Disability nonprofit seeks partnerships to succeed

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For the staff at the Independence Center, it’s all about never seeing their clients again.

That’s because their mission is to teach the disabled to be more self-sufficient, preferably completely independent, no matter what their disability might be.

In the current economic climate, that effort takes more effort than ever before, and so the group is seeking new partners in its mission. It also has opened its first store.

“We need people to serve on the board of directors, and we really need business leaders,” said Doug Heyliger, community outreach coordinator. “About 51 percent of our board members are disabled, and now we want to bring business leaders into the mix.”

The nonprofit group also is looking for other nonprofits with similar missions that could fill in gaps to create a more collaborative atmosphere.

“Let’s face it, the government money has gone,” Heyliger said. “Donations are down. All nonprofits are facing a tough time — we need to work together.”

The group already is collaborating with Peak Vista Health Centers to create outreach programs for homeless people who are also disabled.

Jonathan Munoz is learning to run the cash register at the coffee shop at the Colorado Springs Independence Center. The center teaches people with all levels of disabilities to become independent.

Jonathan Munoz is learning to run the cash register at the coffee shop at the Colorado Springs Independence Center. The center teaches people with all levels of disabilities to become independent.

The center was created by people with disabilities — and more than 75 percent of its paid employees are disabled in some way. From a resource center in a one-car garage to a huge complex on Tejon Street, the center has come a long way. CSIC serves people with disabilities in El Paso, Teller, Kiowa, Kit Carson, Park, Lincoln, Cheyenne and Elbert counties. Altogether, it sees more than 500 people a year.

Much of its operating money comes from fees. Its cooking, keyboarding and computer courses all are fee-based. The Independence Center also provides home health care for 179 people in the Colorado Springs area.

“We get our money from Medicare, but also from fees,” Heyliger said. “But these are uncertain times for Medicare.”

Branching out, the center has opened its first Accessibility Store in southern Colorado. Among other items, the store is full of large-print items for the visually impaired, and electronic devices for blind people who want to use computers. There are even vitamins for sale for visual acuity.

“The thing about accessibility equipment — people want to know what they’re getting. They want to touch it, feel it. There are many products out there, but there are differences in the products, so people want to try it out before they buy,” Heyliger said. “That’s not something they’ve been able to do before now. Brick-and-mortar stores (for the disabled) are rare.”

Rarer still, the store’s employees will come to you if you can’t come to them, visiting customers’ homes to demonstrate products when necessary.

And in today’s economic environment, the center strives to go the extra mile to help people with disabilities find employment. It won’t do actual job searches, but staffers will train people for some jobs. There’s a coffee shop, for instance, inside the center, where people can train to run the cash register or learn customer-service skills.

“Overall, we don’t want to see the consumers again,” Heyliger jokes. “We want them to be completely independent. And we’re willing to help them get there.”

Amy Gillentine can be reached at 719-329-5205 or at amy.gillentine@csbj.com. Friend her on Facebook.