Facilitating independence

ILSNC provides numerous valuable services to the disabled community

Evan LeVang, executive director of Independent Living Services of Northern California.

Evan LeVang, executive director of Independent Living Services of Northern California.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

More information:
To learn more about Independent Living Services of Northern California, visit www.ilsnc.org or call 893-8527.

Independent Living Services of Northern California has a long name, one that even its executive director concedes can be challenging to remember. Its abbreviation, ILSNC, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, either, and the organization’s growing list of programs can tax even the best memory.

Just think of it this way: People helping people help themselves.

ILSNC is an offshoot of the disability-rights movement. Founded in 1980 in Chico, the nonprofit serves a diverse group of individuals who need some degree of assistance in living on their own. It’s one of 28 centers for independent living in California.

Staff members may help a person find a job or housing. They may help him or her navigate complex government bureaucracies. They may lend out medical equipment or get a person started at a community garden. ILSNC is also a major regional provider of services for the local Hmong community.

The list goes on and on.

“Our overarching philosophy is self-direction and personal choice,” Executive Director Evan LeVang said. “Everything we do follows that guideline. To the greatest extent possible, our independent-living-skills staff doesn’t do things for people per-se; we work with them—counsel, advise, guide.”

The staffers come from a place of knowledge because 90 percent are people with disabilities themselves. Their passion also feeds the organization’s commitment to standing up for the rights of people with disabilities as well as the home-care workers who help so many live independently, rather than in a nursing home or other institution.

“We take pride in our advocacy and community organizing,” LeVang said. “Volunteers and consumers in our agency have done amazing stuff to help prevent really horrific cuts to programs that people with disabilities need.”

Between its offices in Chico and Redding, ILSNC works with approximately 800 new clients each year, fielding around 1,400 phone calls. Sometimes a referral to another agency is in order, but often ILSNC is the right place for a person with disabilities to get assistance.

The first step is determining what is needed. That comes via the intake process, in which the person meets with an independent-living specialist. Together they create a plan with goals, steps and responsibilities for both parties.

“Our services are consumer-directed,” LeVang explained. “We don’t do classic case management—we’re kind of like life coaches. We do everything from finding an affordable, accessible place to live, to helping with employment searches … [and] independent-living-skills training. There are personal issues, too, so we do peer advising.

“We view ourselves as peers, not as experts who talk down.”

ILSNC also lends equipment to people in need, for as long as necessary. Such items include ramps, iPads and laptop computers. And things like walkers, wheelchairs, power scooters and shower benches are provided for permanent use.

Benefits-advising represents one piece of the ILSNC puzzle. People with disabilities may not be aware of all the government programs in which they’re able to participate, or they may have difficulty in securing these benefits. The programs are make-or-break for many individuals.

“There may be a misconception out there that those people who are living on public benefits, like SSI, have an easy and comfortable way to live—that once you get on benefits like that, you’re on ‘easy street,’” LeVang said. “The reality is it’s survival month to month, and it’s really hard to get by.

“Job opportunities are extremely limited, and if you’re on SSI and you have public health insurance, it’s nearly impossible locally to find a doctor who will take Medi-Cal. But even as lousy as Medi-Cal is, to try to go into self-sustaining employment with how the health-care market is, it’s a big risk,” LeVang noted.

In such a tough economic environment, and with the social safety-net fraying at the edges, ILSNC personnel can find themselves with a discouraging, monumental task—“but we still do our job,” LeVang said. “We serve a lot of people and do a lot of good work.”

He’s particularly proud of two of ILSNC’s more recent programs: one for people with poor vision, and one that ties in with the community-based agriculture (CSA) movement.

The first program is called OIB, for older individuals who are blind. It benefits people 55 and older whose vision loss cannot be corrected by normal eyewear. ILSNC offers personal advising, a support group and assistive technology.

“It’s a program that does amazing stuff,” LeVang said. “For people who are experiencing low vision or are losing their vision, it’s extremely depressing, alienating and scary. There are very few services for people with low vision regionally, so we’re really filling a niche and a need in that area.”

Meanwhile, ILSNC is working with a handful of North State groups to boost nutrition—and outdoor activity—through community-gardening and farmers’ markets. ILSNC has partnered with Cultivating Community Advocates, and with CCA-grant beneficiaries including the Chapman-neighborhood farmers’ market and community gardeners from the Jarvis Gardens affordable-housing complex. ILSNC’s main push is for education.

“When people have economic difficulties, they find it hard to eat well, because most affordable food isn’t really food at all—it’s junk,” LeVang said. “By expanding opportunities for people to either grow their own food and to shop as much as possible at farmers’ markets, they can improve their lives in many different ways.

“When you talk about a community garden, you’re talking about exercise, socialization, relationships and friends. And there’s an education aspect about learning to prepare the food that you grow yourself, so there’s a health benefit. Furthermore, you could potentially learn job skills working in a local agriculture setting. You could market stuff that you grow, or join with others to form a company or some other group that grows and sells locally grown food.

“So, we think local agriculture is an important emerging aspect of the disability world.”