- Associated Press - Saturday, February 1, 2020

GERING, Neb. (AP) - Living with a disability can be difficult, but a local organization is working to make things a little easier.

Independence Rising is an Independent Living Center with offices throughout central and western Nebraska. The Gering location services the entire Panhandle.

According to the Independent Living Institute, independent living is a “worldwide movement of disabled people who work for self-determination, self-respect and equal opportunities.”

It’s the philosophy that someone with a disability is the best person to understand their situation and support others through their experiences, according to program manager and independent living supervisor Mary Stockwell. The goal of Independent Rising is to help people minimize their reliance on others when it comes to decision making and performing day-to-day tasks.

The organization is primarily centered around five core services funded by the federal government that are offered to consumers at no cost. These include:

- Independent living skills training

- Advocacy

- Peer mentoring

- Information and referrals

- Transition services

Those who utilize the services have a self-disclosed, disabling condition that interferes with reaching their community based living goals, Stockwell said. Individuals can self-refer, but the agency also gets referrals from various sources including doctors offices, schools and the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We’re considered a cross-disability agency,” she told the Scottsbluff Star-Herald. “We serve people with any kind of disability.”

Whether it is physical, cognitive, intellectual or related to mental and behavioral health, Independent Rising can help.

An independent living center may be mistaken for an assisted living or long-term care facility, but they’re not the same.

“It’s not a facility,” said Stockwell. “It’s where people can go for information, support and assistance in working toward community based living goals.”

In addition to the five core services, Independent Rising offers other programs to help those with disability in the community.

Among them is durable medical equipment rental. This includes things like transfer boards, manual wheelchairs, walkers, canes and bath benches.

In order to fill local needs, the organization accepts donations of gently used equipment from 8-12 p.m. on Monday-Friday at their office, located inside Northfield Apartments at 2350 Five Rocks Road. Those who want to donate are encouraged to contact Jamie Schweda, administrative coordinator and independent living specialist at 633-7025.

“We don’t take power wheelchairs,” Schweda said, explaining that they don’t have the resources to ensure they’re in good, working condition. “Other than that, we take pretty much anything.”

In rural areas, it can be difficult to find medical equipment. In some cases, it isn’t covered by insurance and may be too expensive for the average patient. In other cases, they may hold off on getting equipment they need because they have to get approval from their insurance company.

“They have to wait for it and they don’t have time to wait,” Schweda said.

That’s where Independence Rising’s equipment rental program comes in - a person can rent a piece of equipment for four months for $10.

“Our equipment has been a good addition to what is in the community,” Stockwell said.

Schweda said she sees the need for the service almost daily.

“It’s kind of exciting, talking to people and they are so grateful,” she said. “They didn’t know what they were going to do.”

Over half the organization’s workforce is disabled, including Schweda, which allows them to form deeper connections with their client base - they just get it.

Peer Link, a peer support program offered in Scotts Bluff and Kimball counties, is designed to help individuals with a mental and/or behavioral health diagnosis.

Staff members in the program have a personal history with mental health conditions and are certified peer support specialists, Stockwell said. This is a fee for service program and consumers are funded through Medicaid or Region I Behavioral Health.

Another peer support program, called Family Advocacy, Mentoring and Empowerment - or FAME - is offered for families who have children with mental or behavioral health issues.

“The peer support specialists have gone through the same situations,” Stockwell said. “They have a child with a mental or behavioral issue.”

This is also a fee for service program, primarily funded by Medicaid but other funding sources are available.

As part of the DHHS Family Support Program Services, the organization is a first responder for families who call the Nebraska Family Helpline at 888-866-8660.

Independence Rising also offers life skills classes to detainees in the Scotts Bluff County Detention Center and the staff is available to help them transition back into the community through their services.

“We’re always looking for collaboration opportunities in the community and ways to connect with other agencies,” said Stockwell. “Anybody that is interested in that context should reach out and give us a call.”

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