GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As Alice Lieffers showed the cameras around her three-bedroom apartment, it was clear the space was much more than a place to live. Her face beamed with pride as she toured through the custom kitchen.
But the most telling moment was when the 36-year-old flipped on the lights to her bedroom. Her face then was almost as bright as the natural light shining through the two massive windows.
“This is my first time living by myself, with roommates,” Lieffers said.
Lieffers was born with a disease called neonatal onset multisystem inflammatory disease, NOMID. For the first 35 years of her life, she lived with her parents. But thanks to her involvement with a local nonprofit, Oasis Community of West Michigan, Lieffers now enjoys the company of two roommates and a place she calls her own.
“Oasis was originally created as a way for families to get to know each other and get out of their little bubbles,” OCWM President Grace Smith said. “When you have a special needs child you end up isolated from the rest of society quite a bit. So the goal was to get families together, get to know each other and when we started talking, we all discovered the real concern we had, the deepest concern we had, was what’s going to happen to our child when we pass?”
Smith joined the group when they started 13 years ago. Now her 8 year-old-special needs son is a 21-year-old man and looking forward to living out the organization’s mission of finding independent “sustainable housing within inclusive neighborhoods throughout West Michigan.”
The family-run organization tries to gather monthly for group activities, although the pandemic has made that more difficult. The all-volunteer staff and board have hired a community builder to put together events for the members in order to build a sense of companionship and community.
On top of finding sustainable, independent living, Oasis also offers educational programs for families on hard-to-navigate topics like Social Security, Medicaid, trusts and wills. They provide lectures on stress and relationships. And they maintain a central focus on helping adults with disabilities find independent housing if it fits their life.
“They need to be able to be as independent as they can. And that looks completely different for everybody. Some people may have physical disabilities, some may have cognitive disabilities, behavioral issues, socialization, maybe a combination of everything and we have, we don’t discriminate in our group, you don’t have to have a specific disability,” Smith said. “We have people with really high needs and people with very low needs. Some people can be very independent and others are going to always need some kind of help. So the goal is then that we find them apartments.”
Smith says the group has reached a good point this year placing more of its members into their own living situation than they have before. But she is always trying to help build awareness for families or loved ones that may not know independent living is a possibility. There was a time, 13 years ago, she didn’t realize it could happen for her son.
“He’s young enough that he’s not quite there yet but he will be, he wants to be. He definitely wants to live with friends,” Smith said of her son. “He tells everybody that, that he wants to live with friends. He doesn’t want to spend his life living with his mother.”
That’s a shared feeling by Lieffers, being able to make her own choices. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, she went back home for the first time. Oasis Community of West Michigan may have helped find her a place to call her own, but they’ve given her so much more — they’ve given her inclusion through independence.
Learn more about Oasis Community of West Michigan at oasiscommunity.info.