On Our Fortieth Anniversary, We Reflect on Our Past

40th Anniversary logoThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of Disability Network Southwest Michigan. In reflecting back over the years, the thing that stands out most is our ability to adapt to change. This is reflected strongly in the variety of services we have provided over the years – some programs remaining from the start, and many coming and going as needs changed in the communities we serve. We have also undergone some identity changes over the years.

With growth and time, comes change

Disability Network Southwest Michigan sprouted its roots in October 1981 when a small group of disability advocates opened what was then called, “Kalamazoo County Center for Independent Living” (KCCIL). KCCIL opened in a one-room office on N. Pitcher Street with a grant of $26,000 – enough to hire 1½ staff positions. Like dating an old movie by the fashions worn, we can mark our place in time by the language we use; our first mission statement was “to integrate the physically handicapped into society.” Clearly, not language we would use today!

In 1983, the agency moved to a bigger office on E. Kilgore Street and changed the name to “Kalamazoo Center for Independent Living” (KCIL). The change was made to reflect a larger service area – now serving 9 counties.  With a growing staff, the agency moved in 1986 to a larger office on W. South Street; and again in 1988 to S. Westnedge Avenue.  In 1995, we had another name change to “Disability Resource Center” (DRC).

Karen Duckworth, the original Executive Director, remained with the agency for 20 years. In 2001, Karen stepped down and our current President and CEO, Joel Cooper, started his tenure at Disability Network. With new leadership came a new mission statement which reflected a stronger voice for independence and advocacy: “Educate and empower people with disabilities to create change in their own lives and advocate for social change to create inclusive communities.” 

Disability Network found its current home in 1999 when we purchased our office building on the corner of E. Crosstown Parkway and Vine Street, including the adjacent “community building.” With donations from Bronson Hospital, Borgess Hospital and the Fetzer Foundation, we constructed a ramp and installed an elevator immediately. Our buildings have undergone many changes over the years, not the least of which have been related to extensive flooding, most notably in 2008, 2016 and 2018. The flood of 2018 prompted a major remodel of the community building which now includes a completely accessible kitchen and meeting space.

In 2006, we had our final name change to “Disability Network Southwest Michigan,” reflecting our place within the larger statewide network of centers for independent living. In 2009, Disability Network Southwest Michigan absorbed management of the Berrien/Cass Center for Independent Living, giving us two office locations within our eight-county region. In 2010, we further modified our mission statement to what it is today: “We educate and connect people with disabilities to resources while advocating social change.”  We’ve come a long way in so many ways!

Marking time with communications

In 1983 we published our first LINK newsletter with a circulation of 400 copies. Today, the LINK is a quarterly newsletter with 4,000 copies distributed in print and another 3,700 emailed. The title, “LINK,” stands for “Living Independently Near Kalamazoo” – the original name of our newsletter is one thing that has not changed!

In 1986, the agency purchased its first computer – just one – with grant funds.  Today, all of our staff have laptops which make it possible to do their jobs wherever they are, regardless of road conditions, flooding, or even a year-long pandemic!

In 2000, we launched our first website, drccil.org, reflecting our name at the time; that first website was a single web page. Today, our website, dnswm.org, is made up of more than 50 web pages filled with a wealth of information about our agency and area disability resources.

In 2009, we launched our Facebook page; currently we have more than 2,000 followers.

Our programming has rolled with the times.

Through all the changes and growth we have experienced, none of it is more notable than the variety of services and programs we have offered. In the end, this is the measure of who we are; our ability to be flexible and provide the services that are needed, when they are needed. Over 40 years, our services and programs have changed to meet the needs of the communities we serve.

We opened our doors in 1981 with three core services: Peer Support, Information & Referral, and Advocacy; we later added Independent Living Services and Transition Services. Over the years, Disability Network Southwest Michigan has operated an adaptive driving school; partnered with Michigan Career and Technical Institute to provide Independent Living and Professional Counseling; provided TTY relay services so that people with hearing or speech disabilities could use a telephone; spearheaded the Benefits Counseling services program; developed Disability Pride and Anti-Ableism curricula; and so much more.

Volunteers have been part of our core

Since our beginning, volunteers have played an important role in the success of our agency. From grounds maintenance to board leadership, volunteers have helped keep us going. An all-volunteer team of receptionists have been welcoming visitors and directing phone calls since 1991. Our volunteer advocacy teams provide valuable input toward developing a more accessible and inclusive community. Volunteers throughout our region have worked with our Ramp Up program to ensure that people with mobility disabilities can live safely and independently at home. The leadership of our agency depends on the dedication of volunteer board and committee members who have contributed countless hours navigating Disability Network on a path of success.

Perhaps most remarkable is the longevity of our volunteers; many have been with us for more than 10 years and some for over 30 years. We have been truly fortunate for the dedication of each of our many volunteers.

What comes next?

More change awaits us. After twenty years at the helm, Joel Cooper has announced he will be retiring and leaving us this year. And though we are saddened to say goodbye to Joel, we welcome his successor and the next era at Disability Network Southwest Michigan.

There have been many changes over the years – changes in name, location, services and programs – however, one thing that has never changed is our dedication to the independent living philosophy. We are proud of the work we have done, and look forward to continuing our record of excellence in supporting the Independent Living philosophy.

A collection of photos of signs with our various agency names over the years.

Signs of the times . . . a few name changes over the years.

Socializig at annual meeting

A good time was had by all at our annual meetings.

Volunteer ramp group

Our first Ramp Up volunteer building group was from First Methodist Church led by Tom Schaberg.

Volunteer front desk receptionist

Our Volunteer Receptionist Program began in 1991.

TAG Team Advocacy Group

Volunteer, Reuben Richardson (top left), started our grassroots Advocacy teams in 2003.

Ed Robers at Inclusion Conference

Ed Roberts, “the father of the independent living movement,” was a speaker at our 8th annual Independence Conference in 1989.

group gathered at table

Many group meetings happened around the kitchen table back when we were KCIL – it was the biggest room we had at the time.

BI Group potluck

The Brain Injury Survivors Support Group holiday pot luck — it’s been an annual tradition for many years!

ADA celebration gathering

We hold a community cookout each July in our Kalamazoo Parking lot to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the ADA.

original Berrien/Cass staff

The original Berrien/Cass staff in 2009.

Advocacy in front of State Capitol

We’ve been holding Advocacy Academy, our summer advocacy internship program, since 2012.