Valley Life for All: Widening the circle of community
Post Independent Contributor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Alex Bender was born with Down Syndrome 19 years ago, but that hasn’t stopped her from doing the things she loves. Two years ago, she was selected to represent Colorado at the National Summer Special Olympics in Lincoln, Neb. In January 2013, she and four others will represent the United States at the World Winter Special Olympic Games in South Korea.
Her mother, Margaret “Gary” Bender, says Alex has always been determined.
“She’s just another kid,” explained Bender. “She wants to be a part of everything.”
Alex, a Basalt High School grad who has been accepted into the College of New Jersey, was also the inspiration for Valley Life for All (VLFA), a grassroots group that Bender set up two years ago.
Gary and her husband, John, and their three kids, Alex, Tom and Courtney, moved to El Jebel from the Chicago suburbs in 2006. Bender hoped to find local groups that could help Alex, but it was difficult.
“There were no organizations in place that advocated within the community to include people with disabilities in everyday events.” she recalled.
Bender strongly believes that people with disabilities can be a part of the community instead of separated into their own schools, classes and housing.
“Inclusion starts at a really young age,” she explained. “When peers learn early on that people with disabilities are more like them than different, the community becomes more inclusive as families evolve.”
So in November 2010, Bender and Katie Grange from Pitkin County, whose son Max has cerebral palsy, met with people from all over the Roaring Fork Valley.
“She was upvalley and I was downvalley,” explained Bender. “We put our heads together and came up with VLFA.”
VLFA is based on a nationwide model for self-advocacy called Assets-Based Community Development (ABCD), which uses churches, art centers, schools, libraries, and community colleges, as well as the skills of local residents, to help people with disabilities live on their own.
Bender said instead of creating programs that segregate people with disabilities from the rest of the community, VFLA encourages the community to include them in activities that already exist.
“It gives them the opportunity to participate naturally within the community,” said Bender. “I believe if a person wants to live on their own, we can make that happen.”
So far, VFLA has received funding from the Healthy Communities Fund and participated in health and human services initiatives with the Aspen Community Foundation. It has partnered with the Aspen Thrift Shop, Americorps and the Roaring Fork Leadership Group to develop its website.
VFLA is also part of a task force working on housing initiatives that will allow people with disabilities to live in housing of their choice. This year, VFLA received a state grant that proves Bender is on the right track.
She said the grant, awarded to VFLA from the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council, shows that the state supports initiatives that help people with disabilities live on their own and that rural communities are getting more attention. The goal of the 15-month grant is to help people with disabilities and their families develop community leadership skills with civics classes and the opportunity to create projects that will benefit the entire community.
Only a small portion of the valley’s disabled population will participate, but Bender said she plans to involve as many community members as possible.
“The curriculum calls for classes on government systems, the history of the disability movement, community-building, and technology,” she explained. “I plan to bring in mayors, lawyers, and [legislators] to help out.”
VFLA’s Leadership Initiative has openings for 15 people, including relatives of people with disabilities. The group will decide how many projects to create and next March will travel to Denver to present their projects to the CDDC and meet with state legislators.
“I think it will be very powerful,” said Bender.
She would also like to see more involvement from the Hispanic community.
“We will have a translator for all of the classes,” she added.
This year’s grant makes VFLA eligible for the same funding next year, which puts Bender on a fast track towards her ideal of what she calls a “real life” for all people with disabilities.
“It’s all about the community getting involved and participating to enact change,” she said. “Come join us.”
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