Rural Independent Living Conference

Southwestern Center for Independent Living (SWCIL) Executive Director, Mr. Steve Thovson, was recently awarded the Earl Walden Award for Outstanding Achievement in Rural Advocacy during October’s annual conference for the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL). The award was created by APRIL and the Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU) organization to honor the memory of Earl Walden, a great friend and supporter of APRIL who died suddenly in 1997. Earl worked at ILRU in Houston, where he demonstrated “a heart as big as Texas and a gift for [creative problem-solving, making it look] as easy and smooth as his southern drawl”. Therefore, the annual award is presented to an APRIL-affiliated Center for Independent Living employee who similarly demonstrates action-oriented rural independent living advocacy, education, and creative problem-solving in addition to the ability to be non-judgmental, gracious, and humble.

Steve is all these things and more, according to the staff at the staff at (SWCIL), where he has been the Executive Director for the past 14 years. Among his many accomplishments, he was a driving force and original founding member of the Minnesota Association of Centers for Independent Living (MACIL), was a staunch advocate helping restore 70% of state funding for statewide Centers for Independent Living slated for elimination during the last legislative session, and is the sole ramp program coordinator for SWCIL. During the presentation speech, SWCIL staff Carol Flesner said, “Steve has no façade, no hidden agendas. Whether he’s meeting with a legislator, talking with a consumer, providing information and referral, or building a ramp, Steve is the same. His concern is always for the consumer. His questions, time and again are, ‘what does the consumer want and what does the consumer need?'”

APRIL, often referred to as “the voice of independent living in rural America”, is a national network of rural centers for independent living (CILs) plus other organizations and individuals concerned with the unique aspects of rural independent living. APRIL was organized in 1987 to promote independence and full rights and benefits for individuals with disabilities living in rural environments.

APRIL was “Celebrating a Decade of Excellence in Rural Independent Living” during their 10th annual conference held here in the Twin Cities last month. The event was jam-packed with informative and inspirational speakers and resourceful seminars, beginning with two “pre-conference” days followed the three-day regular conference. The involvement of youth in the future of rural independent living was this year’s theme, kicked off by the first one-day pre-conference entitled “The Next Decade: Engaging Rural Youth in the Independent Living Movement”. This first day was designed to bring rural youth with disabilities together in order to discuss issues of importance to them, review various resources and services available for them, and think about ways they can be more involved with their local CILs and communities. The second day was entitled “Funding Independent Living in Rural America” and featured a fast-paced day-long training session. Richard Male, one of the early organizers of the ADA and disability community supporter since 1974, was on hand to give participants a clear overview of the funding trends across the country for supporting rural CILs. He was able to share his expertise as an international trainer for thousands of grassroot nonprofits and CILs by discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each of funding option, various tips, in addition to strategies that SUCCEED. There were the regular legislative updates, gatherings to “brag n steal” unique solutions, as well as seminars addressing independent living topics such as advocacy, leadership, underserved populations, nursing home transition, technical resources, housing, support services, and transportation. And, of course, there were the delicious luncheons and lucrative raffles.

But, the conference was not all business. After the awards ceremony, the 2004 APRIL Fools and Follies bash began. The evening was a talent show of sorts, featuring various skits, singers, and comedy routines. I think I saw the next American Idol and Last Comic Standing winners! Where was Ed McMahon?!?