What if homeless people made decisions about the way homeless shelters were run? What if teenagers made decisions about the operations of the nonprofit teen centers that served them? And what if people with disabilities made decisions about the programs that helped them live independent lives?
It may be a while before the world knows the answers to the first two questions, but the Independent Life Center already has shown how well it works when the people it serves steer the direction of the organization.
The Independent Life Center's nine-person board has five members with disabilities, and half of its staff members also have disabilities. The organization's founder, Evelyn Tileston, has congenital retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that has made her legally blind. She can tell that the sun is shining or that the snow is white, she said, but she cannot see a house across the street.
The idea that people with disablities would make decisions about their own lives came about when a group of disabled civil rights activists fought for the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law created government-funded organizations called Independent Living Centers and mandated that more than half of the board members and more than half of the staff must be people with disabilities.
"When you're sick, you go to the doctor and you say, 'Fix me' and the doctor does, and you don't have much say so on what that treatment will be," Tileston said. "Before there were Independent Living Centers, disabled people were thought of as sick people.
"We're not. I'm blind. I'm not sick."
The Independent Life Center offers, among other things, free job training and life skills training, transportation, counseling and help finding appropriate and accessible housing.
"Finding accessible housing is a very difficult thing," Tileston said. "It almost does not exist."
Many of the people who come for help are new to their disabilities. They may have been stricken suddenly by an illness such as multiple sclerosis or may be dealing with the aftermath of an accident.
The Independent Life Center serves about 350 people a year in three counties -- Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco -- and 25 percent of them are in Routt County.
The ILC is looking for a Routt County resident to serve as a board member. David Freseman of Steamboat Springs and Ron Kashner of Hayden are serving on the board.
No previous board experience is required, and because the quota for members with disabilities has been filled, the new member can be with or without disabilities.
Board members oversee policies, advise staff about the usage of funds and monitor the financial stability of ILC. Joining the board is a two-year commitment, at minimum requiring the attendance to one, 1.5-hour meeting a month in Craig.
To volunteer, call Evelyn Tileston at 826-0833 or David Freseman at 870-0727.