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Toledo, Ohio & Lake Erie

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Eryn Sanders, Rural Outreach Coordinator for The Ability Center of Greater Toledo, Ottawa Office, was awarded the Linda Gonzalez Award through the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL) at the organization’s national conference held in October. Sanders is an Elmore native who currently lives in Millbury.

APRIL is a national grassroots non-profit membership organization consisting of Centers for Independent Living, their satellites and branch offices, statewide Independent Living Councils, and other organizations and individuals concerned with the independent living issues of people with disabilities living in rural America.

At the organization’s annual conference, held in a rural part of the country each year, participants and presenters from throughout the country come together to talk about the challenges and resources available for people with disabilities living in rural America.

The conference also includes the presentation of the Linda Gonzales Award to a person who has made a significant impact in rural youth issues. Gonzales, dubbed the “Queen of Independent Living,” died July 27, 2013. The award named for her recognizes her strength and resolve, and celebrates her numerous contributions to the youth movement and Independent Living.

Sanders received the award in recognition for her impact on community partnerships in the six rural counties The Ability Center serves.

In addition to her regular duties, in 2012, she took on the role of developing community partnerships with organizations that provide services to youth in the communities, specifically Wood County 4-H, Ottawa County 4-H, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

She made it her mission to ensure the organizations are accepting of and include all youth, with and without disabilities, in their programming.

Working closely with the 4-H in Wood County, she began by developing and leading workshops to teach inclusion to directors, leaders and staff. She then worked with summer camp counselors and staff of 4-H Camp Palmer  in Fayette, Ohio, to make the camp accessible for anyone who utilizes the camp facilities.

As a result of her work, more than 60 youths with disabilities, including 27 new young people, were able to attend Camp Palmer and be included in all its programs, according to Tory Thompson, Director of Rural Outreach for The Ability Center, Ottawa County office.

Her efforts also led to her being named The Ability Center’s Employee of the Year. She will be honored at the January meeting of the Board of Trustees.

The honors and her successes are a very gratifying for the young woman who started as a volunteer at The Ability Center, seeking a way to help others facing the challenges of a disability.

It’s something she knows and understands, having been in a wheelchair since she was 14. Because traumatic birth injury impaired her mobility, school officials became concerned about the risks of her walking on school grounds due to liability reasons, and, despite intercessions by her parents, insisted she use a wheelchair.

“It was frustrating…I’m not saying I wouldn’t have ended up using a wheelchair anyway, but I was trying to prolong it as long as I could.

“I can walk with braces, but they hurt…it’s must easier to use the wheelchair,” she said.

“Because of my situation, I always told my mom and dad that I wanted to empower young people to get what they want out of life,” she said. “Because I knew what it felt like for me.”

After volunteering for four years, she took a job with The Ability Center. Her job entails promoting independence through advocacy, mentoring and independent living assistance for individuals with all types of disabilities, including physical, mental, emotional, and developmental.

“We strongly encourage all our young people and their parents to be involved at meetings with schools or other resources,” she said. “It’s so important to speak up and be your own advocate, because nobody knows what you need more than you do.

“The Ability Center’s goal is to be there – in the background – to empower individuals to be independent and be a part of the community. Hopefully, in turn, they will do the same and empower,” she said. “Our whole goal for the future is to put ourselves out of work.”

Sanders was thrilled that her supervisors considered her when a grant became available for the youth inclusion project. “They said, ‘we think you’ll be perfect for this…you’re young,  you grew up in the country, you’re a go-getter.’”

She looked forward to approaching youth-related community groups to see if they’d be on board for what might be a new way of thinking.

“I started with Wood County 4-H, which was excited for something new,” she said. “We formed a board and worked on concepts to promote inclusion, including things like ‘People First Language,’ which directs language toward the person first, before the disability.

“We encouraged youths to go out and recruit people to join the organization,” she said. “I also enjoyed working with the staff and kids at Camp Palmer, helping to get them comfortable enough to ask questions about me and disabilities in general – the kind you see and the kind that might not be so obvious.”

Sanders is gratified to see the impact of her efforts at Camp Palmer and in the various organizations with which she worked, and she is actively seeking organizations and programs in the Northwest Ohio area wanting to learn more about fostering inclusion for people with all kinds of disabilities.

Clubs, organizations and other groups interested in learning more may contact Sanders at The Ability Center of Greater Toledo-Ottawa Office, located at the Sutton Center, by calling 419-734-0330.

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