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Vernon agency marks 30 years of empowering people with disabilities

Independent Living Vernon turned 30 on Wednesday, Sept. 13
Independent Living Vernon support worker Lisa Briggs (left) stands with longtime volunteer Leon Schwartz and Susan Novecoski. The agency had its 30th anniversary in Vernon Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)

Navigating a cookie-cutter world can be a challenge for people living with disabilities.

Fortunately, people with all kinds of disabilities in Vernon have a place to turn to when their environment doesn’t suit their individual needs.

That’s been the case for exactly 30 years, ever since Independent Living Vernon (ILV) first opened its doors on Sept. 13, 1993.

Despite three decades of removing barriers for people with disabilities, the non-profit agency is relatively unknown, working in the background to get people disability placards for their vehicles, filing Canada Pension Plan applications on behalf of clients, or referring people to organizations like Turning Points Collaborative Society to get them off the streets and under a roof.

“We are one of the best kept secrets in Vernon,” says Lisa Briggs, a support worker and special events coordinator who has been with ILV for more than 20 years.

But the secret is slowly getting out.

“People are becoming more aware of us because of all the things that we do,” said Briggs, adding the agency is getting a lot of referrals from doctors, service providers, family members and the City of Vernon.

For Briggs, consumer control is the key to ILV’s success and longevity.

That means keeping clients in the driver’s seat, allowing them to make their own decisions and preserve their agency while playing a supporting role.

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“It’s to help people be as independent as possible, just needing some services and supports along the way, but making decisions themselves,” said Briggs.

ILV is unique in at least one way: they serve people with any kind of disability, all under one roof, from someone who hurt their ankle at work to someone with major schizophrenia.

“We’re the only agency in the whole Interior that I’m aware of that does that,” Briggs said.

The agency supports at least 30 people a day, and the need for its services has grown over the years. Briggs says 25 per cent of people in the Okanagan identify as having some type of disability, up from 18 per cent in previous years, according to data from the federal government.

“(The need) is definitely increasing, but I also think that we’re getting more well-known, the word is getting out.”

ILV is located in the People Place on 27th Avenue, a building that houses a number of non-profits, including the John Rudy Health Resource Centre and BC Mental Health Substance Use Services. It’s an ideal location for an agency that attempts to provide “one-stop shopping” for people looking to overcome challenges and thrive.

In her 20-plus years, Briggs has seen a number of success stories.

“I’ve had people come in here who have had no housing, have been on the streets, and they come and see me after filling out an application for disability … and they come back in and they have a job, they have housing, and are well on their way to moving forward. That’s huge.”

She recalls assisting people with severe disabilities who have never had a comfortable bed to sleep in.

“We advocated for them to get a bed with the ministry and the next thing you know they’ve got a bed and they’re sleeping comfortably.”

The staff and board at ILV know what people with disabilities deal with on a daily basis, because many of them live with their own disabilities.

One of the agency’s most popular programs is its peer support groups - one for youth (although due to popular demand, no one is turned away because of their age) called Young at Heart, and a second peer support group, called the Friendship group, gets people together on a weekly basis.

Leon Schwartz met his late wife at an ILV peer support group. He since started volunteering with the agency, sat on its board, and started his own peer support group. He’s been a part of ILV for more than 20 years.

“They helped me a lot in my life,” he said. “They help the community tremendously. I can’t even name all the things they do.”

There are challenges ILV faces, from the doctor shortage which affects their clients’ ability to complete applications, to the fact that they are not government funded.

To address the latter challenge, the agency is holding its first Dance Through the Decades fundraising event at the Elks Hall Nov. 3. People can dress up and accessorize in the style of their decade of choice. The adult only event includes a silent auction, snacks, a 50/50 draw, booze in a barrel raffle and a full bar.

The dance is a return to past days where the agency had more fundraising initiatives, including an annual golf tournament. There’s also the annual Moving for Independence event that takes place in May.

“You can cycle in it, skateboard, just about everything,” Briggs said of the event that’s been around for more than 20 years.

Asked what ILV means to her, outreach worker Crystal Williams says it’s about encouraging people to do what needs to be done for themselves and their future.

“It means a place where people with disabilities can go and be independent and learn about resources to keep their independence going, and also gain skills for social development,” she said.

There’s no need to get a referral to become a client at ILV. Just walk in the door, or give them a call at 250-545-9292. As Briggs says, “There’s always room for more.”

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Brendan Shykora
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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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