I want to introduce you to Amanda Rhines. She is passionate about inclusion, and an advocate for people with disabilities. She is also Disability Network/Lakeshore’s newest executive director, having started her new role in September.
Disability Network/Lakeshore (DNL) is an important organization to me. Having started my advocacy career there in 2002 and leaving in 2018, it was the organization that created a lifelong disability advocate. Even though I’ve been gone for three years, I’ve got so much respect and love for the staff and mission.
Serving Allegan and Ottawa counties since 1992, DNL annually helps more than 1,500 people with a vast array of disabilities to lead productive lives. Its mission is to connect those with disabilities to resources and opportunities while building communities where everyone can participate, contribute and belong.
I jumped at the chance to sit down with Rhines for a meeting. I had heard from colleagues that she was a breath of fresh air, passionate and motivated. Rhines previously spent 10 years at D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s (DABSJ), where she developed programming, education and community workshops.
“Since the birth of my son, I’ve witnessed firsthand the limitations that are unfairly placed on people with disabilities,” says Rhines. “I’m excited to create more inclusive communities with an organization that is rethinking disability, challenging the paradigms and working with, not for, people.”
Leap into advocacy
Rhines has first-hand disability advocacy experience. She is the mother of Cooper, who has Down syndrome and autism. Cooper is 9 years old. Rhines has always been someone who advocated for her son. Eventually, she says, her efforts moved in the direction of inclusive education.
Amanda Rhines and her son, Cooper. Rhines is the new leader of Disability Network/Lakeshore.
She sought out and received Special Education Advocacy Training through the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. After receiving the training, Rhines started to incorporate it into her work with kids in the residential program at DABSJ. Many of the kids have emotional impairments or receive special education services. She saw a need that needed to be addressed and created a space to start advocating for those kids.
Rhines also started educating and coaching parents of children with Down syndrome on how to advocate. She says parents of children with Down syndrome tend to experience a lot more assumptions that they won’t be included in general education. She wanted to make sure parents were prepared.
Desire to grow professionally
Rhines wasn’t looking for a job when the DNL executive director position was forwarded to her. In fact, she had no clue what a Center for Independent Living and DNL were until she saw the job posting. She had to do her research.
“Holy cow — there’s this whole network dedicated to independent living, and not only that, but it’s consumer-driven,” Rhines says. “It’s not other people saying, ‘Here’s what you need.’ That, to me, just spoke to who I am personally.”
One of the things that hit her was the realization that, if the mission of DNL succeeds, it creates a community where her son succeeds. Rhines wants her son to be independent. She wants him to be able to say what he wants and have the support to do that. She says she wants him to receive support without any preconceived limitations from someone else or societal structure.
Rhines decided to apply for the position.
New role and what’s ahead
As a seasoned leader, Rhines brings career-long experience in creative team leadership, strategic engagement, fundraising and program management.
“Amanda has been a lifelong advocate for those who don’t have a voice, helping them achieve,” says Rick Diamond, interim director of DNL. “In her professional and personal life, she is deeply invested, and we are excited for her to guide Disability Network/Lakeshore to achieve our goals.
“These experiences will align with DNL’s organizational needs related to programming, volunteer matching, program facilitation and building awareness for what we do in the community,” Diamond says.
Rhines wants the community to know that the success of DNL’s mission is personal to her because it impacts the community in which her son will grow up. Inclusion is her primary focus, she says. Inclusion goes beyond education for her, ensuring all spaces include everybody, adding inclusion is meaningful access.
Rhines has goals of connecting more to the community through programs and developing leaders with disabilities. She would like to help individuals with disabilities develop their voices even further, not just for personal advocacy, but advocacy for the whole community.
“I want the community to understand DNL is cross-disability. We’re here to work with people and not for people,” Rhines says. “We firmly believe in the idea of consumer control.”