Independence, Inc., a resource center for people with disabilities who live independently, has now focused its efforts on helping clients and other people who are referred to them figure out their resource options after the flood.
After record flooding along the Souris River, many of Independence's regular independent living skills programming was put on hold to shift the focus to disaster recovery.
"The first thing we did was to try and communicate with everybody," said Scott Burlingame, executive director for Independence, Inc. "We asked our clients, 'What are some of the problems that people with disabilities are facing?' and we focused on trying to work to solve those problems."
Katina Tengesdal/MDN - - Dee Tischer, direct services coordinator for Independence, Inc., left, and Scott Burlingame, executive director for Independence, Inc., right, speak about case management for people with disabilities during flood recovery.
After the initial contacts, two Independence staff members underwent training through the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which trains volunteers on finding resources for disaster victims.
Dee Tischer, direct services coordinator, and Nancy Johnson, independent living specialist, were the two staff members who underwent training to be case managers with the relief committee.
"UMCOR volunteers help people access services," Tischer said. "We have to be able to triage a person's immediate needs, such as food and shelter, and work on those first. We have to find what resources are available in our community, and that can change on a daily basis."
"Our role is also one of checking out those resources to make sure they are valid and that they have helped the person," she added. "For example, if a person is referred to the food pantries, we will call them later and ask if they got what they needed."
As an Independence, Inc. staff members and committee volunteers, Tischer and Johnson will be working mostly with people with disabilities.
"We want to make sure we are reaching that population who may not be listening to the TV or radio," Tischer said. "Getting information for them may not come as easily as it does for everyone else, if they have hearing problems, eyesight problems, or cognitive disabilities."
Burlingame said that the disaster has been affecting people with disabilities differently, and he and his staff are attempting to address their unique needs.
"It's been a unique thing for people with disabilities, especially those with mental health issues," Burlingame said. "It just makes those worse. Living with uncle Joe is stressful for everyone, but living with uncle Joe when you have mental health issues, it's even more difficult."
"For one family, who has a child with a disability on the autism spectrum, since living with family they have noticed their child regressing socially," he added. "For people with these types of disabilities, familiarity in surroundings is particularly important."
In addition to contacting current clients, gauging their needs, and having staff members trained in finding resources during a disaster, Independence has done outreach work.
The center has provided information for the general public whenever they receive questions, and have actively sought out other people with disabilities in the community who might not be current Independence clients. They have also worked with a FEMA disability integration specialist, and have received referrals from FEMA.
"We're trying to find people who may need our services," Burlingame said. "We're going to take the time to listen to their individual story, and do our best to remove the barriers that they are facing."
"The reality is, there are a lot of different things people need to know," he added. "There's going to be holes in the system, especially when we can't get funding, and there are going to be things people are frustrated on. We have to try and find the best answers we can for people, for long-term recovery."
Independence has continued to provide information on the emotional aspects of a disaster as well, and reassuring people that while there may not be answers now, their story is being heard.
"People just want their lives to go back to normal," Burlingame said. "But it's going to be a long time before things get back to normal, and things might not ever return to the way they were. We talk a lot about the emotional realities of recovery."
"In the early stages, a lot of what we've had to do is just wait. We want to assure people that we will visit one-on-one with them, and that we will ensure their story is heard when the decisions are being made," he added.