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Wheel-A-Thon raises disability awareness

DeKALB – Jennifer Link had no idea how different her life would become when an injury left her disabled three years ago.

Link, who represented Kishwaukee College when she participated in Saturday’s Wheel-A-Thon, had full use of her legs until October 2009. She was training at night while serving in the Army when she fell into a hole, and three people fell on top of her.

The accident caused a hip injury that hasn’t fully healed. Link said she’s used wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and canes to get around. The biggest challenge after the injury, she said, was becoming independent again.

“I used to just run to Walmart or go clothes shopping by myself,” she said. “Now I pretty much always have to have somebody with me.”

Link, 22, said the DeKalb County RAMP Center for Independent Living provided her with a wheelchair to use until she got help from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

She was one of about 100 people who helped raise $12,000 to support RAMP by participating in the 12th annual Wheel-A-Thon, which this year was themed “Wild About DeKalb County.” The two-mile course wound through downtown DeKalb, taking participants across busy streets and over a variety of terrains. Many of the participants pushed or used wheelchairs.

Heather Foulker, DeKalb County RAMP manager, said she expects RAMP to serve about 250 people by the end of the year – an increase from the 200 people served last year.

“A lot of people don’t know about the services RAMP provides until they need them,” she said. “Anyone can be disabled at any time, and you don’t know who to turn to. We’re that person.”

Among RAMP’s services are providing information and referrals, peer support and independent living skills training, said RAMP marketing consultant Jodey Vass. The organization also provides youth education and advocacy, which serves families such as Dena McKnight and her daughter, Alyssa, 13.

Dena McKnight of DeKalb said RAMP assists her daughter at Huntley Middle School, which is why they’ve supported RAMP through the Wheel-A-Thon on and off for eight years.

“They help us know what our rights are and what the responsibilities are for the schools,” she said. “And I think keeping people independent is very important.”

Vass said one in five Americans has some kind of disability, whether it’s physical, cognitive or emotional. She said RAMP focuses on putting people and their abilities first, rather than their disabilities.

“We teach people ways to work with their disability so they can live as independently as possible,” Vass said.

That’s still a challenge for Link, even after three years. She said when people look at her when she’s not in a wheelchair, they have no idea she has a disability that sometimes makes it difficult to get out of bed.

Link said she knew being in a wheelchair wouldn’t be easy, but she didn’t expect to have to fight so hard to overcome sidewalk cracks, curbs, uneven surfaces and even a windy day.

She said not only did she have to adjust to her new lifestyle but her family did, too.

“They knew me to be independent. Then all of a sudden, I needed help putting on shoes,” she said. “Every day’s a challenge. ... But you learn ways to adapt.”

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