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Meet Disability Connections' Staff

Tina Hopper

Tina Hopper picture at officeI was born with Spina Bifida, I am paralyzed from the waist down and use a wheelchair to get around.  When I was born, my mom was not allowed to see me right away due the tubes and machines I had hooked up to me at the time.  A nurse showed me to my mom by accident. Doctors had told my parents that I probably wouldn’t live to be 3 years old.  They also told my parents that even if I did live to be over 3 years old, I would never be able to walk even with crutches.  I wasn’t supposed to be able to move my legs, but I was able to crawl and that’s when my parents decided that I needed to go to a therapist.  By the time I was about 6 years old I was walking with crutches thanks to a therapist at Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta, GA.  The Therapist took a picture with me on crutches for my parents to keep and I still have that picture today.

During my childhood, I was in and out of hospitals going through surgeries, therapy, etc.  I went to TD Tinsley Elementary School and graduated from Northeast High School.  After high school, I attended Macon Tech but had to quit after a little while due to health issues.

I didn’t start driving until I was in my mid-20’s because I didn’t know about hand controls at the time.  I found out about hand controls through a friend.  I was able to save enough money to get my first car along with hand controls. I did not pass the test to get a learners license the first time so after a while I took the learner's test again and passed. I learned how to drive through a driving instructor. Then, I took my driver's test and passed the first time.

I went to work at Goodwill Industries and worked full time for about 5 years. After Goodwill Industries, I was given the opportunity to work part time at Sears at the Macon Mall and decided it would be a good opportunity to go back to school. I enrolled at Macon Tech again. I would do my internship at American Red Cross, go to work during the after noon and have a class at night.  During the time of my internship, I tried several times to get a full time job but was turned down for several reasons.  After about two years, I graduated from Macon Tech. I received a flyer from Disability Connections that there was a job opportunity/training at the Rosewood Building.  I then accepted a part-time job at Disability Connections doing peer support in addition to my job at Sears, Later, I was given the opportunity through Disability Connections to do case management full time for the Independent Care Waiver Program.  I have been at Disability Connections for over 16 years and have had several different positions.

“We can help a person get passed those barriers if we understand who they are and what they have been through during their life time and the reason they have put up those barriers.”

Through Disability Connections, I have received a lift for my car, and it has helped me to get in and out of my car with ease.  Before I received the lift, I was pulling my chair in and out through the passenger's side and then sliding over to the driver's side.  I thank God for all of the opportunities he has given me and for helping me to grow as a person.  In my life, I have learned to listen more to people and to really understand things from their view instead of giving my own opinion about what they should and shouldn’t be doing. We can help a person get passed those barriers if we understand who they are, what they have been through during their life time and why they have put up those barriers.

Yasmin Middleton

Picture of Yasmin with her familyWhat is Independent Living? While thinking about this question, my mind went to a Sunday school lesson that I taught to my youth class on this pass Sunday entitled Remembering the Past.  It was about a young man having a conversation with a fellow classmate and girlfriend about the importance of remembering history.  He thought that the focus should be on the present and the future instead of the past. He thought that history was boring and had no purpose. His girlfriend told him that remembering the past is a way to remember and celebrate important events and occurrences that has played a significant role in the way we live today.  Remembering the past also helps us to learn from past mistakes.  Someone once said that if we don’t remember the mistakes of the past then we are  bound to repeat them. I looked up the word independent and found it to mean free.  Independent living to me is being free to live my life the way I want to live it.  It’s about being able to make my own choices whether right or wrong. In studying my bible, I found that even Jesus didn’t force anyone to serve him. He gave us the freedom to choose to serve him.  Of course, he lets us know that there are consequences to making the wrong choices as well as consequences to making right choices. The Bible calls them blessings and curses.  Nowhere in history do I ever remember reading where people didn’t want to be free.  There may be barriers or obstacles in a person’s life that are keeping them from living independently, but at the end of the day, I believe that they still want to be able to make their own decisions about their lives.

“One thing I never lost sight of and that was, I knew that I could come up and I didn’t have to stay down and be dependent on the system or be dependent on my parents for the rest of my life.”

When I look at my own life, I see barriers that were placed in my life because of the bad choices I made, but like I said, I made them. I am a single mother of three who had to struggle living at home with my parents, using food stamps, Medicaid, buying my children's clothes at the Rescue Mission, Salvation Army and still trying to work.  One thing I never lost sight of and that was I knew that I could come up, and I didn’t have to stay down and be dependent on the system or be dependent on my parents for the rest of my life because I serve a God that loved me no matter what mistakes I had made. I serve a mighty God that can do anything, including making a way out of no way.  I just had to trust him and make the best of every opportunity that he presented me with. Today I have a job that I love, work with people that I love, attend a church that I love, and am making myself available to God to use for his glory.  I am a homeowner. I have a car. I have five grandchildren, and life is great.  All Praises to God!!!!

