Agency helps others help themselvesFor 25 years, North Country Independent Living (NCIL) has stood as an advocate for people with disabilities. From helping consumers navigate the maze of health care options to offering them a ride across town, the agency seeks to empower them, increase their opportunities and help them achieve independence.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
For 25 years, North Country Independent Living (NCIL) has stood as an advocate for people with disabilities. From helping consumers navigate the maze of health care options to offering them a ride across town, the agency seeks to empower them, increase their opportunities and help them achieve independence.
“Independent living isn’t just employment, isn’t just education, isn’t just being active in the community,” said John Nousaine, NCIL director. It’s all that and more. The non-profit agency focuses on employment, education, transportation, housing and, one of the biggest hurdles out there for people with disabilities, public attitudes.
“Slowly but surely, if our work continues, it will get to a point where it doesn’t matter,” Nousaine said.
Everyone is invited to celebrate NCIL’s 25th anniversary from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday at Superior’s Mariner Mall, 69 N. 28th St., Suite 28. There will be free food, prizes, music, face painting, performance groups, belly dancing and even a visit by a Stormtrooper. Information booths will also be set up.
Despite the agency’s long history, many have never heard of it. Once they step in to see what NCIL offers, however, it changes their view.
University of Wisconsin-Superior junior Hannah Lisak-Dorfman started interning with the agency in April. She was impressed with the respect shown to consumers and the value placed on each person’s experiences. At NCIL, where the majority of staff members have disabilities, peer support is a few steps away.
“I think there are a lot of people who feel alone in their disability,” Lisak-Dorfman said. “Really there are other people out there going through the same things.” One of the most empowering things the organization does, she said, is connect people.
Mick MacKenzie, councilor for Superior’s ninth district, said working with the agency’s Transportation Network Team, formerly the STRIDE (Special Transit Ride) Action Committee, was a real eye-opener. He had never realized how low minimum government requirements for accessibility were, or how a small change can make a big difference to a person with a disability. Elevators, ramps and transportation options can clear the playing field so everyone can participate. Sometimes the only thing holding them back, the councilor said, is a set of stairs.
MacKenzie lent his voice to the committee, which managed to secure a STRIDE overflow bus to serve Superior and pushed to encourage better communication with consumers and greater flexibility in ride times.
“Being their voice, sometimes when they’ve given up, makes a difference,” MacKenzie said, and it allows them to continue to be independent.
Perhaps a different telephone or adaptive device can help consumers. NCIL has a “loan closet” of sorts to help people test out different makes and models to find what’s right for them. Staff can also help consumers find funds to pay for the adaptive technology.
Another boost to independence comes in the form of volunteer drivers like Mitch Geer. He heard NCIL was looking for help and thought he’d “give it a whirl.” The retired Superior man has been a volunteer driver for nearly two years.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “You meet other people, you get out, and it makes you feel good to do things for others.”
Geer has driven as far as Hurley and Marshfield, but most of his riders are in Douglas County.
“It liberates them to make their appointments without paying an arm and a leg,” he said. And, Geer added, “I’ve met some real characters.”
NCIL pays mileage, but the drivers must provide their own car and insurance and pass a background check. Geer has three regular riders who go to dialysis appointments weekly. Driving jobs are set up days in advance and are at the driver’s discretion.
“It’s not any real inconvenience and people appreciate it,” said John Williams of Superior, who signed up to be a volunteer driver two months ago. He said his decision to drive is about giving back.
“If you want to help people, this is a good way of doing it,” Williams said.
At its core, NCIL is dedicated to empowerment. They provide advocacy, independent living skills training, peer support and more. Even if they don’t have the right program for a consumer, they can point them in the right direction.
“Think of us as a good first place to call,” Nousaine said. “Because we’re involved in independent living, not just one aspect of independent living, we have a pretty good sense of what’s out there.” And they can help consumers navigate the maze of options or get the perspective of someone who has walked in their shoes.
Bob Olsgard, transportation coordinator for NCIL, said more volunteers are needed.
“ … It’s really important for people to get involved,” he said. “It’s not just what we do as staffers. While that is a lot and it is every day, especially when we’re working for changes in policy, it takes people in the community who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work together.”
People like MacKenzie, Geer, Williams and Lisak-Dorfman.
“From now on I will volunteer here … because it’s a great organization and I would love to help people help themselves,” Lisak-Dorfman said.
For more information on NCIL, which serves people with disabilities in Ashland, Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, Iron, Price, Sawyer and Washburn counties, call 715-392-9118, look up the website at http://www.northcountryil.com/ or stop by the celebration Thursday.