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After more than a decade there will be a new leader at the La Salle-based Illinois Valley Center for Independent Living. Long-time executive director Donna Joerger has stepped down and been replaced by Rachael Mellen. “It’s been a very difficult decision. IVCIL is like my baby. I’ve been with it form the very beginning,” Joerger said. She explained that complications with her disability, spinal muscular atrophy, which has forced her to use a wheelchair since age 10, have begun to make it difficult to meet her responsibilities. Although Joerger knows Mellen is stepping in at a time when IVCIL faces difficulties, particularly in the form of decreased state funding, she believes her successor will continue to lead the organization well into the future. “I’m ready to take it on,” Mellen said. “We have a great staff here. We have wonderful consumers, who have meant so much to me over the years I’ve been here.” Mellen has worked at IVCIL for more than eight years, most recently as the community reintegration coordinator. She said she’s been inspired seeing clients overcome obstacles with the help of IVCIL. “I think she has a challenging future, but Rachael’s so very bright and she always has a way of figuring things out,” Joerger said. Joerger, who will stay on at IVCIL through the end of the year to assist in Mellen’s transition, has been involved in the organization since before it formally existed. She was part of a small group of citizens who met with state legislators in 1998 to develop a center for independent living, she said. After IVCIL received financial support through the state, Joerger originally served as a board member with the fledgling IVCIL before eventually filling a position on the staff. In her time with IVCIL she’s proud to have raised awareness in the community of the need to treat people with disabilities as equals. “I think more people have been educated about the need for equal opportunities and equal treatment of people with disabilities,” she said. Joerger said she believes if the environments were completely accessible and there were no attitudinal barriers “people with disabilities would live equally.” She said the epitome of the work IVCIL has performed can be seen in their community reintegration program that help people with disabilities under age 59 get out of nursing facilities and into their own homes or other independent living situations. Mellen said it’s a chance to give someone “a new life.” In the past year, IVCIL has worked intensively with 101 regular consumers and also has provided support on a short-term basis to 1,000 other people. “I feel like we’ve helped many people, but IVCIL, I think, has changed my life from the perspective that I have on disability, the acceptance that I’ve had for myself,” Joerger said. “Just the perspective on priorities of life. I think it has changed my life forever, for the positive, and I’m grateful for my experiences here.”
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