SOUTH PORTLAND — At the age of 18, Dennis Fitzgibbons sustained a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

But thanks to a program similar to the one being offered at Alpha One, a South Portland-based center for independent living, Fitzgibbons was able to maintain his independence, continue driving and be a productive member of society.

“I can’t tell you how important that is,” said Fitzgibbons, Alpha One’s chief executive officer. “It’s really key to independence.”

Last week, the federal government awarded a five-year grant of $350,000 so Alpha One can strengthen its adaptive driving evaluation program and expand its outreach to under-served populations, like young people, by using social networking.

Fitzgibbons, 59, said the group will use some of that funding to reach people with disabilities who are transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, typically those between the ages of 14 and 20.

That demographic is particularly important, he said, since those people typically are getting ready to move out of their parents’ homes. Without learning valuable life skills, many could find themselves in assisted living centers.

“We do everything we can to keep people from going into nursing homes,” Fitzgibbons said.

Fitzgibbons said the best way to reach out to younger people is through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Established in 1978, Alpha One provides independent living services to about 4,000 disabled adults and children throughout the state. It is based at 127 Main St. in South Portland, but it also has offices in Bangor and Presque Isle.

Most of Alpha One’s board members are disabled. The organization has an annual budget of $3.5 million, mostly from federal sources, and relies on a staff of 36 workers to service the entire state.

Fitzgibbons said Alpha One works with people with cognitive, developmental, sensory and physical disabilities. The center is unique in that it provides services based on personal goals their clients set for themselves.

Fitzgibbons said clients sometimes don’t reach those goals.

“We also support a person’s right to fail,” he said, “which is often denied to people with disabilities.”

Alpha One will typically offer their clients an assessment, whether it’s gauging ability to drive a car or use a restroom in their own home. The center then works with clients to identify potential funding sources to pay for upgrades necessary to maintain the clients’ independence.

Fitzgibbons said financial assistance can come in the form of grants, or low-interest loans through the Finance Authority of Maine. Regardless, it is up to the client to solicit bids for their project, whether installing equipment in a car or adding a ramp to a home and overseeing the construction project.

“We’re teaching skills and building confidence,” he said. “The client is always in control.”

The center is planning on using some of the new federal grant money this year to replace its specially equipped driver education car, a 1994 Chevy Euro.

Finances often prohibit people from making the necessary changes to live independently, according to occupational therapist Ketra Crosson, who is also a licensed driver education teacher.

To buy a vehicle retrofitted to be driven by someone who is paralyzed from the waist down can cost about $40,000, Crosson said. Such retrofits include a hand-operated lever for the accelerator and brake, and handle extensions for turn signals, windshield wipers and emergency brake.

While the center assesses the driving abilities of up to 75 people a year, only about half of them complete the training and end up on the road, she said.

But sometimes clients don’t need to actually take to the road to achieve the overall objective.

“Sometimes, just knowing they can drive is enough,” Crosson said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

Sidebar Elements

Alpha One CEO Dennis Fitzgibbons demonstrates the alterations that makes it possible for someone like himself, disabled from the waist down, to drive a vehicle. South Portland-based Alpha One recently received a $350,000 federal grant to, among other things, strengthen its driver assessment program for the disabled.

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