An enthusiastic crowd of over 150 people attended the annual meeting of the Progress Center for Independent Living one recent Saturday afternoon at the Mohr Community Center. Celebrating the Forest Park-based, non-profit organization’s 20th anniversary, the annual party-with several business priorities-served as an opportunity to share information, promote advocacy, and empower people with disabilities.

“It’s always good to remind people what the issues are out there,” said John Jansa, director of service programs for the agency. “We address issues like architectural barriers, transportation, long-term care and affordable, accessible housing. This is the one event of the year where we can really get ourselves refocused and recharged.”

Consumers of the Progress Center, who seek services through the organization, visited several booths offering information on voter registration and rights, paratransit information, and the West Suburban Access News Association, which provides information about programs and services for persons with disabilities.

A 50/50 raffle, donating half of the winnings to a Center for Independent Living in Iowa recently devastated by flooding, was drawn. Richard Parrish, winner of the raffle, enjoyed the extra cash but also embraced the information-gathering tenor of the day.

“I was surprised, I usually don’t win anything,” said Parrish, who collected $143. “My wife and I have been involved with independent living from years gone by. This is a very good meeting because the more people with disabilities see what’s available to them, the better off they will be.”

After an introductory welcome from Progress Center board president Laura Obara and a speech about the importance of independent living from newly elected board member Tyranttee Shelton, Progress Center consumers Haneffa Mateen, Joseph Livingston, Louise McDonald and Lester Walker all gave inspiring testimonials about their successful transition from living in nursing homes to independent living.

With the help of the Progress Center, these four individuals have moved out of dire nursing home situations that often included neglect, a lack of privacy and limited personal freedom to find vastly more satisfying independent living scenarios with personal assistants.

The charismatic Walker began his testimony in prayer and spoke from his heart. He ended his talk with a poem, “Somewhere Around,” which he wrote about a person he knew in a nursing home who died, a victim of severe neglect and minimal love.

“A lot of members of our community spoke very movingly about their experiences in working with Progress Center to move out of nursing homes and into community settings,” said Diane Coleman, executive director of the Progress Center. “One of our biggest goals is to make that transition a reality and really demonstrate our right to liberty. We want to show that there’s liberty and justice for all, not just for people who don’t have disabilities.”

Mark Karner, the director of advocacy for the Progress Center, talked of his upset over alleged conditions at the state-run Howe Developmental Center in Tinley Park.

“Since September of 2005, 21 people have died there because of poor care and neglect,” Karner said. “We felt it’s time somebody stands up and makes this a big issue because we just can’t let it go on. If 21 people died in a hospital because of poor care, I think there would be a public outrage. It seems like when it’s about people with disabilities though, people don’t seem to care as much.”

On July 15, a coalition of organizations supporting the rights of peoples with disabilities, will protest at the Thompson Center in Chicago to bring light to the Howe Developmental Center issue.

Community organizer Sam Knight and disability services coordinator Cathy Ordman spoke about accessible housing with home modification programs for people with disabilities, while advocacy coordinator Larry Biondi talked about transportation issues.

Knight also reminded consumers about the “I’d Vote” initiative, encouraging people with disabilities to register and vote in this year’s election.

“The best way to advocate the rights of people with disabilities is through elected officials,” Knight said. “And the only way legislation can be changed is if we are registered voters.”

The three-hour gathering culminated with a celebration of the 20-year history of the Progress Center. Robin Jones, the center’s first executive director, gave a touching retrospective detailing the center’s significant achievements.

The Progress Center also honored Coleman, who will be ending her 12-year run as executive director, with a standing ovation, countless hugs and a plaque commemorating her service.

“I’m so proud of our community and the turnout [today] gives me great hope,” Coleman said. “Disability rights are really about building a society architecturally, transportationally and just in attitude that says everybody belongs regardless of their appearance or abilities.”