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UIX: With donated wheelchairs, Alternatives in Motion brings mobility to Grand Rapids

Coleen Davis

For those fortunate enough to live in West Michigan, Alternatives in Motion can restore freedom where it's been restricted. Led by Executive Director Coleen Davis, AIM provides wheelchairs, mobility equipment and repair services to those in the community who couldn't otherwise afford it. 
Mobility is freedom, and freedom is hard to take for granted once it's taken from you.
 
Humans of any socioeconomic level can be robbed of movement and access by disability. And the equipment required to resume a life unassisted, without insurance, can be financially restrictive. Even the most unadorned aids, like walkers and wheelchairs, can be priced out of reach for those who need to find replacement equipment more often than insurance companies are willing to cover. 
 
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are at least 2.2 million adults with disabilities living in the state, with that number projected to increase to nearly 2.4 million in 2030.
 
For those fortunate enough to live in West Michigan, Alternatives in Motion can restore freedom where it's been restricted. Led by executive director Coleen Davis, AIM provides wheelchairs, mobility equipment, and repair services to those in the community who couldn't otherwise afford it. The equipment and services are provided at no cost to the individual in need.
 
"Whether it's someone who can't afford their $10,000 deductible for the year, or whether it's someone who has a three-year-old wheelchair and the insurance company will only pay for a chair every five years, there are so many different scenarios that bring people to us," Davis says. "Most of our clients have been denied by insurance requests for one reason or another. It's really frustrating on their end. We really try to alleviate that and see them succeed."
 
Unexpected diagnoses, broken bones, or otherwise incredibly inconvenient circumstances that insurance just can't act fast enough to cover are easily handled by AIM, Davis says. Equipment is always on hand and can be delivered within days without waiting for insurance approval.
 
Many with disabilities have found assistance from of Davis and AIM's team of volunteers at its 201 Matilda St. NE facility. The agency also relies on an aging minivan for transporting and delivering equipment, which has on more than one occasion delivered repairs or replacement devices to people struggling on the streets of Grand Rapids. 
 
Winter weather can hinder accessibility for everyone, but the homeless are challenged by the same difficulties more often than those with means. Few images represent the need these citizens face more than the man who takes two buses and manually wheels himself up the Matilda Street hill for assistance. Even then, homeless individuals are usually not coming to AIM, Davis says, so assistance needs to come to them. 
 
The homeless are making up an increasing percentage of AIM's clientele, but the organization is experiencing higher requests for need at every level, quite literally. One of AIM's last cases of 2016 involved a client who lived in a bi-level home. She had one walker and fell down the stairs bringing her walker to the second level. A physical therapist recommended she have a walker, so AIM provided her with one on both levels of her home.
 
"It's simple things like that," Davis says. "We just want people to enjoy as much of their freedom as possible. Helping that woman was a simple way for us to give back but it made a big difference."
 
And it's not just any equipment that AIM is doling out. Every walker, every knee scooter, every wheelchair was donated with its own story, and meant a great deal to someone else in West Michigan.
 
"People are giving so generously, this equipment, for a vast amount of reasons. And then we're giving them to people and facilities in the community that need them," Davis says. "A lot of times a family member has passed away and that particular chair is something that carries that memory. I think it gives them really a sense of closure, and when we give the equipment to people it's the same thing, they get emotional. It's come full circle."
 
The impact when someone is given the help they need to move around their house, neighborhood, or city is seen on entire families, Davis says. They can leave the house with their family instead of staying home. It adds another chapter of compassion to the story.
 
It's an emotional event to receive a $20,000 wheelchair, maybe something a particular AIM client could never afford. On the other end, people are coming from mourning the loss of a loved one, and might eventually feel excited to help someone else by donating that unused mobility equipment. It's what Davis calls a "circle of emotion," and it's growing.
 
