Opportunity Center will continue with business as usual

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By Correne Martin

Employees, clients and supporters of the Opportunity Center in Prairie du Chien can collectively breathe a sigh of relief. Operations will continue as usual thanks to recent federal and state declarations that have allowed services in center settings to carry on for people with disabilities.

“The federal government—Center for Medicaid Services (CMS)—and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) have heard our voices loud and clear. And our voices made a difference,” wrote Pam Ritchie, executive director of the Opportunity Center, in a Dec. 23 memo to those directly affected by the decision. “I want to thank this community for standing up for people with disabilities. It is humbling to see the number of people who have supported us. I don’t know that we can provide any further evidence that the programs and services we deliver here are making a positive impact.”

In five years, governmental regulations over facilities like the Opportunity Center will again be renewed. Until then, staff will keep working to integrate more clients into community employment and activities.
“There will be challenges throughout the process but we will continue to find opportunities for everyone to interact in this community,” Ritchie stated.

“They want people with disabilities to make informed choices about their experiences in the community workforce and whether they like it or not,” added Angie Engrav, program director at the Opportunity Center. “Our job is to give them those experiences and then let them choose.”

The first threat regarding closure of work centers such as the Opportunity Center—of which there are around 75 in Wisconsin offering varying degrees of services—came in 2009, according to Ritchie.

“The government was attempting to redefine prevocational services. They came to the table with us and we worked on the definition together,” Ritchie said. “The second threat came in 2013 when other advocacy groups started pushing harder publicly for work centers like ours to close.”

In early 2013, the A-Team of Crawford County, and seven other organizations across the state, developed to fight the pressure and budget issues in Wisconsin. The local team was made up of about 20 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, parents, guardians, business leaders, educators, and other community supporters. The primary focus of all the state’s A-Teams (A stands for awareness, advisement and advocacy) has been to create a collective voice that can be heard by legislators.

In the fall of 2013, the Prairie du Chien area community came together for a letter-writing campaign to CMS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“It was absolutely amazing. Out of 5,000 letters statewide, 1,200 came out of the Prairie du Chien area,” Ritchie recalled.

Then, in August of 2014, a “Voice Your Choice” rally was held in Prairie du Chien with over 100 people attending. The event also served as the impetus for a second letter-writing campaign, through which supporters commented on the state’s plan, which didn’t comment at all on prevocational services. Also, the Opportunity Center staff met with legislators to voice their opinions and the Prairie du Chien Area Chamber of Commerce helped spread the word and encourage engagement. In total, this fall, another 3,000 comments from statewide supporters were submitted to the state.

In addition, a postcard campaign targeted the state board for people with disabilities and the governor. Two local supporters, Betty Broadbent and Monica Alexander, also attended a meeting of the board to express that the CMS and DHS plans were not representative of all people with disabilities, many of which are happily employed at work centers and don’t feel “segregated” there, as some opponents have argued.

On Dec. 15, Ritchie received a letter from CMS declaring that work center services were allowed within the new regulations. The letter also indicated, however, that individual states could choose to be more restrictive than the federal guidelines.

On Dec. 19, a letter from Wisconsin DHS Secretary Kitty Rhoades stated that Wisconsin values the services delivered in work centers and that such services would continue to be a choice for adults with disabilities in the state.

“When you put the two letters together, we’re pretty darn happy,” Ritchie said.

“We still have to meet the guidelines of the assessment process in 2015, determining whether we meet health and community-based regulations,” Engrav added. “But we will continue to approach community businesses about who may have a need for employment that one of our clients can fill.”

The Opportunity Center currently has over a dozen clients excelling in community-based employment. Though many adults with disabilities are happy and satisfied completing tasks on the Opportunity Center work floor, there are others who can and want to go out into the community and perform jobs at the expected standards. At this time, some of those working in the community enjoy jobs such as cleaning at Hoffman Hall, volunteering at the Bargain Boutique, running a paper route, working with food in Sharing Spaces Kitchen, etc.

“Ultimately, this is how government is supposed to work. They listen to the people,” Ritchie stated. “It is humbling to be part of a community that values all of its citizens and stands up for the rights of people with disabilities.”

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