Tuesday, April 24, 2012

People First needs a little help from its friends

“People with disabilities gain self-empowerment with organizations like People First. It is also a way to help people get out of their house and in with other people. We are also helping other people learn more about people with disabilities. We learn to become leaders in our community. We have become voting citizens. And it is a lot of fun …for everyone.” — Jason Billehus, People First, Missoula

The downturn in America’s economy has hurt workers, businesses, homeowners and families. It has also distressed an important advocacy group in Montana.

The Montana Advocacy Coalition, the group that oversees Montana’s 12 People First chapters, had about $200 in its account as of April 5 and faced the prospect of dissolving after September, according to Gay Moddrell of Kalispell, a longtime adviser to the self-advocacy group. 

After it makes its April payments, the coalition will have about $300 in the bank, hardly enough to cover workers’ compensation for People First advisers and liability insurance (about $1,000 annually) for club activities across the state. The coalition formerly paid advisers $200 a month but has cut those payments in half. Payments will end altogether this year.

People First has turned for help to friends, including Disability Rights Montana and Summit Independent Living Center. They’ve helped with cash donations and other support, while partnerships with Kiwanis Aktion Clubs have kept chapters in several communities going. Local fund-raisers have helped, as well. 

Still, many chapters will likely fold this year without more help.

What would it mean to members to lose People First? At a focus session last April, they expressed fear of being isolated from their friends and their communities without the connection to People First.   

“Many people said they would feel the loss as if it were the loss of a family member,” said Jen Bell, who helped conduct the focus session. “For some members, the People First family is the most supportive and understanding family they have. Some members have few other people to lean on for support.”

Longtime members would feel the loss “dramatically,” Bell said.

“For newer members, the loss would be equally significant,” she said. “Many people with disabilities, just coming out of high school, have little to ‘transition’ to. People First gives people with disabilities options that would not exist for them otherwise.” 

There’d be no need for People First in a perfect, inclusive world. 

In the meantime, the group needs suggestions and solutions. You can send them to Apostrophe at editor@apostrophemagazine.com, and we’ll forward them to chapter presidents across the state.

For a personal account of what People First means, please read Carol Neisess’ column on page 7 in Apostrophe (www.apostrophemagazine.com).

As always in Apostrophe, you’ll find columns and stories that reinforce the idea that we should look beyond labels and disabilities, that we should look at everyone as a person first.

 — Jim Tracy  

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