Nonprofit group expands options for Summit County residents with disabilities
NorthWest Colorado Center for Independence
Location: 249 Warren Ave. #207, P.O. Box 26282, Silverthorne, CO 80498
Contact: Sandy Lahmann, Independent Living Coordinator
For more information about the Summit Action Group, contact Jerry Van Voorst at (970) 871-4838 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When Sandy Lahmann moved to Summit County in 2004, she was certain she had found her permanent residence.
However, it was partway through her first semester as a special education teacher for Summit Middle School when she began exhibiting symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Commonly known as MS, multiple sclerosis is a disease that attacks the central nervous system, resulting in physical symptoms including fatigue, weakness and difficulty with mobility.
Working more than 60 hours a week became too difficult, and Lahmann had to quit her teaching job. She remained in Summit until 2008, when she realized she had to move due to lack of available resources for her disability.
“I wound up making that decision that I had to leave, and it was just devastating,” Lahmann said.
Now she’s back, with a new job and a new mission, as the independent living coordinator for the NorthWest Colorado Center for Independence (NWCCI).
The main office for NWCCI is in Steamboat Springs. The center serves people in Routt, Moffat, Summit, Rio Blanco and Grand counties. The Silverthorne office opened officially this July.
The state of Colorado has 10 main independence centers, Lahmann said, many of which have satellite offices, and cover all the state’s counties. The Developmental Disabilities Resource Center is located in Denver.
“That geographical distance has been a bit of a barrier, so there hasn’t been as many services up here as there should be,” she said.
That’s what Lahmann and the NWCCI are planning to change.
The center offers four core services — independent living skills training, peer support, individual and systems advocacy, and information and referral programs.
Sometimes, people know exactly what they want.
“Our clients come to us and just say, ‘I have this goal, I have this problem,’ and then we help them achieve those goals and solve those problems, and that could go in so many different directions,” Lahmann said.
No matter what a person’s goal, her job is to help them do it.
“Every adult should have that chance, that right to explore and to learn from their own mistakes, so we support that,” she said. “We don’t tell the person, ‘You can’t do this.’ … A lot of times, they make it toward goals that nobody expected they could.”
Other times, Lahmann helps people find information who have no idea what type of support or options might be available to them. The best way to find out is to ask.
NWCCI is funded by the state, and its services come at no cost to the client. Eligibility is also broad (no age limits, for example) and easy to work out with a quick meeting and filling out a single form.
“With all the other complicated eligibility processes,” Lahmann said, “it’s nice to just have something simple, straightforward.”
The center is currently searching for more sources of funding.
“State funding only goes so far and we really want to increase our capacity,” said Lahmann. “So to really do everything that we want to do, we’re going to be pursuing all that private funding that we can to really be able to do a lot more within the county.”
One of the unique aspects of NWCCI is that many of its employees not only work with people with disabilities, but live with them as well. At least 51 percent of staff members and board members must have a disability. This is to ensure an understanding between center workers and their clients.
“It takes a person with a disability to really understand what the barriers are out there,” said Lahmann. Before her diagnosis, when she worked with special needs children, she hadn’t been able to fully access what life was like for them. Now, she has a much better idea.
“We tend to sometimes fall into this authority — I’m the professional, I’m the authority, you should do what I tell you to do — but if you don’t have a disability, you might have missed stuff,” she said. “There’s things you miss, and I learned that the hard way.”
One of the things she likes best about her job is that she can act as a role model for other people with disabilities.
“‘If Sandy can do that, maybe I can do some things,’ and there’s this magic that happens when we start to connect as people having a similar experience and helping each other,” she said. “It’s very fulfilling. I’ve grown a lot. I get the chance to grow a lot in this position.”
Along with the satellite office, the NWCCI started an Action Group for Summit County, led by Jerry Van Voorst, administrative assistant at NWCCI in Steamboat. The purpose of the action group is to connect individuals with disabilities and seniors with service providers in the community, and pinpoint areas where change needs to be made.
The group meets the first Thursday of every month, and features a presentation by community organizations (FIRC, for example, and the Summit Combined Housing Authority) and a following discussion. Anyone is welcome to attend the meetings.
“Housing is a big issue in Summit County,” Van Voorst said, “and we’re interested in pursuing options … for getting more accessible housing in Summit County.”
Employment is another issue that many individuals seek help for from the center. Lahmann said that strong communication between the business and potential employee with disabilities is key.
“We have to do it in a way that works for the business as well as the individual and to find the proper match, to have the appropriate support,” she said. “It’s not about the business babysitting, the business doing a charitable good deed. The business still needs to make money, the business still needs to have that job complete.”
Aside from work, individuals with disabilities sometimes have difficulty accessing enough recreation and social activities. Lahmann and the NWCCI work not only to connect people to these options, but see what’s missing and expand in the areas needed.
“This isn’t a charitable thing,” Lahmann said. “We’re not out there asking for charity. We’re asking for people with disabilities to have the same opportunities in the community that everyone else has, and that benefits the community.”
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