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TRPIL/Voices: 'One Stop' for Independence

By Lois Thomson

"We don't want to be the first stop, but rather one stop." That's how Steve Johnson, director of marketing, describes Voices for Independence (VFI), an organization that speaks out for the equality and rights of people with disabilities. VFI, with its headquarters in Erie, became affiliated with TRPIL – Transitional Paths to Independent Living – about a year ago, and it's an example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Both organizations are federal Centers for Independent Living.

Johnson said TRPIL, located in Washington, PA, provides five core services: Information & Referral, Advocacy, Peer Support, Independent Living Skills Training, and Transition Services. "TRPIL will continue to provide those five services, and VFI also offers those services, but has taken it further by offering so much more." He said, for example, that if someone suddenly becomes disabled and now resides at a nursing facility, that person may not know where to turn. "If an individual wants to get back into the community, we have nursing home transition (NHT) staff who can talk with them about what they hope to accomplish. They can collaborate with a social worker on a discharge plan.

"NHT can help someone find accessible and affordable housing, but they don't just say 'here's your apartment.' NHT also provides a bed, couch, cooking items, and essentials. If someone needs an accessible bathroom, widened doorways, or needs to have a ramp installed, our home modification department can step in. Many will need in-home care, which VFI also provides, hiring caregivers daily. There's no charge, as these are Medicaid-funded programs."

VFI renovated a one-floor schoolhouse in Erie and turned it into a fully accessible building. Steve Johnson said, "We have events – everything from live music and crafts, to cooking classes in an accessible kitchen – and everyone is welcome, even people who don't have any affiliation with VFI." There is also a state-of-the-art gym, free weights, a rowing machine that's accessible, and a paramill – a treadmill for wheelchair users. Likewise, TRPIL has entered Phase II of its Capital Campaign to renovate the former YWCA building in Washington, Pa., which will focus on a fitness center, an accessible kitchen, and re‑doing the YWCA's auditorium.

Johnson said more important than what the organizations do is why they do it. "The goal is to help people to become more independent than they were before. We're trying to make sure we do as much as we can for as many as we can, but we're about quality, not quantity."

Shona Eakin is CEO of VFI, and Johnson said her mentor was Kathleen Kleinmann, former CEO of TRPIL. "Kathleen was planning her retirement, and she asked if Shona would like to take over as leader of TRPIL; so she now serves as CEO of both organizations." Johnson added, "Having grown up in the area as an individual with a disability, Shona lives our mission statement, and lives it well." Eakin's history and experience were instrumental in bringing the two organizations together.

"TRPIL has been around for more than 30 years, and VFI just turned 27 in December. Together, we're now serving a total of 27 counties, so we've grown exponentially and we're trying to reach more and more people in the community. We don't just want to see people with disabilities survive, we want them to thrive. We want to breathe life back into the community, no strings attached, no fees, we just want people to live independently."

For more information, call (724) 223-5115 or visit www.vficil.org

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