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Daily activities 'People with disabilities are much more like us than not like us'

It's hard to say what people might find if they stop in at Havre's assisted-living apartment complex for people with developmental disabilities.

They might find someone cooking dinner. They might find someone listening to Metallica, or someone else listening to Elvis Presley. They might find someone watching movies, or professional wrestling, or "Fear Factor," or "Everybody Loves Raymond." They might find someone going to physical therapy, others going to work, going to a movie at the theater, going shopping or going to karaoke.

They might find people doing things they would find anyone doing.

Lorrie Merrill, quality enhancement coordinator at Big Sandy Activities Inc., said a common misconception is that people with disabilities are completely different from people without disabilities.

"People with disabilities are much more like us than not like us," she said.

Rebecca Hargis is a case manager for Opportunity Resources in Havre, a nonprofit organization providing case management for people with developmental disabilities in Blaine, Chouteau, Hill and Liberty counties.

Hargis said the Havre Day Activity Center Assisted Living Complex is a showpiece that should be a model for other communities.

"You would not believe how happy those 10 people are," she said.

Frances Gohl, as she brewed a pot of coffee for herself Monday night, said she likes living at the complex.

She recently quit one of her jobs, recycling at the Havre Day Activity Center, but started volunteering at Northern Montana Hospital, taking confidential papers to be shredded. She still works at the center doing other jobs.

Gohl stays busy, including making a list and going shopping every week, using her own checking account; putting together jigsaw puzzles that she then glues together and hangs on the wall; riding her exercise bike every day; and collecting cans to recycle.

Another major misconception is that people with developmental disabilities are all the same, Hargis said, both that they act the same way and that they have the same disabilities. Some of the people whose cases she manages have profound disabilities, while others have a very minor cognitive delay.

"On that continuum, we have people who need constant support to people who just need help making some decisions," she said.

Hargis said the job of a case manager is to determine what services the client needs, and to find those services. Local nonprofit or not-for-profit organizations, like Havre Day Activity, Big Sandy Activities and New Horizons Unlimited in Harlem, provide those services.

"We help those persons themselves, as well as their families, identify what is needed and plug them into those services," Hargis said.

The services include residential services, like intensive support group homes and the assisted-living apartment complex, or helping people who live on their own but need some help.

Training is also provided, such as training and therapy for people with severe physical disabilities, and classes on subjects like how to balance a checkbook or use a computer.

Job support includes work like recycling, woodworking and cooking at special work centers; work at contracted jobs like cleaning or taking care of planters for city governments; and helping people find jobs.

The federal government requires that people with developmental disabilities have access to case management services, Hargis said. Over the last 10 years or so, that job has been shifted from state employees to private nonprofit groups.

Those services are becoming more difficult to provide as government funding dries up, said Dale Boespflug, Havre Day Activity Center executive director.

"The lack of funding is really, really serious. We're looking at some major disasters," he said. "It's becoming kind of a critical mass thing. One thing after another becomes an unfunded mandate. You have to do this and you have to do that, but there's no money to do it."

Jean Denning, executive director of Big Sandy Activities, said the lack of funding is an issue both for employees and the people who use their services."There is a huge waiting list because there's a finite, capped amount of money. There are a number of people who are unserved or underserved," she said.

The state organization of service providers, Montana Association of Disability Service Providers, has filed a lawsuit over the inequity of funding, she said. People working for community service providers make about 40 percent less than people doing the same work at the state institution in Boulder, the Montana Developmental Center.

Big Sandy Activities provides a variety of services for its 23 customers with disabilities, including work, transportation, therapy, housing assistance and recreation.

Ron and Don Christenson use services provided by Big Sandy Activities. The twins live together in their own home, and do many things on their own, but receive help from Big Sandy Activities and their community advocates, Kay and Howard Dyrland.

Don Christensen said he and his brother see the Dyrlands regularly, especially on Sunday.

"We pick our own clothes and go to church on Sunday," he said. "We get out of church and go have coffee with them."

The twins have made themselves a cleaning team for the town, picking up trash almost every day.

"We like to pick pop cans up. We keep Big Sandy all clean," Christensen said.

Big Sandy Activities started a new program when it opened the Tumbleweed Gallery in April 2002, a combination art gallery, artists' studio and coffee shop. The gallery had three main goals, Merrill said: giving the people Big Sandy Activities serves another chance to interact with the community, providing a cultural outlet for the community, and giving Nick Fry a studio for his art.

"He's an artist, a struggling artist like anybody else," Merrill said.

Fry, who has been to art shows displaying his work in places like Great Falls and Helena this year, said he started doing art when he was in junior high school in Whitefish.

"That's how I got started. Later on I developed my own artwork," said Fry, 45.

He works in a variety of mediums including pencil, watercolor, chalk and crayon, often mixing them in his pieces. Local people as well as people from out of state have bought his work.

His art ranges from still lifes to prehistoric scenes to space scenes - Fry is a fan of the Star Trek television programs and movies. He also manufactures models of space ships with almost anything he can find, including rubber bands, pipe cleaners, paper clips and ink pens.

One of the goals of the service providers is to help integrate the people with disabilities into the community. Denning said the people of Big Sandy generally accept the people with disabilities, and expect to see them and talk to them at sports events, plays and other community activities.

Hargis said increasing community involvement is one of the functions of People First, a self-advocacy group for people with disabilities. Hargis is an adviser to the Havre People First group.

The members of People First decide what their activities are, she said, but it goes farther than deciding what to do for entertainment.

"Along with your rights come responsibilities and learning to be a contributing member of the community, caring about people," Hargis said. "Also to help people who can't speak for themselves."

Acceptance by the community is progressing much more slowly than success in providing housing, work and training, she said. That was evident a few weeks ago when a group of developmentally disabled were asked to leave a local club during karaoke. The club management said it was concerned that other customers might cause problems for them.

Hargis said the problem is that regardless of the reason, asking people with disabilities to leave is discrimination. They should have the opportunity to take risks just like anyone, she said.

People the programs serve can improve and work their way into situations where they need less help. Gohl progressed from a more intensive-care group home to a less-intensive group home before moving to the apartment complex.

"It's a growth process. It's a stage of life," Boespflug said.

Boespflug said if Havre Day could afford it, he would open more assisted-living complexes.

Marie Keeler, a resident of the complex, said she likes living in her apartment, with plants and vines she has grown decorating the walls. She keeps busy with activities in her apartment, when she has the time. Keeler works five full days a week for Havre Day Activity Center, including working in the wood shop and cooking, then works a second job on a cleaning crew for local businesses.

She still finds time for activities like cooking classes at District IV Human Resources Development Council, and is looking forward to a Halloween party tonight. Keeler is dressing as a vampire.

Mitch Grubb, who lives with his parents, was at the complex Monday to watch professional wrestling with tenants Rod and Russell Larsen, who have separate apartments there. They watch wrestling together most every Monday.

The tenants of the complex, and their friends, do a lot of things together, the three said.

"We like to talk," Grubb added.

Russell Larsen said he likes to watch movies - he has quite a collection of video tapes and a few DVDs in his apartment - as well as listen to music and play his karaoke machine.

"I pretty much always do Elvis songs," he said.


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