Center for Independent Living keeps spotlight and support around people with disabilities

·7 min read

Jim Schaus has a pool and a hot tub at his condo in Fort Walton Beach, but for a long time, he couldn't use them.

Back in 1980, Schaus damaged his spine when he suffered a 35-foot fall while inspecting a missile silo in Little Rock, Arkansas. Schaus has used a wheelchair ever since, and to access his condo's pool and hot tub, he requested permission to install a pool lift that could raise him in and out.

He was initially denied, and after looking for assistance, he discovered the Center for Independent Living of Northwest Florida. The organization helped him pen another request to the condo's board, and when that was denied, Carolyn Grawi, executive director for CILNWF, got involved personally.

Jim Schaus was able to buy and install a pool lift at his Fort Walton Beach condo after help from the Center for Independent Living in Pensaocla.
Jim Schaus was able to buy and install a pool lift at his Fort Walton Beach condo after help from the Center for Independent Living in Pensaocla.

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"The morning of the meeting (with the condo's board), Ms. Carolyn calls me on the phone and says, 'I'm going to be at the meeting.' I was absolutely amazed," Schaus said.

Grawi argued the Fair Housing Act gave Schaus the right to have the pool lift since owners and landlords need to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. After Grawi threatened court action, the board finally allowed him to buy and use his own portable pool lift.

Schaus is thankful for not only Grawi, but for all the CILNWF has done for people with disabilities in Northwest Florida.

"I'm just one client that she's helped," Schaus said. "And she's helped bunches of them. She's a good person with a good organization behind her."

Carolyn Grawi, executive director of the Center for Independent Living, talks May 12 about some of the resources available at the Pensacola organization.
Carolyn Grawi, executive director of the Center for Independent Living, talks May 12 about some of the resources available at the Pensacola organization.

Headquartered in Pensacola, the Center for Independent Living of Northwest Florida's mission is to secure for all people with disabilities the opportunity to choose and realize their goals of where and how they live, learn, work and play. The nonprofit will be celebrating its 42nd year this July and serves the approximately 120,000 people within the counties of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties.

CILNWF provides a variety of services such as advocacy, peer mentors, youth training opportunities and transitional services for individuals with significant disabilities who are integrating back into the community from nursing homes.

Grawi said at the end of the day, the work she and the CILNWF team do is about making sure people with disabilities feel included and are treated as people.

"We're all part of humanity and that's one of the big pieces, is treating people with disabilities as people," Grawi said. "It is about treating them with dignity and respect and having trusting relationships with providers, caregivers, employers, so they're not abused, harassed or vulnerable to being victimized."

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When he was injured in 1980, Schaus had difficulty moving around and feeling accepted by others in public spaces. Now as organizations have made it a priority to provide assistance and listen to the needs of those with disabilities, public perception has changed, according to Schaus.

"It's different now. I can fit in the church. I can go to the movie house. My wife and I and the kids and the grandkids, we've been on cruise boats and had a wonderful time," Schaus said. "When we meet people now, and I'm in a wheelchair and they're in a wheelchair, we tease about racing each other and that sort of stuff. And it's different now. I'm accepted."

John Collins has known for years the power in community, especially the community that CILNWF provides. Collins understands that disability can and will affect everyone at some point in their lives.

John Collins, president of the board of the Center for Independent Living, talks May 12 about the mission and services offered at the Pensacola organization.
John Collins, president of the board of the Center for Independent Living, talks May 12 about the mission and services offered at the Pensacola organization.

Born with cerebral palsy, Collins grew up in Chicago before leaving to find his purpose and people who understood him. When he came to Pensacola and found out about CILNWF, he knew he had found his community. He ultimately found his niche as president of CILNWF's board.

Collins said, "You don't know what you need until you find it," and for him, it was the community, dignity and purpose he was able to attain by being a part of CILNWF.  While others come in for one thing, they — just like him — will come out with more than they expected.

"I think that when people come here, they don't think they're worthy to be seen," Collins said. "One thing that we're so good at is (helping clients realize) you belong in the world, too. It's not what we do, we want people to go out and do whatever it is they do."

These words are demonstrated by others who fought to make their homes or communities more accessible. Sharon O'Prey and her daughter, Adrienne, are a mother-daughter duo who live in Freeport in Walton County.

Sharon O'Prey, left, and her daughter, Adrienne O'Prey, pushed for improvements in their neighborhood park to better accommodate people with disabilities and mobility issues, thanks to help from the Center for Independent Living of Northwest Florida.
Sharon O'Prey, left, and her daughter, Adrienne O'Prey, pushed for improvements in their neighborhood park to better accommodate people with disabilities and mobility issues, thanks to help from the Center for Independent Living of Northwest Florida.

Adrienne O'Prey, 32, has mobility issues, which means she has to be careful on uneven surfaces. When their local park, Grady Brown Park, wasn't as accessible for those with disabilities or mobility issues, they contacted Grawi for help in the fall of 2019. Grady Brown Park did not have an accessible way to the picnic table from the parking lot, which was separated by grass that was hard for a wheelchair user to cross. Other places like the Walton Sports Complex had mulch and bark, making it hard to get to the playground and no accessible equipment for people with disabilities.

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With the help of CILNWF, the O'Preys were able to get an access point from the parking lot to the picnic table and an accessible grill, improve the railing on the ramps to the bathroom and add marked and spaced out the parking lots.

They also plan to change the surface of areas in the Walter Sports Complex to a rubber surface that supports wheelchair users and those who need mobility aid.

"We just want everybody to have the same opportunities. I want a grandmother who is in a wheelchair to have the same opportunity to take her grandchild to the park and to be there when they watch their grandchild go down the slide," Sharon O'Prey said. "I want little kids to be friends with everybody and play on the playground with everybody."

Having an organization like CILNWF makes resolving access issues, like the ones faced by the O'Preys, not just an individual issue but a community opportunity where the issues being solved can improve quality of life for everyone.

"You have an organization with more knowledge and can educate others, can actually explain to them why what we're seeing is not correct or could be improved upon and can give them examples of things they've seen in other neighboring counties to make things right. I think that just helps the individual person," Sharon O'Prey said. "And I'm a real firm believer in banding with groups, because even if it's five moms together, you know five moms can do a whole lot more than one mom. Groups are more powerful. I think an individual voice sometimes gets lost."

Through his work and the work of his peers at CILNWF, Collins works to make sure all people, no matter their needs, feel seen and supported, like he did.

"You don't think about how interconnected everything is because every situation in life should involve people with disabilities," Collins said. "Whatever the topic is, we always try to put ourselves front and center so that people realize that we are in the space as well."

The Center for Independent Living of Northwest Florida will be celebrating its 42nd anniversary and holding its annual Gala of Gratitude at 6 p.m. July 29 at the Sanders Beach-Corrine Jones Resource Center, 913 South I St., Pensacola.

To purchase tickets or to sponsor to help fund the programs and services of the Center for Independent Living, go to its Facebook page for more information.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Pensacola's Center for Independent Living celebrates 42 years