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Old 12-17-2006, 01:56 AM
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Default A Half Century of Independent Living

A Half Century of Independent Living
By Emily Keller 12/14/2006

Ruth Mitchell leads a Congo line at the 50-year anniversary party of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled.Photos By Emily Keller
When Sheri Baker Levy had a stroke ten years ago, which caused traumatic brain injury (TBI), she had a hard time finding a support group that met her preferences. As a 40-year-old mother of two, Levy found it difficult to relate to the majority of people who share her disability.

Levy, who lives in Mill Basin, was dismayed by the large size of some of the groups, was younger than most of their members, and became frustrated with their outlook on life. “Most of these support groups seemed to be like ‘Poor me, poor me,’” she said. “I wanted a support group that would be not ‘Why me?’ but ‘Where do we go from here?’”

Levy decided to start an intimate, pro-active support group for people with TBI and stroke, and opened the phone book in search of a place to do it. She chose the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID).


“Disability doesn’t mean ‘not able.’ It should mean ‘able with help,’” said Levy. “BCID and I want the emphasis to be on the ‘able,’ and I was very happy to find this niche here.”

Levy, now 51, is the vice president of the independent living center’s board of directors. The center is about the same age, having recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, which is marked by new leadership and ambitious goals.

“I hope we will put ourselves out of business and there will be no need for independent living [services] because we will all be living independently,” said Marvin Wasserman, a member of the board of directors, at the celebration at Buckley’s Restaurant, 2926 Avenue S.

Joan Serrano of Bergen Beach, the recently appointed president of the board of directors, said proudly that since she started her job she has lost her voice, and her husband hasn’t had dinner in a month. “With your help we are going to bring BCID [back] to the glory days,” she said.

The event, which drew more than 100 staff members, clients and family members, was deejayed by Levy’s 22-year-old son, Ryan, of Sound Sensations.

City Councilmember Mike Nelson and representatives for Mayor Bloomberg, Borough President Marty Markowitz, Councilmember Sara Gonzalez, and State Senator Marty Golden were also in attendance.

Asked what the center has planned next, Helene Katz Lesser of Sheepshead Bay, who became executive director three months ago, said she wants to expand the center’s fundraising efforts and diversify its clientele to serve more Russian, Hispanic and Orthodox Brooklynites, younger children, and people with a wider range of disabilities, including mental health problems and cognitive and neurological impairments.

“The younger that we can reach out to consumers, the earlier we can instill independence and self-worth,” said Lesser. The center currently serves kids who are 16 and older, and makes regular visits to high schools including Edward R. Murrow High School, 1600 Avenue L, and Sheepshead Bay High School, 3000 Avenue X.

Its services include assistance in the areas of socialization, personal grooming, housing, employment, voter registration, job training and transportation. Some of its tasks are helping to get adaptive equipment at work sites, instructing people with disabilities about where to buy specialized cars, and representing clients in court.

The center also works towards systematic changes, like increasing the number of accessible taxi cabs.

“A lot of what independent living is all about is lobbying and fighting the fight,” said Lesser. “[The Americans with Disabilities Act] was wonderful legislation to start but it didn’t take away discrimination and injustices for disabled people.”

The center is also run by people with disabilities, which Lesser, who is legally blind, said is consistent with the disability rights movement that flourished after the center was founded.

“Independent living really started as a grassroots initiative,” said Lesser. “It wasn’t the professionals and the doctors and the lawyers who started this. It was disabled people and people who were caregivers to disabled people.”

BCID serves several thousand people annually, and membership costs between $5 and $20 per person. Individual services are free, although contributions are accepted. Most clients live in Brooklyn, but BCID does not turn anyone away.

BCID gets most of its funding from the Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID), an agency of the state Education Department. However, Lesser plans to expand the center’s funding sources, which is of primary importance since the center recently underwent a down-sizing prior to the change in leadership.

“One of the things I’ve seen that is frustrating is that most of the streams of funding that we have are very small,” she said, citing grants for the center’s spinal cord program and advocacy that are $5,000 and $7,500 each. “My goal is to entertain the options where there’s a lot of money involved,” she said.

BCID is located at 2044 Ocean Avenue, Suite B-3. For more information, call (718) 998-3000 or visit
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