Aging Well: Help and support aren't far

Independent Life Center helps people with disabilities overcome challenges

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The Independent Life Center serves people with physical and developmental disabilities in Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco, Grand and Summit counties. For more information about services or to inquire about ways to volunteer with the organization, call the main office in Craig at 826-0833 or 1-888-526-0833.

It's hard for Jackie Lyons to describe an average day on the job helping people with disabilities, because every day and every client is different.

Lyons is a coordinator with the nonprofit Independent Life Center based in Craig. She travels mostly throughout Routt, Grand and occasionally Summit counties meeting with clients with a wide range of physical and developmental disabilities. Some are newly disabled while others contend with illness, loss of income or other changing circumstances. Many of her clients are 50 or older.

They have varying needs, ranging from glasses, firewood or transportation to housing assistance and finding jobs. In extreme cases, some clients may even need advocates to help them change unsafe living situations.

When necessary, Lyons helps connect them to funds, either through the Independent Life Center or other programs and refers them to organizations to help with employment and other goals. She also seeks out friends, family or other individuals with similar disabilities who may be able to offer further support.

"It's huge to have this service available to help people," Lyons said. "It helps them to be able to cope, stay in their homes and stay independent."

Filling a gap

Lyons is among 11 paid staff and 11 volunteers who work with disabled individuals in five counties, including Moffat and Rio Blanco, through the Independent Life Center. The program has gradually grown since 1996 when three volunteers, frustrated by a major gap in services and support for disabled individuals in Northwest Colorado, started the organization.

Evelyn Tileston, executive director of the Independent Life Center, founded the program with Rebekah McBride, deceased, and Anna Adams, who is on the board of directors. They were short on funds but had plenty of compassion for their clients since they themselves had disabilities or cared for family with disabilities.

The lack of services for the disabled became painfully clear to Tileston in 1987 when her son suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. He had to spend three years away from his family in Grand Junction where rehabilitation and other programs were available to help him recover and rejoin society.

"Those were the most painful three years in my life by far : I just stewed and grieved about that, and it took awhile before I could make the grief go away," she said.

Tileston's frustrations eventually coincided with an opportunity to join a statewide independent living council where she learned about independent life centers, which help disabled individuals pursue opportunities others enjoy, such as owning homes, having families, working and pursuing meaningful goals.

Tileston, McBride and Adams found common ground in the concept and started their own program, working for two years out of a small office at the Visiting Nurse Association in Craig. They worked for free, running the program with the help of local grants.

Then, in 1998, the program became one of ten certified Centers for Independent Living in Colorado. The certification opened up additional funding sources, allowing the program to move to a bigger space, add paid staff and expand its reach to five counties.

Strong need

About 51 million people or 18 percent of the U.S. population have some level of disability, according to figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau this year.

About 72 percent of people 80 and older have disabilities, the highest of any age group.

In Northwest Colorado, Independent Life Center staff and volunteers have worked with thousands of clients with varying types and degrees of disabilities that include severe physical disabilities, chronic brain injuries, chronic mental illness, learning problems and other developmental impairments.

Program staff and volunteers - about half have disabilities themselves - currently are helping about 317 clients. There are waiting lists in Routt and Grand counties.

Except for emergencies, clients on waiting lists typically have to wait two to three weeks before Lyons can make her initial visit. Garnering funds for adequate staff is a constant struggle, but Tileston hopes to eventually have a coordinator in Grand County as well as more support staff and volunteers so Lyons can work exclusively in Routt County.

Lyons and other staff work one-on-one with clients, determining their needs and providing them resources and choices to pursue solutions on their own and hopefully become advocates for themselves.

This may involve teaching them daily living or self-care skills, guiding them through applications and other paperwork or arranging transportation to and from a job.

"We are always there to support and guide and encourage and try, if necessary, to get rid of some of the bumps," Tileston said.

In some cases, coordinators become advocates to ensure the best outcome for their clients. One such case involved an unemployed disabled couple in Grand County who had inadequate health care and housing. The Independent Life Center arranged for the couple to move to Denver near a friend and obtain Social Security and disability income for proper medical treatment. One client is working, the other is close to being able to work, and they live near an Independent Life Center for further support.

Local Independent Life Center staff also focuses on "system" advocacy goals, such as working with government and other agencies to improve health care or transportation in a certain county or area.

In addition to advocacy and one-on-one work with individual clients, the Independent Life Center also offers VizAbilities, an information and support group for people coping with vision and/or hearing loss. Coordinator Deb Dunaway hosts group meetings monthly in Craig, Steamboat Springs, Oak Creek, Hayden and Rio Blanco County. The program hopes to eventually have VizAbilities meetings in Grand and Summit counties as well.

For more information on VizAbilities and other services offered through the Independent Life Center, call 826-0833.

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