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City agency helps disabled residents succeed in their own homes

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Since 1993, the disAbility Resource Center of the Rappahannock Area has provided a broad array of resources, programs and personnel to help disabled residents in the region live in the comfort of their own homes.

“We want people to live in their home and not direct them to institutional care” said Debra Fults, who leads the center in Fredericksburg. “Our focus is helping people learn how to live well in the community with a disability.”

Chima Okafor, 24, of Fredericksburg, was referred to the disAbility Resource Center by his mentor at North Stafford High School eight years ago. Okafor said the center taught him how to manage personal finances, live on his own, obtain a driver’s license and eventually land a job at Marine Corps Base Quantico, where he’s a team leader of a custodial crew.

“I always recommend people go to the disAbility Resource Center,” Okafor said. “When I first went there, I loved it and I’ve kept going.”

Fredericksburg’s nonresidential Center for Independent Living is one of 403 other similar centers across the U.S. operated by people with disabilities. There’s 17 of them in Virginia, and the one in Fredericksburg serves all ages and all disabilities within Planning District 16, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George.

With just 14 people on its staff, Fredericksburg’s disAbility Resource Center helps facilitate free vaccinations, helps parents get the best possible education for their children and loans medical gear through their Equipment Connection at 1503 Princess Anne Street. They also help disabled residents pay their gas or electric bills, access Social Security and other health care benefits, or find them a job through support and advocacy.

“We’ve heard so many times, we’re the best kept secret in Fredericksburg,” said Fults, whose managed the center since it opened in 1998. “We are the best place to start when someone is disabled.”

Fults said her agency also helps the disabled community discover support and benefits they oftentimes never know they’re entitled to. There’s even help for those who suddenly become temporarily disabled due to an accident at home or for those who need an access ramp to their house. Fults said the center has the resources to make the right referrals in those cases, and can also determine if money can be saved through grants or other funding.

“Our focus is helping people learn how to live well in the community with a disability,” Fults said. “It really depends on the individual because some people aren’t motivated to begin with and other people say, ‘I’ve got this I’m going to do this,’ but, they need to know how to do it.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 61 million people in the U.S. live with a disability. Locally, Fults said about 1,600 people find their way to her center each year through referrals by physician’s offices, rehabilitation facilities, schools or when the person walks through the door.

Becca Riley, a 21-year-old college student from Stafford, said an internet search for ways to live independently brought her to the doors of the disAbility Resource Center when she was a senior at Colonial Forge High School. She said she joined a peer-on-peer group at the center where she learned how to manage her finances and live on her own.

“And that was super helpful because I did end up living in the dorms at Mary Washington for a year,” Riley said.

Riley said she plans to return to the center as an intern in the spring to work and learn from others as she prepares to finish her bachelor’s degree in psychology.

“I wanted to return there because of the very positive experiences I had with the (group) there,” Riley said. “I want to be able to share what I learned and what I still have to learn.”

Grace Marshall, who serves as a community integration specialist at the center, said her peer-on-peer group meets every Wednesday afternoon and includes about 15 people who focus on independent living skills and other topics each time they meet.

“The last three times I presented was about budgeting, but we’ve also talked about responsibility in the household, those kinds of things,” Marshall said. “We talk a lot about responsibility.”

Marshall said although the average age in the group is about 30 years old, there are younger participants.

“A young man and a young lady—they’re both in college—they have the confidence now to keep going,” Marshall said. “I believe the group has helped them a lot. They believe in themselves.”

Advocacy is another service offered at the center and although Fults said her agency doesn’t enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 in the local community, she said her center does respond to citizen concerns when violations of the Act are suspected.

“If a community member identifies a problem, we try to provide technical assistance on how that issue can be resolved,” Fults said. “A business could also ask us for an accessibility audit, which we can provide.”

Other groups at the center offer the latest breakthroughs in hearing loss technologies or the challenges those with hearing loss face at home or in public. Fults said unused hearing aids are always welcome at the center, where an audiologist later fits the devices for disabled residents who can’t afford them.

“The cost is zero,” Fults said.

The disAbility Resource Center is a private, nonprofit organization that relies heavily on donations from the community. The center also receives funding from a core service grant through Virginia’s Department for Aging and Rehabilitation Services, as well as from local governments within Planning District 16. Fults said those local governments contribute anywhere from $8,000 to $24,000 annually.

“I wish I would have heard about (the disAbility Resource Center) sooner,” Riley said. “It’s something I think all parents of kiddos with disabilities need to know about because it’s an incredible place.”

Visit cildrc.org for more information or call 540/373-2559.

James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438

jbaron@freelancestar.com

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