his schoolwork. He tells me that he believes that his success in school comes from the time that I worked with him. While my husband and I were divorced eight years after my injury, I have wanted him and my son to remain close. They are now in business together.
A big change occurred in my life about 1983. I purchased a Volkswagen van that was wheelchair accessible. For the first time since my injury I could get out into the world. Shortly after that I was invited to join a spinal cord injury support group. That group made a lot of difference to me. The contact with other persons with disabilities helped me to gain new perspective on what my options might be. I began to understand what the needs were, and how I might help to meet some of them. I think that group helped me found the Independence Center.
TCQ: How did you start the Independence Center, and how has it developed?
VS: We started the Center in my garage. In the beginning we focused on transportation and personal assistance. The El Pomar Foundation gave us a grant to buy a van, and we began to provide accessible transportation. Next we became certified to provide Medicaid services. I learned from my own life that independence begins with these two services for a person with a disability like mine. There are tiers of services. After personal assistance and transportation are available, a person can look toward employment and larger involvement in the community. Housing is also an area that we have made a priority.
We no longer provide transportation services. When the Colorado Springs transit agency began to offer accessible services, we could turn to other needs. Without a doubt, advocacy is our first priority. We try to teach our consumers to advocate for themselves. Sometimes it is easier to do things for the consumer than to teach them to do it independently, but that is wrong. We continually work to avoid forgetting the purpose of an independent living center.
We sponsor a golf tournament each year to raise funds for emergency assistance. We assist over 30 persons a year who need medications or other emergency help. The golf tournament raises over $20,000 a year. It also gives us visibility in the community.
We have grown a lot since those days in my garage. The Center could not afford to pay me a salary until 1996. I worked as the executive director for over eight years as a volunteer, but that is what people often have to do in the Independent Living movement. We now own our own building. We serve 63 consumers in our home health program, and have 71 staff persons. There is a lot of need in this community and I am proud of our efforts to meet that need, but there is much more to do.
TCQ: What are your future goals?
VS: At some point in the next three to five years I may want to retire, but before that I want to help build a strong disability community that can be an effective voice. We need better transportation, more access to our streets and sidewalks, and parking spaces. We need better health care and housing. There are so many needs and those needs will only be addressed when there is a forceful voice coming from the disability community. My highest priority is advocacy. I want to leave a powerful voice for advocacy in the disability community when I retire.
I am looking forward to having time to paint. I have always been interested in drawing and painting and, after my injury, I spent a lot of time painting. My mother-in-law brought a paint set to me and encouraged me to learn to use it. At first I didnít think that I could, but I did learn to paint holding the brushes with my teeth. I want to have the time to be creative. It isnít possible to schedule inspiration. Ideas come when they come. I will enjoy having the time to let my creativity develop.
TCQ: You have had over 30 years to practice independence and think about the meaning of living an independent life. What are your conclusions?
VS: As I have said, basic services such as personal assistance and transportation are essential. In my case, becoming involved with other persons with disabilities helped me to understand that I could live a more independent life. It is necessary to learn patience and acceptance, but one must not accept false limits. Many of the services that I need to live independently did not exist when I was injured. I had to create them for myself and at the same time for others. You canít wait for others to assist you to be independent. So much of independence comes when you learn to direct your own life.
It isnít enough to just direct your own life to be truly independent. You have to contribute to others. I would not feel complete if I couldnít give to others. Persons with disabilities receive services, but there needs to be more. Genuine self-respect comes only when you know that you are contributing. Independence means being a complete human being.
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Copyright 2002 A&H Publishing Corporation