Most of AIM's referrals come from occupational therapists, doctors' offices and home health specialists. And all of the equipment is donated from local residents. In 2016, AIM collected more than $216,000 in mobility equipment, 136 percent more than 2015. The nonprofit's clientele, meanwhile, has increased by 64 percent over the past year. 
 
"Those two numbers were great to see," Davis says, "I would have guessed a 10 or 15 percent increase in clientele, but, for as small as we are, this 64 percent increase really shows how passionate the community is about people with disabilities."
 
Davis cites support from a reliable pool of volunteers as well as the AIM board of directors, which includes such notable locals as Shelley Irwin, Mary Ruth Scholz, Shelley Loose and Dr. Jeff Kramer. Everyone has been putting in extra hours, Davis says, keeping up with the growth and demand for medical mobility equipment. And, of course, the executive director deserves the same high praise for AIM's success. 
 
She took on the role of executive director at AIM in the beginning of 2016, bringing years of experience in her own niche of the non-profit sector to a brand new organization. Originally from Illinois, Davis previously served as Chief Development Officer for Big Brothers Big Sisters in the Prairie State. And prior to that, Executive Director for the United Way there.
 
Ironically, nonprofit administration wasn't Davis first career choice. She says she  just "fell into it."
 
While working as a coordinator for an assisted living center, Davis was responsible for recruiting volunteers. One day the staff asked if she could rally some of the volunteers to conduct a fundraiser. Davis and her volunteers raised that and then some, which caught the eye of a board member from the local United Way.
 
"They had been around for 59 years without an executive director, believe it or not, and they were looking for one," Davis says. "That was really gratifying and I think my years of volunteering helped in my role there. I knew how instrumental volunteers were to organizations and their success."
 
Davis was the first executive director of the United Way in Illinois, and seeing value in another non-profit's mission in 2008, would go on to lead Big Brothers Big Sisters as CDO. She was named Big Sister of the Year for the State of Illinois in 2012, shortly before coming to Grand Rapids.
 
A colleague forwarded her the AIM executive director job posting, noting Davis' passion for those with disabilities. It couldn't have resonated more.
 
Davis grew up around compassionate grandparents. Her grandfather himself in a wheelchair, they were involved in church programs that assisted the disabled. They brought Davis to many of the fundraising events, where she saw firsthand the struggles and pain associated with issues like muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. 
 
"When I had the opportunity to work for United Way, we funded a lot of those agencies," Davis says. "They have always been close to my heart."
 
Later on in life, Davis' grandfather needed his leg amputated. 
 
"I have always had a passion for people with disabilities after seeing his struggles," she says.
 
It's been now just over a year since Davis joined AIM, and while the organization has seen tremendous growth, it's also facing some challenges. AIM receives no state or federal funding, and the minivan that's been helping Davis and her team pick up and drop off equipment is 16 years old, with over 180,000 miles on its drive train. It's also covered in rust, but it's essential to AIM's mission. 
 
"The more equipment we collect, the more people we help, the more miles we're putting on our van. Without it we would only be able to serve 10 percent of our clientele this year."
 
AIM has started a fundraising campaign for a new van, and has so far raised just over 30 percent of the goal. Hopes for a new vehicle, apart from being jacketed with sponsor information, include a van that can even operate as a mobile repair facility
 
"We want to use this van to handle what we're calling AIM Mobility Repairs," Davis says. "We want to bring the van into community facilities, like Mel Trotter's parking lot, and set up for several hours a workshop where people can come and work on their walker or wheelchair and perform repairs on site."
 
Davis and the AIM board of directors have been reaching out to other nonprofits, asking them to recognize and embrace the need for such a program in the opportunity. Statistics from a 2013 Michigan behavioral Risk Factor Survey show that the numbers are only growing. The average percentage of people in Michigan with a disability has been on a gradual incline since 2004.
 
With AIM's help, and the continued generosity of West Michigan, those people will have more freedom.
 
For more information on Alternatives in Motion, visit http://alternativesinmotion.org/.
 
Photography by Steph Harding
 
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
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