Get Ready to Party! It's a Milestone Birthday!

The No 1 way to celebrate a 25th birthday is, weather permitting, a picnic, according to party planner purpletrail.com.

Disability Network/Lakeshore’s Board of Directors loves that idea, too.

That’s why they’re inviting community members to Windmill Island Gardens in Holland to celebrate the organization’s 25th birthday, and quarter-century of advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 1.

Food at “Cheers & Beers to 25 Years” is free, but registration by May 25 required so the appropriate number of grills are fired up to feed guests. There will be a cash bar serving New Holland brews.  Register online at our event page, or by phoning the organization at (616) 396-5326.

Music will be performed by rockabilly star Delilah DeWylde.  Guests are free to explore the 36-acre park. Kids aged 12 years and under can ride the island’s antique carousel with hand-carved and hand-painted horses for free. There will also be face painting and balloon animals for the children.

“We’ve really designed this to be a fun, family-friendly event,” said Lucia Rios, DNL’s community access specialist. “We’ll have tables set up, but there also will be plenty of room to spread out a picnic blanket to eat, or set up their lawn chairs to just sit and enjoy the music.”

The organization was formed in 1992 as the Center for Independent Living.  Its purpose, then and now, is to provide help for residents of Ottawa and Allegan counties who have disabilities, whether or not those disabilities are apparent. 

The agency now annually serves about 1,800 people, whose challenges range from job skills training and housing needs, to benefits planning and transitioning from rehabilitative care to living independently. The organization also plays a leadership role in identifying and addressing accessibility issues in the community.

The name was changed to Disability Network/Lakeshore a decade ago to suggest the broadening scope of its work and the importance of collaboration.

“By connecting people with disabilities to resources and opportunities, we are building communities where everyone can participate, contribute and belong,” said Todd Whiteman, only DNL’s second executive director. “Our dream is to create engaged citizens and livable communities.”

According to the organization’s first executive director, Ruth Stegeman -- who left in 2011 after serving 19 years -- Disability Network’s crowning community-wide accomplishment came in 2006, when it spearheaded voter approval of the Macatawa Area Express transit millage. This funded expansion of public transportation. It improved employment opportunities and enhanced the quality of life for many local people with disabilities.

You've got the question; Information and Referral Services has the answer

Knowledge is power.

Bree Austin-Roberts loves seeing clients become more powerful.

Austin-Roberts has functioned as the information and referral specialist at Disability Network/Lakeshore since 2013.  She receives 150 to 300 phone calls for help per month from people with disabilities, or regarding people with disabilities.

Here’s the common thread: A person with a disability wants to continue moving forward in his or her life, but needs resources to overcome an obstacle. Austin-Roberts tells them what local resources are available and can help them apply.

“Our organization serves residents of Ottawa and Allegan counties of any age who have a disability that may be emotional, physical, cognitive, developmental, or a combination of things,” Austin-Roberts said. “You can see why questions that come in to Information and Referral span a broad range of issues.”

Generally, Austin-Roberts said calls could be classified into the following categories:

•    Housing
•    Social Security benefits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). 
•    Employment
•    Transportation
•    Education and training
•    Mental health services

Austin-Roberts said that when she became DNL’s information referral specialist four years ago, most questions were about Social Security benefits and finding employment.

In contrast, these days, almost 90 percent of calls are related to obtaining or keeping affordable, accessible housing, getting needed repairs, or replacing broken household appliances.

“Information and Referral is micro human services work,” said Austin-Roberts, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Saint Xavier University in Chicago, and is completing a master’s degree in social work at Grand Valley State University. “We often meet one-to-one with people to hear their needs, help them set goals, and track their progress toward achieving that goal.”

She describes Information and Referral as a “teach to fish” service. Her role is to point to potential community resources, and offer only as much guidance as the client needs.

Since most applications are now on line, how much hands-on help a client requires is often rooted in how computer savvy he or she is, Austin-Roberts said. 

“I email some people a link to a resource and they take it from there,” Austin-Roberts said. “But some people aren’t that comfortable with computers. They would rather make an appointment to come into my office where we can fill out forms together.”

Disability Network/Lakeshore’s own website, dnlakeshore.org, provides quick-access “buttons” to email or telephone to the organization’s Information and Referral service. The agency’s phone number is: (616) 396-5326.

