Local advocates to attend People First Conference

PARKERSBURG – Local People First members will attend the 21st Annual People First of West Virginia Conference on Sept 3-5 at Jackson’s Mill in Jane Lew, W.Va.

People First is a self-advocacy group by and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

There are two local advocacy groups, People First of Parkersburg and People First of the Mid-Ohio Valley. Representatives of both will be attending the annual statewide conference.

“The conferences address rights and responsibilities, learning how to take part in society, what it takes to live on their own, and how to be safe,” said Kevin Smith of Parkersburg, a state coordinator for People First of West Virginia.

Smith said the two local chapters have about 45-50 members.

The annual People First conferences have grown over the years with only 79 attending the first year to more than 300 last year. Smith said he’s been involved with the People First group since 1992.

“I want to stress that people with IDD (Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities) want to be treated just like everybody else. We have fundraisers to raise money to help pay for the lodging, transportation and other costs for the conference. Anything worth having is worth working for; we promote and teach our members to work and be self-sufficient, to help them live independently,” Smith said.

Kerri Conrad, a member of the People First of the Mid-Ohio Valley, has been at every state conference.

“I am excited about the speakers at this conference,” she said, noting the statewide gatherings offer many learning opportunities.

“I enjoy the sign language classes,” she said.

Keynote speakers for the conference will be Donna and Ricardo Thornton from Washington, D.C. The Thorntons have broken barriers throughout their lives through marriage, independent living, parenting and employment. Theme for the conference is “Now it the time to advocate for our rights and our lives.”

Profiled on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” and the subject of a CBS television movie, “Profoundly Normal 2003,” with actress Kirstie Alley, Donna and Ricardo first met in a mental institution which was later shut down by court order.

After leaving the institution they began living independently and obtained jobs. They married in 1983 and had a son in 1986. Their son does not have developmental disabilities. Donna has worked in housekeeping for more than 20 years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Ricardo who has been employed for more than 30 years at Martin Luther King Library.

Ricardo campaigns for the rights of individuals with disabilities on Capitol Hill and is active in a variety of boards and organizations including Special Olympics. In 1997 he was named one of 15 Washingtonians for the Year by Washington Magazine.

Topics at the conference will include self-protection and safety, employment, relationships, independent living and personal choice.

Melissa Engle, a member of People First of Parkersburg, will attend her first statewide conference. She said she’s excited about the conference and is looking forward to hearing the speakers and learning more about how to help the local chapters grow. She’s also been collecting items for a fundraising silent auction which, allow with a spaghetti dinner is scheduled 4:30-6:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at the Wood County Senior Citizens Center, 914 Market St., Parkersburg. Carryout orders also will be available and can be ordered by calling 304-422-3151.

Proceeds from the fundraiser will help pay expenses for the local advocates to attend the conference. Cost for the dinner is $6. Some funding for the trip is also being provided through the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council.

For more information, contact Amanda Lieving, People First club adviser at 304-422-3151, extension 103, at The Arc of the Mid-Ohio Valley, 912 Market St., Parkersburg, or at the website peoplefirstwv.org/people-first/home.