ICS Independent Living Program Empowers Members
“The program connects and supports members. It provides stability and reminds them that someone is there for them. Our team feels like we’re making a difference in the lives of members, whether with small victories or major accomplishments.”
Launched in 2017, the ILP addresses the needs of members with physical disabilities — including spinal cord injuries (SCI) and multiple sclerosis (MS) — by pairing them with mentors who have successfully adjusted to living with similar conditions.
Independent Living Associates — mentors with physical disabilities — work with their “mentees” to support their health, wellness, employment or education goals. Through compassion, guidance, and experience, mentors empower members to overcome obstacles to maintain their health, mobility, and independence — the three pillars of ICS’ Health Home program. Mentors have helped members address various challenges, from depression to housing issues. They have also supported members studying for their U.S. citizenship exam, have linked members with resources such as NYC: ATWORK and other agencies to find and secure employment, and have helped them return to school to earn their General Educational Development (GED).
ILP and the COVID-19 pandemic
The ILP, which is managed by Sharifa, includes three mentors — Norma Blyther, Madeline DeAddio, and Jessica De La Rosa. Sharifa pairs her colleagues with members, and oversees the progress of those pairings. Mentors meet with or have phone or Zoom calls with their mentees regularly, and
Sharifa explained that the program is centered around a strength-based approach, where members focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t, while remaining aware of challenges. By focusing on skills, strengths and resources, the focus shifts from disability, helplessness and loss to action, exploration, and hope.
The program became particularly important with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many members experiencing depression, fear and isolation in addition to having limited resources and support services. Members turned to ICS and the ILP for support.
“During the pandemic, I couldn’t get out. I was high risk,” said ICS member Cathy Kiler-McFadden, who noted she felt isolated and found socializing a challenge.
Cathy later connected with Sharifa and re-connected with the ILP. With Sharifa as her mentor, she socialized with members and built new friendships.
A support system for members
While some members in the program have faced challenges with socialization and mental illness, others have sought guidance for furthering their education or exploring employment opportunities.
As a mentor, Madeline has collaborated with ICS member Alexander Herald who is currently pursuing his GED. Though he previously put his goal on hold due to medical issues, he has returned to the program and is back on track.
To date, Madeline has worked alongside him to overcome many initial challenges. Alexander, who has a spinal cord injury, requires 24-hour care weekly and his PCA was not always available. Madeline and his ICS care navigator worked together to get him connected with the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Program (CDPAP) — a Medicaid-funded program that allows people with chronic illnesses and physical disabilities to hire, train and supervise their own caregivers.
“We needed to stabilize his homecare because he needed the assistance of a PCA to attend class,” Madeline said. “We helped him to understand the best ways to interview PCAs, how to express his needs and to create his schedule. He has purchased a computer, and has applied for online classes. There are a lot of layers that need to be peeled before a member works on their ultimate goal.”
ICS members have found the program rewarding, noting that its structure allows for collaboration, self-expression, problem solving and overall, meaningful human connection that promotes self-care.
ICS member Gyssell Nunez, who connected with Jessica and Madeline on employment and socialization goals, said that she enjoyed the program, her mentors, and learned a great deal about the workforce.
“I learned how to ask for accommodations in the workplace, and appropriate interview questions and follow up questions,” Gyssell said. “I didn’t know I could have a PCA with me when working, or that there are limits to what you can earn as a person with a disability and you could face the risk of losing Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.”
Like many members, Gyssell also struggled with isolation throughout the pandemic, and turned to her mentors for guidance.
“I disconnected from the disability community a long time ago. I was annoyed with people,” Gyssell said. “I said, ‘Don’t you speak about anything else aside from disability?’ During the pandemic, I was very lonely. I didn’t understand Zoom. Jessica and Madeline got me connected with the ILP. I was able to talk about new things, movies, makeup, much more. It opened me up and allowed me to connect with new faces.”
Finding reward in connection
As the program continues to unite people with disabilities in the community, mentors, including Madeline, said the hope is that they can continue to provide members with support to empower them.
“I have absolutely enjoyed mentoring and giving back,” Madeline said. “When they accomplish their goals, it is so rewarding.”
About The Independent
The Independent is ICS’ official newsletter, featuring the latest stories around ICS, its members and staff, as well as news on what’s happening in the disability community at large.