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Living with a Disability, Living Independently, Living LIFE

By: Janelle LoBello

Christy Dunaway, Executive Director of LIFE
Christy Dunaway,
Executive Director of LIFE, right, with Dr. Scott Crawford
Christy Dunaway has been working for Living Independence for Everyone (LIFE) of Mississippi since 1995 and can relate to her job quite well. "I'm a person with a disability myself since birth," explains Dunaway, currently the Executive Director of LIFE. "I have triple amputation; both arms just below the elbow and my left leg just below the knee."

LIFE, in which 79% of the staff are living with a disability, is a center for independent living under Title VII, Part C of the Rehabilitation Act. The organization provides independent living services to individuals living with significant disabilities and enables them to live as independent as possible in their communities.

Getting people back into the community
The Reeve Foundation awarded a Quality of Life Grant in 2009 to LIFE to support an AmeriCorps program LIFE has been sponsoring for nine years called LINC (Linking Individuals into Neighborhoods and Communities).

Members of AmeriCorps (a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service which offers opportunities for adults to serve with local and national nonprofit groups) are hired by LIFE to work with the LINC program to assist individuals living with disabilities as they move from institutional settings, such as nursing homes, back into communities. "LINC is a good program. I've been in the business since '83," jokes Dunaway, "and never has anybody approached me and asked to move them into a nursing home."

There are currently 22 AmeriCorps members working in the LINC program, three of whom are living with a spinal cord injury.

John K. Lawrence, Jr., 29, a member of one of LIFE's programs who was involved in a dirt bike accident in December 2007 causing spinal shock and broken pieces of his vertebrae at T8-T9, fully believes in the organization. "Without the support of LIFE there would be a lot of people out there with a whole lot worse way of living," says Lawrence. "LIFE is a true blessing to so many people."

John Lawrence, AmeriCorps member working with the LINC Project
John Lawrence,
AmeriCorps member working
with the LINC Project

"I regularly go to the local rehabs to talk to new injuries in order to help them through their transition period," explains Lawrence of some of his work. "I also help people with disabilities find ways to stay in their homes, and not have to go to a group home and help them find housing to get them out of a group home."

As service members, those involved in LINC receive eight hours of training on how to conduct site surveys. Dunaway explains it is to see if local businesses are meeting all accessibility guidelines in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"They do the site surveys in the community for where they are planning to move the person," says Dunaway, "places the consumer indicted he'll most likely to frequent, like the grocery store, drug store, doctor's office. They'll go in, talk to managers, and help the managers of those businesses become more aware of accessibility issues. So far, in the past year, 75 or 80 site surveys through the state have been done. So, that's what the Reeve Foundation has done for us!"

The service members' work results in learned skills they might have never had before.

"It [LINC] turned out to be the best thing in the world," says Dunaway. "It brings younger people and middle-aged people on board who have disabilities, and they are giving back to community. They are learning how to work as a team, learning skills they didn't have before hand, learning to work in an office environment. They leave us after a year or two, and have a whole wealth of skills they may not have had before."

Lawrence doesn't believe he would be as independent and healthy if it weren't for his experience with LINC. "It has given me the confidence to carry on with my life, which otherwise I believe would not be as good as it is now."

A community of their own
In addition to a monthly living allowance, being eligible for health insurance and child care, and receiving a $4,800 educational award at the end of their service year, the support among one another is a gift those who are part of LINC gain from the experience.

"This program is a true blessing for people like me," believes Lawrence. "Without it, I truly believe I would be very depressed and in and out of hospitals. The help I have received by being around ‘my own kind' and helping them in return is something that is unexplainable. My only wish is that as many people who could benefit from this experience would be able to."

John and other AmeriCorps members
John (back row, center) and other AmeriCorps members

"All of these guys, whatever their disabilities are, spend time together, they work together, and they end up of being a huge support system for one another," says Dunaway. "We see people who've been injured, come in here, and don't have great skills. They have UTIs [urinary tract infections], weight management issues, and depression issues, and they get around people with another spinal cord injury or disability and they just start talking. It just leads to increased health benefits. It's just an overall healthier lifestyle for them."

Relief after Hurricane Katrina
A 2007 Quality of Life grant from the Reeve Foundation was used to replenish much of the medical and equipment supplies that were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"We maintain equipment loan closets where people can donate used equipment to us, such as wheelchairs, wheelchair cushions, and soft supplies like catheters," says Dunaway. "The one in Biloxi was just destroyed and we lost everything in there. It flooded everything, just ruined it. The loan closet in Harrisburg was fairly well stocked. We emptied that closet in two days because so many people on the Gulf coast with disabilities lost their equipment."

Though Dunaway says the disability community in this country was very generous in sending new equipment to give out, LIFE was still depleted of much of what they had. "We still had this huge need for manual wheelchairs," recalls Dunaway, "and not the drug store type!"

With the Reeve Foundation grant, and a matching grant from the Mississippi Paralysis Association, LIFE was able to restock many of the supplies that were lost during Katrina. "We bought wheelchairs and wheelchair cushions so we replenished the loan closet," says Dunaway "In three years, it went real fast. We loaned out to individuals, who to my knowledge, are still using the items today."

Chris Guzman, far left, and Ryan Esteppe, far right, are two of the AmeriCorps members working
with the LINC program

Confidence for all
"The biggest benefit is giving individuals with disabilities the confidence that they need to leave this program and go out in the real world," says Dunaway. "They can find a job and become more productive citizens in their communities."

"Unemployment among people with disabilities is high," says Dunaway. "A lot of that is people with disabilities being afraid to lose benefits, afraid to lose Medicaid or Medicare. Fear of not being able to do a job well. Fear of being ostracized and stereotyped. And this program, I think, gives them the confidence and the skills that they need to be employed. We're not in the vocational rehab field. It's not what we do, but it's like a major positive side effect of what we do."

Learn More
The Reeve Foundation Quality of Life program awards grants to non-profit organizations that provide services to individuals with paralysis.

Read more about Quality of Life grants given for Hurricane Katrina Disability Relief Initiative.

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Continue Christopher Reeve's LegacyPhoto by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders