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Independence Days

Beginning its 35th year assisting those with developmental disabilities, Life Quest looks at new ways to help build vibrant, independent lives.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

 

Debra Nordquist, adult services program director and business office manager for Life Quest, sits in the sunny, cheerful staff training room, reflecting on changes in the way the organization will deliver services to individuals with developmental disabilities.

Life Quest's Debra Nordquist stands outside the building's back entry, framed by handmade tiles crafted
by clients last year.

"Oh, it's going to take time and it's going to be a lot of work," she allows. "A lot of people are going to have to look at things in new ways — our staff, the clients themselves, and the clients' families, too."

Life Quest in Silver City is celebrating its 34th anniversary this month, but the community-based non-profit isn't resting on its laurels. Nordquist pulls out a file folder and shares Life Quest's recently revised mission statement, which reflects a new direction for its industry: "We are dedicated to empowering individuals and families with or at risk for developmental disabilities, to maximize their independence and foster their integration within the community."

"We've always been concerned with our clients having the highest possible quality of life," she says. "This emphasis on integration into the community, real, genuine inclusion, is the natural next step. I'm very excited about it."

Nordquist identifies three major components blowing in on the winds of change: community inclusion, individual autonomy and the development of natural support networks out in the world. The days of sheltered workshops — where clients typically produce useful, marketable products in an organized, protected environment — are fading away, she says. In the future it will be more typical for individuals with developmental disabilities to go off to work or school on their own, with minimal assistance or intervention from staff and caseworkers.

"As people are nurtured to become more self-reliant, more autonomous, they can develop natural support systems in the community — at their job, at school, in the community in general," she says. "It's the way we all go about our lives, you know? Why shouldn't people with developmental disabilities have that opportunity, as well?"

 

Life Quest began serving individuals and families in southwestern New Mexico in the early 1970s, incorporating in 1973 as Southwest Services for the Handicapped, or SWSH. The organization changed its name to Life Quest in 2002, under the direction of then-chief executive Jim Kolb. That identity change indicated the organization's shift away from the term "handicapped," and toward the, well, quest for a full, productive and meaningful life.

Operating offices in Silver City, Deming and Lordsburg, and offering services in Grant, Catron, Luna and Hidalgo counties, Life Quest currently employs 86 administrative and program personnel. It also uses the services of a number of respite-care providers, home-based care providers and contract specialists. Life Quest serves more than 260 individuals with, or at risk for, developmental disabilities.

"At risk," Nordquist explains, is a particularly important term when talking about Life Quest's Early Intervention program, which serves children from birth to three years of age.

"Even a child with a normal Apgar score at birth can be at risk for developmental disability," she says. The Apgar score is a standardized way of rating the health of newborns immediately after birth. "The child's parents may be drug-addicted or just very young and inexperienced. There can be environmental conditions in the home — maybe a lot of other children around — that prevent the newborn from getting enough attention. These things can add up to a failure to thrive."

And so, Early Intervention is just that. The Life Quest program intervenes early in the child's life, helping the parents develop the skills needed to support their child's growth and development. Of course, the program also assists children born with readily identifiable conditions, such as Down's Syndrome and cerebral palsy — conditions that can disable or delay cognitive development or learning.

Some developmental disabilities may take longer to notice and identify, such as autism.

"Children should reach certain developmental milestones," Nordquist notes, citing for example things like pulling him or herself along on the carpet, sitting up, holding up his or her head, smiling, sound or speech development. But parents or caregivers may not know what to look for, what is "normal."

To assist them, Life Quest hosts "Child Find" screenings at least once a year. Parents or guardians can bring a child for a simple professional assessment of the child's development and abilities, determining if special help is indicated.

Catching cognitive and developmental "gaps" early, and getting support, is important, Nordquist says: "If they don't get the attention they need, the child may start falling behind in school and that can then turn into behavior problems."

Life Quest also offers a variety of services for developmentally disabled adults, including day habilitation, called "Day Hab," residential living skills, supported employment and group activities.

In Day Hab, clients develop plans of action for themselves, setting goals to spend their days doing things that are meaningful to them, and work on personal and pre-employment skills.

The residential-services program promotes clients' independence — helping them to develop basic living skills — in their own homes or in an agency-owned home. In Silver City, Life Quest operates two group homes and several apartments near the Gila Regional Medical Center. In Deming, the organization has seven assisted-living apartments. Life Quest also serves home-based clients in Grant, Luna and Hidalgo counties, and can serve home-based individuals in Catron County as well, but has none at present.

Group homes with up to 24-hour, round-the-clock staff assistance and supervision are called "supported-living" arrangements. In "assisted-living" arrangements, for more independent clients, staff visit only periodically.

As for the world of work — where many adults normally spend much of their time, Nordquist points out — Life Quest offers supported employment programs for individual and group work situations. In the Individual Supported Employment program, clients are helped to obtain and maintain jobs in community businesses — such as, in Silver City, Albertson's Grocery, Food Basket, the Silver City Food Co-op, Snappy Mart and Sonic. In the Group Supported Employment program, clients work and learn employment skills as an employee of one of Life Quest's two businesses: a residential yard cleanup service and a commercial cleaning service for area businesses.

Nordquist adds that the Life Quest garage, once a business open to the public, now maintains only the organization's own fleet of cars and vans and has a contract to service the local post office's vehicles.

Life Quest has an employment specialist who finds opportunities for the clients, matches individuals to employers and "gets the ball rolling" along the path toward successful employment.

The area of supported employment is one where Nordquist sees big change coming, with the move toward clients becoming more autonomous.

"In many cases, self-employment may be the best option," she says, recounting the example of a woman with a developmental disability who started out baking treats for her family's pet dog, then began offering the biscuits for sale to local businesses and individuals. The woman now puts literature — a simple statement to tell her personal story and to boost awareness of developmentally disabled individuals and business — in each package of doggie goodies.

"She loves what she's doing, she's making money for herself, and she's become a spokesperson and an advocate," Nordquist says. "I'm excited to think what opportunities like that might encourage and bring out in other individuals with developmental disabilities."

Nordquist also notes some new experiences Life Quest has brought to its clients recently. The local Kiwanis Club is slated to assist a group of Life Quest clients in setting up their own Kiwanis chapter, a club they plan to call "Aktion," she says.

And a tile-making workshop last year was so successful that other arts opportunities have been planned.

Stepping out into the rear parking lot, she shows how the back entryway was decorated with colorful ceramic tiles made by the clients.

"We had a show during Weekend at the Galleries last year, and it was a real hit," she says. Some of the clients chose to sell their artworks, while others kept their tiles as precious mementoes, she says. The program will be expanded this year, with clients making tiles that portray the history of the immediate area. "This place was many other things before it was Life Quest," she says. The tiles will then be used to decorate the front of the building.

Nordquist adds that Life Quest has applied to be part of the Mimbres Region Arts Council's Youth Mural Program, and hopes to gain artistic assistance in painting a colorful mural on the east side of the building, facing Pope Street.

There are many ways for the public to find out what services are available through Life Quest, says Nordquist. "We have board meetings that are open to the public every other month. There are loads of materials here in the office. People can come in and take them," she says. Life Quest's CEO, Evangeline Zamora, "has an open-door policy," she adds. "She's available to anyone who wants to know more about what we can do for them."

People and families looking to access services for a developmentally disabled loved one simply have to call Life Quest and connect with a service coordinator, Nordquist says. Life Quest personnel will help them fill out the required forms and then they are given "freedom of choice" to pick what's right for that individual and the family.

Planned for early June is an open Town Hall Meeting, which will address issues of community inclusion of individuals with developmental disabilities. (Details were not available at press time; please call Life Quest for information.)

Also this summer, Life Quest's annual Open House and Barbecue will double as an anniversary celebration and fundraiser, with a car wash and bake sale, and information booths to learn more about services. The date is still to be determined.

"I hope people will come and have fun, check us out, and see the kinds of things we can do for them," Nordquist says. "The changes are so exciting; we are on a good road, finding new ways to assist, support and encourage people with developmental disabilities.

"Even though it will take time to get where we're going, ultimately, the chance for all clients to live fuller, more satisfying and independent lives is so great."

 

Life Quest's administrative offices are located at 907 Pope St., Silver City. For general information call 388-1976.

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

 

 

 

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