“I think people are just amazed by the fact that we treat them as people,” says Brianne Anderson, Administrative Services Director, when asked to describe how LIFE Center for Independent Living (LIFE CIL) approaches those who come to them for support. “Our philosophy is people first… They’re a person, they have a disability, but their disability does not define them.

Since its founding in 1985, LIFE CIL has fought to break down barriers for all people with disabilities. LIFE CIL serves those in DeWitt, Ford, Livingston, and McLean counties by advocating for those with disabilities, running educational programming, supplying free equipment, and providing support services. Through their work, they are fighting for equality in every sense of the word.

“It is persons with disabilities serving persons with disabilities,” says Conan Calhoun, a Disability Rights Advocate at LIFE CIL. As one of 22 CILs in Illinois, at least half of the organization’s staff are themselves persons living with disabilities. The staff members focus on empowering and encouraging clients with disabilities to navigate their own lives, acting as a support to always fall back on—but never making decisions on behalf of the person being served.

When LIFE CIL describes themselves as consumer-driven, they mean that they don’t determine the needs of those they serve before serving them, nor do they approach each case with a one-size-fits all method. Rather, they treat each person that comes to them as a unique individual with their own needs and aspirations. Even if the agency does not provide a requested service, the staff is more than willing to connect the person being served with someone who can help them directly.

Picture of Conan Calhoun, a Disability Rights Advocate at LIFE CIL

Conan Calhoun, a Disibility Rights Advocate at LIFE CIL

LIFE CIL, like other CILs, operates under the Independent Living philosophy, which centers on one thing: gaining independence. When asked to describe what the Independent Living philosophy looks like in action, Calhoun says that it is inherently humanistic, a way for those with disabilities to embrace the world around them as people with agency and to make their own choices. Gaining independence looks different to everyone, but the very concept of independent living is liberating and valuable.

Though the organization doesn’t provide residential services, if a consumer wants to live in a congregate living environment, staff at LIFE CIL will support them in doing so. Guided by the Independent Living philosophy, they will never push those they serve towards institutionalization. Through education and advocacy, they aim to ensure individuals with disabilities have the means and opportunity to make their own choices, especially as it pertains to housing.

Everyone needs accommodations in life, and sometimes people need assistance in overcoming barriers that keep them from independence. Whether those barriers are disability discrimination, financial limitations, or the need for mobility accommodations in an apartment, LIFE CIL provides information and resources necessary to overcome those obstacles.

After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, LIFE CIL was confronted with the reality of conducting business in a socially distanced—often virtual—environment. This transition was especially jarring to their staff; much of their work relies on being readily available and meeting daily with the people they serve. Anderson recounts taking calls to find out what consumers needed at the beginning of the pandemic to ensure LIFE CIL was able to continue to serve them, even if they were unable to do so face-to-face. Staff at LIFE CIL put together gift baskets filled with pandemic necessities, including gloves, sanitizer, masks, food, and gift cards, and personally delivered them to those that they serve.

When LIFE CIL’s Executive Director, Rickielee Benecke, found out one of their regular consumers was sick with COVID-19, she bought and delivered their groceries to ensure they were provided for while they recovered. This kind of direct action—even in the face of uncertainty—exemplifies LIFE CIL’s unwavering dedication to their community. 

“We always used to joke that we’re the best kept secret [in the community],” Brianne says. Recently, however, as they’ve continued doing work directly in their community, they’ve become more well-known, and staff is looking forward to reaching new consumers and audiences while staying true to their founding mission.

“We are advocates first,” says Conan. “We are going to stand up for our rights and we’re going to stand up for our consumers and we’re going to be right there.”