The LOV Inc Bridge Builders program helps people with disabilities

Stefanie Primm’s brother, Jeremy Gilomen, has autism. Growing up, Primm’s family often relied on disability programs to keep his brother engaged during the day. Staff in these programs taught life skills to people with disabilities and organized activities such as field trips, movie nights, or craft or game sessions.

While the program staff were kind and attentive and the programs were meant to be fun, the planned activities were generally generalized without much attention given to what interested each individual.

As Primm describes it, “a lot of people with disabilities live in this country of service where you go from one thing to another”.

“Often for a family, if their child is not in an activity, it limits the caregiver’s ability to work, and we have known many families who have had to leave their jobs when their children have left school. “, said Primm. “Having these services is very essential, but we also need to recognize that being in places that focus only on disabilities is not living a full life.”

Connecting families with disabilities

In 2007, Primm, some of her family members and other families of people with disabilities got together to talk about what they needed. That’s when LOV Inc. was born. In many ways, Primm said the organization was first and foremost a support group for families trying to find a way forward and think about how service organizations could work for them.

“My family was very isolated from other people, and my brother was very isolated as a young adult,” Primm said. “Creating connections was very powerful for me, for my family and for the other founders of the organization. It was an opportunity to share experiences, to develop power and to act collectively together.”

The Madison-based organization now offers a number of services for families and people with disabilities — like workshops that provide resources for young adults with disabilities to live on their own, themed social events, and social peer groups.

Primm said LOV Inc. is unique in that projects and programs are co-designed by people with disabilities and their families and then adjusted as needed. In that vein, she recalls that a year into the life of the organization, conversations were taking place around the possibility of revamping social events.

They already tended to move away from the ‘hit and miss’ model by doing social activities that allowed people to really get to know each other, have friends rather than just hang out once. per month. But something was still missing.

“People were like, ‘I wish I could find someone who was interested in computers or writing like me, and that person doesn’t have to be a disabled person,'” Primm said. “They were clear that in order to have a full and full life, you need to have friends who share interests, whether they have disabilities or not.”

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Building bridges based on interests

This is how the idea for the Bridge Builder Project was born, and Primm’s brother was one of the first to try out the new program. She explained that Gilomen had always loved computers and knew of a computer club he wanted to join, but didn’t feel comfortable approaching the group on his own.

“His social experiences in high school had been pretty rotten because he was misunderstood and bullied,” Primm said. “He was nervous going to a place with people he didn’t know, but it didn’t make sense to me, as his sister and as someone who doesn’t care about computers, go with him. It would be even weirder.”

The LOV Inc. families spoke about the situation and raised funds to hire someone whose job it was to help “build bridges” for people like Gilomen.

“They went with my brother to the computer club the first two times to make sure he was safe and comfortable,” Primm said. “He’s still in that computer club to this day. He sits on the board and helps run the meetings. It’s one of the important pillars of his social life.”

Another early adopter of the Bridge Builder project told LOV Inc. staff that he was interested in woodworking. So a bridge builder introduced him to a local carpenter he knew. 13 years later, the couple have built small free libraries together and even reached out virtually to maintain their friendship during the pandemic when they couldn’t get together in person.

“He has a cognitive disability, and the way he shows people his love is by building things for them, a toolbox for his dad, so many things for his mom,” Primm said. “Having this years-long friendship with a fellow carpenter gives him the opportunity to explore his passions and not just live the most basic life. It’s something that opens up the world.”

Expand the program

Over the past year, the Bridge Builder project has officially expanded from Madison to the greater Milwaukee area. Zach Lillo – the Milwaukee bridge builder – said there are currently five employees, each working with 13 to 14 members.

Lillo said his first step as a bridge builder is usually to meet a new client a few times — to get to know them, build trust and discover their interests. Next, the bridge builder will research groups in the community that the client can join and make initial contact with the group.

Zach Lillo works as a community bridge builder at LOV Inc., where he helps people with disabilities join community groups that focus on their interests.

“The next phase is designed with the member in mind,” Lillo said. “For some members, I never need to go to meetings with them; they just need an introduction to the group. The usual lineup is that I go with the member a few times and then slowly transition. Then maybe a few times, I’ll check with the band leader to see how my member did when I wasn’t around. It’s a slow fade.

Lillo has been working with one of his clients, Philip Temme, for three or four years; Temme is involved with a writing group and book club that Lillo helped find for him.

“Before Bridge Builder, it was harder for me to find bands because it can be overwhelming being a new person and everything,” Temme said. “And the way Zach attended the groups made me feel more comfortable because nobody else in the group had to know we were together, but I knew he was there for me. .”

Building Inclusive Environments

Primm said most of the groups that Bridge Builder approaches are welcoming and their primary concern is to ensure the client shares the same interests.

“For my brother, the big question the band had was whether they understood how to talk about computers,” Primm said. “And the answer was, yes, he’s been looking his whole life for a group of people who want to talk about computers as much as he does.”

Primm said the Bridge Builder project isn’t just helpful for LOV Inc. customers. When people with disabilities are welcomed into spaces for the whole community, people without disabilities learn to be more inclusive. And both groups learn to adjust their behavior so they can meet in the middle of their socialization.

“Most people recognize that the community is better when there’s a totally diverse group, and the inclusion of people with disabilities is a big part of that,” Primm said. “Yeah, we might have to slow down sometimes for people, but it’s good for all of us.”

Contact Amy Schwabe at (262) 875-9488 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @WisFamilyJSInstagram at @wisfamilyjs or Facebook at WisconsinFamily.

Ryan H. Bowman