Phillip Bushey

Phillip holding painting that he composed.Being born into a military family meant many moves.  By the time I was in the second grade, I had lived in two different countries, five cities and attended 3 different schools.  Because of all of these changes, there were no consistent healthcare providers, or teachers during my early school years.  My parents were the first ones to recognize that my behavior was not the same as my siblings between the ages of 2 to 3.  My speech was limited. I was easily angered, and bedtime could be difficult.  My parents contacted various health care workers and then began the process of exams, tests and treatment plans.  We received many forms of behavior diagnosis from elective mute to oppositional behavior.  Without a firm diagnosis, it was difficult for the various school systems we encountered to place me in the correct environment that was best for me.

“To have Autism does not mean I cannot learn to live with my disability.”

When I was going into the second grade, my father retired from the military, and we relocated to Macon.  I was enrolled in  school and was placed in classroom for children with special needs.  By the time I turned eleven, I was finally diagnosed with Autism.

While I was still in Middle School, my parents enrolled me at Woodfield Academy, a school for children with learning disabilities.  It was here that I started to learn to work with my disabilities.  With this great school and a wonderful doctor that understood the intricacies of the Autism spectrum, I began to improve both with school work and the ability to learn--not only school lessons, but life lessons.

I always enjoyed art.  It was a way for me to express my thoughts and feelings that were difficult for me to put into spoken words.  My doctor encouraged me and my parents to pursue my passion for art.  We found people to provide me art lessons, and I have had the opportunity to have my work presented in art shows sponsored by STAR Choices and The Pilots Club of Metropolitan Atlanta.

Besides my art, I always had my household chores to perform, which I never minded doing it, but I wanted and needed more.  I began to volunteer at Disability Connections.  It was a great experience, I started by simple things like taking out the trash, dusting and whatever the staff needed assistance with, this eventually led to an increase number in tasks performed and the complexity of the task.  I now have a part time position with Disability Connections.

To have Autism does not mean I cannot learn to live with my disability.  I was able to get my high school diploma, pursue my love of art, and even develop job skills.  My path has had some twist and turns, but with a supportive family, a school with a curriculum that nurtures those with special needs, and supportive work environment, I have achieved an independent lifestyle. I believe many others can as well.

Edwin McWilliams

Edwin and his new truck coming down the liftI was injured in an automobile accident when I was nineteen years old.  My brother, who is 15 months younger than me, was also injured in the wreck.  He recovered completely and has enjoyed what many call the American dream.  He has a wife, children, nice home, his own electrical business and many other material possessions.  Before my injury, I was pursuing that same dream and all those things seemed readily achievable.  The injuries from the car wreck turned the American dream into a survival story and then an educational experience of learning how to live with a high-level spinal cord injury.

“The injuries from the car wreck turned the American dream into a survival story and then an educational experience of learning how to live with a high-level spinal cord injury.”

Over the next fifteen years my family took care of me, and I became dependent on them to assist me with most activities of daily living.  I didn’t turn all decision-making over to them, but I could trust them to do what was best for me in most cases.  Around the age of 23, I had a life changing experience with God.  Living for God and doing what he wanted became paramount in my life.  In some ways, I think I became more independent than I had ever been.  The American dream lost a lot of its appeal to me and living for the world to come seemed to be a more attractive prize.  I think my disability helped me to come to this kind of faith.  “For if we have hope in this world only, we are of all men, most miserable.”  During the early 90’s, my care became too much for my family because of my mother’s failing health.  It got so difficult and stressful that I insisted on help in finding nursing home placement.  I felt as though I had been abandoned to God, and a life sentence to a nursing home seemed my only option.  However, God gave me something far better than I could even imagine.  While seeking nursing home placement, the GA Department of Medical Assistance told us about a new program that could provide me with 24 hour a day attendant care.  I applied and started receiving Independent Care Waiver Services in October of 1995.  This was the beginning of a road to greater independence.  I moved into my family’s old home house where I grew up and started managing my caregiver services through an attendant provider. Around 2000, I got a part-time job with Disability Connections, which furthered my level of independence.  DC introduced me to some assistive technological devices that have made it possible for me to operate a computer, iPhone, TV, stereo, lights and other things.  I have worked with them to make these devices accessible to me.  In 2005, I started directing my caregiver services apart from an attendant agency.  Last year, I purchased the wheelchair accessible truck of my dreams.

A disability can truly affect an individual’s level of independence.  We should have the same rights as everyone else, but often times we have to believe in ourselves before society will give us those rights and opportunities.  A faith in Christ will often times enhance our potential to be independent.  “For if God be for us who can be against us”.  We can also help other disabled individuals to envision a life of more independence.  Faith in them with a faith in God can be the vehicle to get there.

