Disability Advocates summer day camp empowers disabled community to organize

It took a bariatric weight loss surgery and a few years of emotional rebuilding before Grand Rapids resident Michele Childs felt comfortable enough to speak out and advocate for herself again. 

“I would say the last four years I’ve been really out there in my community. I had bariatric surgery to help with all of the weight I needed to lose, and after that I finally was confident enough to start speaking out,” says Childs, a Detroit native turned local community activist after years of feeling discriminated against for not only her weight, but also her race as an African American woman. “Being obese, you’re shy you don’t want to speak out; nobody takes you seriously.” 

While raising two children as a single mother, her challenges were only exacerbated by severe depression and other mental health issues that made daily life a much larger battle and although she’s in a much better place than she was five or six years ago, Childs says she still struggles to find steady work and spends a lot of her time volunteering at homeless shelters, food pantries, and tutoring children when she’s not sharing her story as the speaker for numerous community events. 

She says her disability — unique to her circumstance and individual self— is the kind of disability people don’t think about too often, but it’s the kind she’s hoping she will be able to help combat with the help of organizations like Disability Advocates of Kent County, which held its very first advocacy summer camp last week. 

Running from 1:30-5 p.m. on Aug. 2, 3, 4, and 6, the four-day camp was spearheaded by DAKC Community Organizer Adelyn VanTol, who wanted to give more people with disabilities a chance to engage with one another about how to best advocate for themselves and the larger community. 

VanTol says the idea for the camp was the brainchild of herself and Grand Valley State University occupational therapy professor Jennifer Freesman. 

“She was expressing how occupational therapy really is about community and about the barriers in communities that prevent people from having the occupations they love,” says VanTol, adding that traditional education, however, was more focused on the individual barriers affecting single persons versus the larger systemic barriers that exist, like lack of public transportation or the need for personal care attendants to help disabled people get dressed in the morning so they can make it to work on time. 

So the two organizations partnered together, bringing in Freeman’s occupational therapy students from GVSU to work alongside the disabled campers, 12 of which registered for this summer’s flagship day camp. 

Each day, the campers listened to a speaker discuss their experiences or advocacy work in a specific topic, then together picked the topic they thought most important to address and from there began to discuss solutions and strategies for implementation — the latter an important part for VanTol as an organizer, as she wanted to make sure her camp could bridge the gap between discussion and action, equipping campers not only with the knowledge, but also the tools to be effective advocates. 

“A big point of this is giving people a sense of their own power,” VanTol says. “In this first camp, we really have found people who recognize their own power and they’re excited just to have some resources available to help them use their own voice and work with others who are in the same boat.” 

For more information on the organization and its programming, visit Disability Advocates of Kent County online or find them here on Facebook

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Adelyn VanTol/Disability Advocates KC
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