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County residents: speak up!

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By HARRIETTE BRAINARD

MIDDLEBURY — Two local residents who were recently asked to help create a report on how well state-run programs for the disabled and elderly are working, bring a lot of relevant background to the task. They are a founding member and advisor of Speak Up! Addison County, a Middlebury-based organization that helps people with developmental disabilities become more independent and better advocates for their own needs.

Randy Lizotte, 26, president of Speak Up! Addison County, and Lindsey Hescock, the group’s founder, last week filed their contribution to a report being created for the Vermont Department of Health to judge outcomes of programs that serve the elderly and the developmentally disabled.

The pair has first-hand experience in helping such a program succeed. In the two and a half years Speak Up! Addison County has been in existence the group has tallied a long list of accomplishments. Most notably, they have presented a series workshops at local, state and national conferences, built connections to similar organizations around the state and created a working organization that helps local people help themselves.

Speak up! Addison County is a self-advocacy organization run by about 20 people with developmental disabilities. Hescock, who has training in social services, helped get the group started. At its founding in December 2003, most of the members were new to the idea of meetings, officers, committees, agendas and the terminology involved. The group serves three main purposes — social, educational and political. The social aspect is getting to know each other and others in community; the education comes through creating workshops and an organization; and the political aspect is engaging members to become more active in the community and to speak up for themselves and to help others do the same.

Mary LaFountain, 38, a Middlebury resident and Speak Up! member, said she has gained confidence in her ability to take care of herself.

“I’ve changed — I talk to people more, and met more people in the community, I have more confidence,” said LaFountain, who works in the child care at the Vermont Sun health club.

This group is part of a larger movement across the state and the nation that is growing through education and awareness as well as direct support and action. This movement, known as SABE for self advocates becoming empowered, is providing incentive for many groups, including people with disabilities, the aging population and especially the youth.

Locally, much of this direct support comes from Speak up! Addison County founder, Hescock. The 29-year-old Middlebury resident explained that there are many elements to this movement, some are small but significant changes such as “saying people with a disability rather than a disabled person.” Other changes are more far reaching and occur at a national level.

Hescock is more than the founder of this organization, she is their ally, advisor, secretary and assistant. This is a volunteer position for Hescock, who also consults with Green Mountain Self Advocates (GMSA), a statewide organization based in Montpelier. Hescock admits it is a great deal of work, but says, “I love developing these leadership skills, and it has helped me to become a better leader.”

Although self-advocacy is a national movement it is especially significant in a state like Vermont. “Vermont is the only state that is completely deinstitutionalized, therefore there are not the state organizations to provide the framework for Vermont residents with developmental disabilities,” Hescock said. “This can be very frustrating and difficult for many who rely on this framework, however it can also serve to foster more creativity and strength at both the local and state levels.”

There are 16 local groups across Vermont similar to Speak Up!, and all benefit from the support of GMSA.

NATIONAL EXPOSURE

The National Conference for SABE was held in Atlanta from May 24 to 28. With about 60 residents of Vermont in attendance, the state had one of the largest representations at the conference, which attracted people from all over the Unites States in attendance.

Three Speak Up! Addison County members presented workshops in Atlanta. They were Lizotte, LaFountain and Abby Laframboise, 23, all residents of Middlebury. Hescock also attended and assisted them in the workshops when needed. Several local organizations, including Employment Associates, Neat Repeats and Community Associates, helped pay for the group’s travel expenses.

Lizotte and LaFountain teamed up to discuss independent living, something most of us take for granted at a certain age.

“They told me that I could never live on my own, but now I have my own apartment and you can too,” Lizotte said.

In the hour-long presentation to more than 50 people, Lizotte and LaFountain told their own story about how they were able to gain the confidence and the tools they needed to live on their own.

“I encouraged them to do a more personal approach, which went over real well, everyone loved it.” Hescock said. “Randy and Mary are people that others look up to for guidance, they are modest, everyone loves their workshop.

Lizotte likes meeting all kinds of new and different people, “I have always been kind of a quiet guy until recently, this has really helped me to develop my social skills,” he said.

Lizotte liked it when others came up to talk to him after the presentation. “I love having an impact on someone’s life — no mater how small.”

Laframboise, a long-time employee of Shaw’s supermarket, and LaFountain joined with five other Vermonters from GMSA to present the second workshop, which was called, “Sheltered Workshops, Close Them Down.” Vermont is the first state to shut down sheltered workshops, workshops where people with disabilities are put in a small-scale manufacturing setting to make a limited number of widgets, or anything to keep them busy.

STATEWIDE SURVEY

Lizotte and Hescock became involved with the Department of Health report in May when they were asked to gather information. The state has combined mental health services with the Department of Health and officials wanted to see the outcomes of the various programs that they run and they wanted more direct feedback from the communities that they serve. “They are trying to train their employees to think outside of the box, be more creative on how they deliver their services,” Hescock said.

The information gathering took them to 11 different sites in a variety of settings. The met with four self-advocacy groups: GMSA, Vermont Center for Independent Living, Brain Injury Association and the Community of Vermont Elders. They also conducted focus forums in Burlington, Rutland and Barre. At these forums they gathered feedback and input on the various programs.

Finally, they interviewed 20 individuals from Project Independence in Middlebury, Riverside Life Enrichment Center in Lyndonville, The Emmie Burke Facility in Wallingford, and Speak up! Addison County.

Lizotte and Hescock are pushing forward with their work with Speak Up! Addison County. This fall the group will take part in Mosaic Theater, a dance and music presentation by Addison County performers with developmental disabilities. Lizotte also is looking for a regular job; he has a strong work ethic and has been doing some work for GMSA.

Speak Up! Addison County meets every Monday night from 5 to 7 p.m. in Middlebury. All the meetings are held at the Employment Associates office in the Marble Works. Although EA is not a part of this organization, it is instrumental in assisting people with disabilities getting jobs in the community.

Speak Up! Addison County is always looking for new members and volunteers, as there is a lot going on, and they have even more planned for the future.

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