Committees for Change

HANCOCK/BARAGA – For local individuals with disabilities, their families and community members, RICC groups can provide a crucial forum to find empowerment, and to advocate for change within the community.

A RICC, or Regional Interagency Consumer Committee, is one type of organization that allows for individuals with developmental disabilities to express and address local concerns. According to the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council, RICCs have historically existed to “provide a forum for addressing local issues,” advocate “for needed changes in the community,” and to “inform the DD Council about local conditions for persons with developmental disabilities.” According to the council, there are over 50 RICCs in Michigan, and the number is growing.

According to the DD Council, the general definition of an RICC is a “local, grassroots group of people with developmental disabilities, their friends and family members. Membership is also extended to local advocates, community leaders, and service providers.”

But that generic definition doesn’t begin to describe the value of these groups to the communities they serve.

When Terry Sayatovich heard that the Copper Country RICC in Houghton County had dissolved, she agreed to take leadership for it. And, as director of Oak House, an adult foster care home specializing in adults with developmental disabilities, she understood the impact that the return of the group could have in the community.

“Oak House is a teaching home with the goal of living more independently and I realized the importance of the RICC group and how it can impact our community as well as help increase independence for this population,” Sayatovich said.

The group’s primary goal is to expand the hours and radius of transit in Houghton and Hancock, an aim that will help those with developmental disabilities be able to live more independently.

“As the group members strive and work towards becoming more independent they are in more need of public transportation to get around,” Sayatovich said. “In the past six years Oak House has moved six people into their own apartments. In order for them to be more productive community members they need to be able to get to meetings, doctor’s appointments, entertainment, shopping, restaurants, etc. – hence the need for increased public, affordable transportation on weekends and evenings.”

This is the current Copper Country RICC’s second year, and Sayatovich said much of the first was spent building the foundation for the group – in the first year, the group worked with a trainer to create a three year plan as a guide toward the group’s transportation goals, attended training sessions, and the first set of officers held organized meetings, learned how to do tasks associated with meetings, such as making agendas and minutes, and worked on getting a committed member base. Sayatovich said the current group stands at about 38 members, including volunteers, and that an average of 23 people attend the group’s monthly meetings.

We had our first volunteer recognition/recruitment picnic last summer and we had 68 people attend including Senator Casperson’s stand-in. It was pretty awesome,” Sayatovich said.

She hopes that those numbers continue to grow.

“Recruitment is always on our goal because the more voices we have, the better we can be heard.” Sayatovich said.

Last year, members of the Copper Country RICC were able to meet with legislators in person, to share their concerns about transportation in the area.

“Last year we attended two events in Lansing where we met with both our legislatures face-to- face. We were able to talk with both of them about our needs and ask them for their support,” Sayatovich said. “They both said our issue goes back to funding and that we will have to put a (millage) through to the people. So that is our ultimate goal; to get a (millage) passed for increased transit hours and radius.”

Sayatovich also said that the group plans on making two trips to Lansing this year, as well as an additional trip to attend the Walk-a-Mile In My Shoes Rally for Mental Health.

“My hope for the years to come is that we grow and mature some into leaders that can take their voices to Lansing to be heard. This population is underserved and underestimated but with a committed few we can change that,” Sayatovich said.

This is the Copper Country RICC’s second fiscal year, with funding coming from the Michigan DD Council, through the Michigan Department of Community Health. However, that money only covers the basic operations of the group. Sayatovich said that the group will also be doing two fundraisers to cover the costs of attending the Walk-a-Mile rally. One fundraiser, a “fun pasta” sale, will take place after the first of the year.

Other local communities have put together RICC groups as well. Mick Sheridan, program director for community services with Copper Country Mental Health Services, said he applied for the first grant for the Baraga county group in 2003.

“(At the time) Vicki Mikkola had started a RICC in Houghton County & CCMH staff in Ontonagon County had started an RICC there,” Sheridan said. “We had made some fairly significant staffing changes in Baraga County at about that time and there was a lot of interest in starting a county advocacy group. I’ve been lucky to work with high energy staff people in Baraga County who have been willing to support the group.”

Since the Baraga group’s inception, Sheridan said the membership base has grown from primarily members of CCMH’s day program in L’Anse to include a wider population, including more parents and family members of individuals with developmental disabilities, as well as family members of CCMH staff.

“The attendance at meetings can vary with the weather, but generally there are from 25 to 35 people at every monthly meeting,” Sheridan said. “Outreach events occur twice a year; usually a picnic in the summer and a Christmas Party, and it hasn’t been unusual to have 60 people attend those.”

The Baraga County RICC’s initial goals were very similar to the Copper Country RICC’s current goals – to take on the lack of public transportation in Baraga County. Sheridan said that the group eased the problem by creating a transportation voucher system to pay for rides.

“The State of Michigan through the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council (MDDC) was very interested in that idea and gave us a $100,000 grant to implement the project for three years,” Sheridan said.

Currently, the group is working on person-centered planning, a project that involved training independent facilitators from a small group of RICC members and others, as well as advocating against budget cuts from the State.

“Our local CMH operates with about 10 percent less funding than it received two years ago. We have seen services reduced or ended for people we know who need those services,” Sheridan said.

As the Baraga County RICC has expanded, they have also gained recognition within the local, as well as the state, communities.

“Our members have traveled to Lansing to meet with Mr. Casperson and Mr. Dianda about the effect of the mental health budget cuts. On one trip to the capitol, Mr. Casperson had the State Senate stand and recognize the Baraga County RICC for their efforts to advocate for people with disabilities. The RICC has also given members’ families a forum to learn more about advocacy,” Sheridan said.

Behind the groups’ larger projects, however, is a work in progress that is every bit as important – helping members to grow and improve as individuals.

“I have seen people who are afraid to talk get involved in RICC and they make friends and want to be involved and are talking to others with more ease,” Sayatovich said. “I have seen members refined, if you may, and become aware of how they speak; approach others, and even how they act. It is all about teaching, maturing, training and caring to help them become more independent community members. They feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when they can be part of something bigger.

“My personal goal is to help them see that they are equal to anyone else and that a disability does not define who they are, but that they can define who they want to be. The goal of the transit is second to me. There is not one doubt in my mind that this group of determined adults will accomplish this. It may not be this year or next year but it will happen,” Sayatovich said.

Both RICC groups are open to anyone who is interested in the groups’ goals. The Copper Country RICC meets at 3:30 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at Lakeview Manor in Hancock. For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page, or email coppercountryricc@yahoo.com. The Baraga County RICC meets at 5:15 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month at the Lakeside Inn in Baraga. Sheridan says that those who are interested in the group should attend a meeting to learn more, and that he can answer questions at 906-534-5885. The Baraga County RICC has a website, www.bcricc.org.