Independent Lifestyles Inc., A Center for Independent Living (ILICIL), is celebrating 25 years’ service to central Minnesota. The center is hosting an open house 3-6 p.m. Thursday, June 30 at its headquarters at 215 N. Benton Drive, Sauk Rapids. The public is invited to attend.
Independent Lifestyles is a story of rising from the ashes. When Central Minnesota Care Centers closed due to debt issues in early 1997, Cara Ruff and other staff members quickly founded the nonprofit, consumer-directed Independent Lifestyles. They wished to serve the plus-150 St. Cloud area clients left without independent living services and supports.
The start wasn’t easy, with people working out of their homes and garages to assist residents of nine counties. But they continued on, committed to the idea of providing accessibility, education, opportunity and resources to empower people with all types of disabilities.
“If we can dream it, we can do it… And to do it with a philosophy of consumer control and community responsiveness is just a model that you do not see in other places,” Ruff said.
Ruff is described as the heart of the center. “It is difficult to describe Cara without using the word passion,” said Lori Olmscheid, executive assistant. “Her leadership in the nonprofit sector, the manner in which she engages with the community and on behalf of those she represents teaches others what passion really is. Cara has worked with passion in supporting the principles of social justice to individuals with disabilities, veterans, law enforcement and to the community.”
Independent Lifestyles is a certified center for independent Living (CIL). Minnesota has eight CILs in Minnesota, with more than 350 centers throughout the country.
Centers vary somewhat in terms of some of the services they provide or the scope in which they provide them. All CILs must offer core services and operate with the common philosophy of consumer control and consumer orientation. This means that at least 51 percent of the board and staff members must be persons who have disabilities.
CILs must gather input and feedback regarding services and service implementation. Their foundation is personal, local and statewide advocacy, designed to ensure and work for the rights of people with disabilities. ILICIL and its sister centers are all CILs are cross-disability organizations, which mean anyone with any type of disability is qualified for services.
Consumer-directed services is also a hallmark of ILICIL. Consumers seeking services aren’t required to simply make a choice from a list of predetermined services. Staff works with the individual to develop an individual plan to enable them to achieve their chosen goals, be it with independent living skills, advocacy, information and referral, peer mentorship, transition and other services.
ILICIL enjoyed steady growth after its founding. By 2011 ILICIL had branch offices, and moved to its current main location in Sauk Rapids. Two hundred people attended a grand opening. The Sauk Rapids facility allowed ILICIL to expand from 4,500 to 12,000 square feet, adding a technology center, an accessible skills training kitchen and a conference education center.
in 2014 ILICIL bought a camp in Walker, with the goal of creating a retreat for people with disabilities. Ruff had long envisioned having a place where consumers could heal. Camp Bliss is well-used by veterans and law enforcement as well as people with disabilities, offering a wide range of options including mental health retreats.
The center used creativity to get through the COVID-10 pandemic. One focus was to prepare care packages for its clients, which included everything from toilet paper to masks hand-sewn by a former center employee. Staff changed the way they worked and doubled down on outreach to make sure clients weren’t isolated.
ILICIL is looking to its future, guided by its dedicated staff. “Empower people with disabilities to live their best lives, to realize there are no limits to reaching their potential,” Ruff said.