Austin-Roberts says a lot of questions also come in via the 2-1-1 Helpline, social workers at medical facilities, area churches, or partner agencies like Community Mental Health or Michigan Rehabilitative Services.

“There have been times I’ve received calls from three different agencies regarding the same family,” Austin-Roberts said. “They all want to make sure the client gets the help they need.”

While there local resources available – and, seemingly, more help than she remembers in Chicago – Austin-Roberts said occasionally she can’t find the help a client needs.

“It’s really hard on me if I can’t find a resource for a person who is dealing with insufficient income and homelessness on top of the challenges created by a disability,” Austin-Roberts said. “I work very, very hard for those people.” 

Have you got a question?  Not sure where to start?  Call our office and ask for Bree.  She can direct you to the appropriate staff member or community resource.  

Access 25 Years Later ...

Dan Wedge said he grew up feeling sad for people like his grandmother who used a wheelchair after losing a leg to diabetes.

“There were so many things that she would have enjoyed that she didn’t get to do,” Wedge said. “Even going out to eat with her required a lot of planning because there were so few restaurants that a wheelchair user could get into.”

Wedge - now Allegan County’s executive director of services - says his experience as a person using a wheelchair has been much different, thanks largely to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Wedge lost use of his legs in 1987 when his Cadillac rolled on him as he tried to push it up a snowy embankment after sliding off an icy Mecosta County road.

After rehabilitation, he was able to return to his sales position with office equipment business owned by his family, but being able to access public places wasn’t something a person using a wheelchair could count on.

That began to change when Congress enacted the ADA three years later, in 1990.

“The ADA reinforces that people with disabilities have a right to equal access,” Wedge said. “Its focus really addresses the needs of everybody.”

Parents of young children appreciate curbed sidewalks and the option of a wider public restroom stall, Wedge said. Subtitles on TV shows and movies benefit the hearing as well as the hearing impaired.

The ADA-inspired hard-surface walkway over the beach to Lake Michigan is the most popular way to access the water among all visitors to Holland State Park, he said.

Near and dear to Wedge’s heart is the new “winding ramp” at West Side Park in Allegan County which allows visitors including people who use wheelchairs to gradually navigate the 80-foot drop from the bluff to the Lake Michigan shore. Two scenic rest decks are popular with people with and without disabilities alike.

And the list goes on.

Traveling with a Disability

Guest Blogger, Chris Wistrom, Independent Living Specialist

I just returned from an Alaskan vacation; I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t my first trip there.  Alaska is the 49th state of the USA, purchased from Russia in 1867.   Ten years ago my sister and I boarded ship and were swept away with the scenery and history of this vast frontier.  We cruised what is called “the Inner Passage” – visiting the port cities of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria in British Columbia.  During that trip, I do not recall seeing even one traveler with a visible disability.  I found things have changed on this trip!

This time we took the same route through the Inner Passage.   I noted that there were many people aboard ship using wheelchairs.  I am gratified to see that the trip is not limited to those without mobility disabilities.  I also found they were equipped for assisting people with disabilities into the pool or whirlpool.  That’s great!  Basking in the whirlpool in gloriously warm water while on deck watching for whales is one of my favorite memories.  The icy wind blows through your hair, but the hot water is an absolute delight!  Everyone should have that opportunity!  

I noted that the ship made quite an effort to ensure the safety and comfort of the passengers with disabilities.  Ramps had been installed in the halls and the pathways had been restructured so passengers could get to their staterooms without having to navigate sharp bends in the hall or stairs.  Many of the passages had been made wider so people could easily travel both directions without running into one another.  Perhaps the best thing of all is that the dining areas now accommodate people with disabilities.  If you’ve ever eaten on shipboard, you’ll understand why they say the average person gains 4 pounds per day on a cruise!

Cruising to Alaska was a wonderful adventure, and having the ship make minor accommodations so that people with disabilities can enjoy the trip too made it more of a delightful experience.  After all, those accommodations made it easier for me to get around too…and, after all, I was 10 years older this time too!

Borculo woman experiences the healing power of nature

There’s a pinkish tomato in a cluster of green tomatoes that’s partly visible in a staked tangle of green vines.

