Growing the next generation of disability advocates

When Hope College student Chloe Bares reached out to Disability Network Lakeshore looking for an internship opportunity to explore work in the nonprofit field, little did she know the experience would transform her into a disability advocate.

During her internship in her junior year, Bares was asked if she wanted to start an associate board of directors with college students and young professionals. The group she has brought together is passionate about accessibility, equality, and equity for people with disabilities, says Bares, who spent most of her internship setting up the structure.

“There is a community on the Lakeshore advocating for those with disabilities. Ultimately, our goal is to increase the awareness of disability and accessibility in our communities,” Bares says.

Bares’ story is an example of how Centers for Independent Living are growing the next generation of disability advocates. As the country is coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and a period of isolation, these groups are drawing young professionals who are looking for ways to connect and make a difference. The informality of these groups also provides a fun way for young professionals to learn about board governance and fundraising while organizing events that bring people together to better understand disability issues. 

Philanthropy for the next generation

Last year, as Disability Advocates of Kent County celebrated its 40th anniversary, the organization made plans for its long-term future. Out of that effort came the Next 40 Associate Board. Its intention is to engage a new generation of philanthropists in volunteerism and giving back to their community, explains Nathan Slauer, DAKC’s annual fund manager.

Next 40 professionals enjoying a good conversation at Atwater Brewery during trivia.

“Our mission is twofold,” Slauer said. “We want to invite people who have not volunteered before the chance to become a leader.

“We also want to reach out to people with disabilities who are often overlooked when it comes to board or committee service. It is important that those people of all ability levels feel welcome at the table.” 

Mixing advocacy with fun

DAKC has held many of its gatherings at accessible breweries, providing a way for attendees to network and have conversations about disability advocacy. One well-attended event was a trivia night with questions about the intersection of pop culture and disabilities. 

There was a screening of the 2020 documentary “Crip Camp,” about how an East Coast summer camp brought together a group of young people with disabilities and spurred their journey to activism and adulthood. Many went on to become leaders in the Civil Rights Movement for people with disabilities, which helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We talked about how we can get inspired from the example of those who participated in that movement and, as a group, how can we embody some of the spirit that those folks had. It was a great discussion and a fun event.”

The group meets on the last Friday morning of each month to plan events. 

“Typically, we have a casual networking event each month. We'll meet at a brewery and connect for good conversation. On a quarterly basis, we plan larger scale events, like the film screening, service projects, or fundraisers.”

“Typically we have a monthly kind of casual networking event,” Slauer said. “Usually that will be more like a community conversation. We'll meet at a brewery and just kind of have a chance to connect with one another to exchange business cards. These events are low key. And then on a quarterly basis, we plan larger scale events, like the film screening, service projects, or fundraiser. 

“We’ve had some great sponsor organizations like Steelcase’s young professionals group and Spectrum Health’s disability-focused work group. We continue to invite corporate groups to engage with our work.” 
 
In September, DNL’s associate board organized the group’s first Walk, Run, & Roll 5K through downtown Holland. That fundraiser was designed to “foster community and connection” and create a space “where people feel unified in a cause, expand their social circles, and meet individuals they may not have known before,” Bares says. 
 
Supporting vital services

This year, DNL is marking its 30th anniversary serving residents with disabilities across Ottawa and Allegan counties. The nonprofit offers five core services: advocacy; information and referral; peer support; skills development; and transition. 

The DNL Associate Board organized its first 5K Walk, Run & Roll. (DNL)

Associate boards offer another layer of support for Centers for Independent Living, which often need community support to meet the needs of their clients.

“The purpose is to create interest among the younger generation around nonprofit work, especially around board governance,” says Stacey Trowbridge, DNL’s director of community engagement. “This gives them the opportunity to learn about what nonprofit board governance is really about, and what the expectations are. It also allows an organization like ours to connect with a younger generation that might not normally have us on their radar.” 

The DNL associate board has five members and is looking for volunteers. Members are a mix of college students and young professionals between the ages of 19 to 35. As the chair of the associate board, Bares spends up to 10 hours a week volunteering for DNL, but says most board members volunteer a few hours a week. 

Life takes new direction

The experience of launching and chairing the board has been life-changing for Bares. The political science and history major is now focusing her studies on the history of disability rights and independent living. Her work with DNL has inspired her to pursue a career in the disability field.

“Disability advocacy isn’t something that can really be done with one person,” says Bares. “Whether you have a disability, know someone with a disability, or are just interested in the cause, building that community and having conversations is where that all starts.”

Bares, who has struggled with a learning disability for most of her life, didn’t know she had dyslexia until recently. “I spent a lot of my life being told that I was stupid because I couldn't read, which unfortunately is just a stigma that people with dyslexia face,” Bares said. “I got diagnosed when I was in college, and this internship was a great starting point for my personal journey.”

Out of that experience, she feels a connection to others with disabilities. During her internship, she’s come to appreciate the resources DNL provides.

“There isn't a fee for service with DNL. You can come in with questions about getting Social Security benefits and what should I do after college, and they are just dedicated people who will sit down and help you figure it out,” Bares says. “I didn't know that existed.”

“They’ve been great guides for me to understand myself and advocate for myself.” 

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.