Andreena Patton

Andreena and her familyOn September 10, 1994, my life changed dramatically.  I was 21 years old and thought I knew it ALL.  I was extremely independent.  I was working, going to school and was ready to “leave the nest” and start my life. However, on the morning of September 10, I was involved in a single car accident that would change my life forever.  I had broken my neck at the Cervical 5/6 vertebrae and sustained a complete spinal cord injury. My family was told that I had about a 30% chance to live ,and if I did make it, I would probably be ventilator dependent and not move anything from the neck down.  I had tubes coming out of everywhere and had to wear a halo, which is a device that is drilled into your skull and attached to a vest that you wear to stabilize your neck. After a lot of prayer, I began to shed all the tubes, the halo and began the physical healing.  I spent a total of 5 months in the hospital and at Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta.  Three of those 5 months were spent in intensive rehabilitation where I had to learn how to do everything again. I had to learn how to brush my teeth, how to eat, how to put on make-up, how to write, and how to dress.  Even though I was told I would never walk again, I still thought I would, and that I was going to make a “full recovery.”  I never imagined not being able to do things for myself.  The thought of relying on someone to do anything for me really bothered me. I didn’t realize the little things I could do for myself at that point would become not so little.

In January of 1995, I left Shepherd Center not walking but in a wheelchair.   That is when the real recovery took place.  At first, my mother still made all the choices and decisions about my life.  I wasn’t sure how to deal with my new life in a wheelchair much less anything pertaining to finances, social security, insurance, or transportation.  It was easier to let her do everything while I tried to figure out how to live a life in a wheelchair. Ten months later, I was ready to break free and start living my life! I knew that there was life out there after a spinal cord injury.  A group approached me from Mercer University and talked with me about a program called Project Independence through AmeriCorps. This is where I learned that an Independent Living Philosophy even existed. Independent Living means different things to different people.  Most importantly, it means that you can make your own choices and decisions about your life.   I made a very important decision that day to attend Mercer University, and it changed my life even more than that fateful day on September 10, 1994.

“I was ready to break free and start living my life!”

In March 1996, I moved from my mother’s home to a dorm room on Mercer’s campus.  Fours years later, after a lot of trial and error, worry and prayer I graduated college.  During that time, I became even more independent by learning how to drive a modified van as well as being approved for attendant care through the Independent Care Waiver Program (ICWP).  I received case management services through Disability Connections (DC).  I didn’t realize the impact this relationship would have on my future.  In 2000, I was hired on part-time with DC as a case manager for the ICWP. While still working at DC, I decided to go back to school and obtain a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling and received my Certified Rehabilitation Counseling certification.

The Independent Living Philosophy is about making your own choices and decisions but it’s also about living the life you want to live. I have always wanted to be a mother and in 2011, I gave birth to my daughter Arleigh, whom I prayed for from the time I was six.  I now have someone special who has shown me that I cannot do it all myself, and it is ok for me to rely on others for assistance when I need it and STILL be independent!! =)

Brooke Heard

Brooke HeardI was born with cerebral palsy, and the doctors told my parents got go ahead and plan my funeral that I would not live but a couple of days.  I was also born with a profound hearing loss but was not diagnosed until I was four, and then I got my first set of hearing aids.  I had to learn all the sounds at this point.  I went to two different schools in kindergarten to be able to receive the speech, physical and occupational therapy that I needed.  In first grade, I was mainstreamed, and I continued receiving therapy through the school system and private pay.   When I was in third grade, the school said I had gotten all the therapy that they could give me and since we did not live in the school district that I could not go there anymore.

“The headmaster who did not think I could handle the course work at school was the one to give me my high school diploma at graduation.”

My parents wanted me to go to private school with my brother, but the headmaster said he did not think I would be able to do the course work and pass.  My mom convinced him to let me take the entrance exam to see if I could pass the exam.  I did pass the exam, and they gave me chance to attend the school.   While I was in elementary school, I joined Girl Scouts.  My Girl Scout troop decided to walk up Stone Mountain to earn a badge.  My mom was hesitant that I would be able to make it to the top.  I wanted to walk up Stone Mountain so my Mom said she would go with me in case I needed help.   Everyone else turned around about half way up.  My Mom wanted to turn around, but I did not so we both kept going, and we made it to the top of Stone Mountain.

I wanted to take driver’s ed through the school so I could get my learner’s license, but the driver’s ed teacher did not think I would be able to drive.  My parents and I convinced him to let me at least take the course and try.  I ended up passing driver’s ed, and the teacher still talks about me to this day and says I was one of his favorite students.  I went on to get my learner’s license and my driver’s license.  The headmaster who did not think I could handle the course work at school was the one to give me my high school diploma at graduation.

My definition of Independent Living is being able to live in the community, going grocery shopping, to church, to work and wherever I want to go and making my own decisions.  I cannot use a regular alarm clock because I cannot hear it.  I use an alarm clock with a bed shaker so I can feel the vibrations to wake me up.  I graduated from high school and college.  I bought a house, and a car.  At work, I drive to go see consumers and I assist them in achieving their goals.  I am a peer supporter so I can connect with consumers through my disability and I am also the home modification coordinator.  I do have trouble sometimes talking to people on the phone, especially on the initial phone call.  I have to get someone to help me either to hear or understand them and help them understand me.  After we get used to talking with each other, we can usually talk to each other with no one helping us.  Besides providing peer support, I work with the consumer and contractor to coordinate home modifications to the consumer’s home.  I also work with the consumer to use assistive technology and durable medical equipment.