The harvester must judge whether the tomato is red enough to be ripe, even as breezes move the leaves and fluctuations in daylight due to cloud-cover change how the fruited vine appears.

The decision whether to pick the tomato is further complicated by distractions of chirping of birds and passing traffic.

The picker must possess the hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills to twist the desired fruit from the vine and place it gently, to avoid bruising, in a basket.

This is why picking a tomato can be difficult for someone who has suffered brain trauma.

Borculo resident Vickie Wiersma Priebe, 60, says gardening aided her in healing from a head injury five years ago.

Priebe was working in a gift shop in Saugatuck when a heavy wooden sign fell, striking the upper right side of her face.

There was no blood. Priebe applied an ice pack between customers hoping to minimize swelling in her eye area.

But her head was throbbing and she felt too dizzy to stand without leaning on something sturdy. She couldn’t count change correctly or remember how to run a credit card.

Priebe was working alone and couldn’t reach the shop’s owner by phone to obtain permission to close the store. So, she summoned her own daughter to help her finish a 10-hour shift.

Then Priebe’s daughter drove her to Prime Care, where an orbital contusion on her right eye socket and concussion were diagnosed.

As brain injuries go, doctors were hopeful that Priebe’s was minor.  After a year she was still experiencing migraine headaches with vision anomalies, dizziness, and slow cognitive functioning.

Getting herself out of bed, bathed, dressed and fed in the mornings became a four-hour ordeal, because she’d forget what she was doing and repeat steps.

She couldn’t follow a recipe.  Shopping overwhelmed her, especially in large stores with fluorescent lights. Reading was difficult – unless the text was upside down!

Doctors then diagnosed post-concussive syndrome, symptoms from structural damage to the brain, or disruption of neurotransmitters, as a result of the blow that caused the concussion.

Vision problems increased. Layered patterns of shimmering shark teeth persisted across her visual field, although muscle tissue around the right eye appeared healthy.

Priebe continues to pursue becoming more functional, but wishes progress was swifter.

“Through stubborn determination, I’ve come back this far,” Priebe said. “Of all the things I’ve done, working on the farm helped the most.”

She’s speaking of CJ Veggies, a small local organic vegetable farm operated by Chuck and Judy Johnson.

Priebe had been a regular customer of CJ Veggies at the Holland Farmers Market. Chuck Johnson asked if she’d like to help on the farm when they saw each other at Harvest Health Foods in Hudsonville in March 2012.

“At that time I wasn’t talking much,” Priebe remembers. “It was frustrating not being able to pull the right words from the file cabinet of my brain. I’d shut down around people.”

She wanted to accept Johnson’s offer because she remembered reading a fascinating book titled “Earthing” by Clint Ober. Premise of the book is that direct “grounded” contact with the earth’s surface provides humans with many health benefits.

Priebe explained that she was coming back from a head injury that was compounded by an eye problem. She sighed with relief when Johnson chuckled, “Shoot. Everybody’s coming back from something.”

Looking back, Priebe imagines she was a difficult farmhand. The farm manager had to repeat instructions, which her mind slowly processed into different words that made sense to her.

She wore wrap-around sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to block bright light from her right eye. The eye’s response to light triggers her migraines.

She often wears earplugs to muffle sounds and help her concentrate on the task at hand. Weeding around lettuce and spinach plants requires keen powers of differentiation.

Standing and stooping while working in fields gave her experience orienting her body in open surroundings. Slowly she overcame the tendency to lurk and lean on perimeters.

Priebe came to appreciate repetitive tasks, believing they gave her space for emotional healing. Her injury had changed her, and her relationships.

She believes her status with her daughter and son was diminished because now they were often cast in the mothering role, driving her to appointments and checking on her welfare.

Yet, Priebe said she found a sense of accomplishment in washing produce and packing boxes to fill orders from local restaurants and Community Supported Agriculture customers.

She attended Farm-to-Table dinners at other organic farms and felt accepted and encouraged by the farmworkers. She was knitting a new network of social support – another key to living with a disability.

“The farm helped me relearn how to function in the world,” said Priebe, who previously worked as a paralegal secretary and dental assistant. “I also learned to tolerate my limitations and be grateful for gains I’m making now.”

Is nature therapy for you?