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Courage Center Finds Possibilities in Disabilities


For 75 years, the Courage Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has helped people with disabilities overcome all sorts of barriers to their independence and well-being. Every year, the non-profit rehabilitation and resource center provides comprehensive services for more than 16,000 people. The center's programs also reach other countries, where people with disabilities are often treated as second-class citizens.

To reach their full potential and advance in life, people with disabilities must acquire certain living skills. That's where the Courage Center comes in.

"Courage Center is a place where we look at abilities and disabilities and create possibilities," says Courage Center Director Peter Polga. The facility has developed a wide variety of therapies and rehabilitation services as well as residential programs for people of all ages, with all kinds of disabilities.

The idea, Polga says is "to help people enhance their quality of life through exercise and sports, recreation and camping. Of course one of our goals is to help people become productive members of society. So vocational rehabilitation has been a significant part of our program and is the ultimate goal for a number of the clients that we serve."

Throughout his career, Polga says he has met many remarkable people who have become 'productive members of society' in inspiring ways, people like Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, 29, from Ghana, who was born with a shriveled leg. Yeboah is working to establish a sports academy in Ghana for disabled athletes, and is organizing a team to represent his home country in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Polga says that's why the Center chose Yeboah for this year's National Courage Award.

"[Yeboah] has really helped bring disabilities to the awareness of the people in Ghana," Polga says. "He helped people in Ghana understand that people with disabilities still have abilities and are valuable individuals and [helped] create opportunities for those individuals in his country."

The Courage Center has presented the award for 20 years to people who have advanced disability issues on a national or international level. Winners receive a $10,000 grant from the Courage Foundation.

Center staff member Richard Parnell says the annual award has a great impact on improving living conditions for the disabled worldwide. "Most countries have some kind of grass roots organization that is working in support of people with disabilities, but oftentimes they don't have very many resources nor do they have a lot of political power," he says. "When you have a high-profile case like Emmanuel's, it gives support to these kinds of organizations all around the world. It inspires them to do more so they can get their governments to make infrastructure more accessible or get better services for people with disabilities."

The Courage Center also supports better living conditions by partnering with organizations that provide rehabilitation services for the disabled. "What we do," says Richard Parnell, "is collect wheelchairs that have been donated, then have volunteers fix them up. We put them in a shipping container along with other rehab equipment such as walkers and shower chairs, find some donor to send the container to that country, and we'll work with an in-country partner to help train their staff to distribute and to make the assessments and adjustments that are necessary." He says the Courage Center has partnerships in Uganda, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Indonesia.

Parnell says he has worked with a group called Helping Hands for Haiti, and returns to that country every year to train physical therapists.

He says such trips give him an insight into what is often the most crippling handicap. "The biggest challenge is the stigma within the culture, the society, toward the people with disabilities, and oftentimes toward their families," he says. "Oftentimes the person and their family feel isolated." In addition, he says it is sometimes a financial burden for the family to provide the care and therapy needed.

As it continues its national and global efforts, Courage Center director Peter Polga says he hopes the Center's work will help ease the burden and end the isolation. Along with the physical help, he says Courage Center is sending a message that every life is valuable.