McCook Group Enters 52nd Year Helping People With Disabilities Achieve Their Goals

McCOOK, Neb. (AP) – Success isn’t always measured by the car, the vacation, the bank account or the house. Sometimes it’s measured by the simplest things, like having a glass of water. And for more than 50 years, the staff at Southwest Area Training Services, or SWATS, has been helping people succeed one task at a time.

Taking people to the next level is the clients’ goal, focusing on what they can do rather than what they can’t, said SWATS administrator Mary Lawson.

Now in its 52nd year, SWATS provides residential and vocational support to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities by providing employment, housing and community living. It operates four group homes in the community and two apartment complexes, as well as the work center.

“For some, it’s about getting their own glass of water when they’re thirsty, instead of asking someone else. For others, it might be going out to eat and not struggling with their behavior,” Lawson told the McCook Gazette. “Many of us take these kinds of actions for granted and we’re here to help our clients find that next level of independence.”

This independence includes employment, whether in the facility or on a job site, with clients being paid minimum wage or more. First starting with a job coach, three SWATS clients are now working at local businesses as paid employees, at Pristine Clean, Valmont, and the kitchen at McCook Elementary. SWATS also contracts with Parker in Kearney, Neb., and since 1991, McCook’s Honeycutt/Slap Shot, for assembly and center piece work that customers do to get a paycheck in their pocket.

It gives people like SWATS client John Dyer a way to be self-sufficient. Initially living in a group home, John wanted to live on his own and made the transition to an apartment last year. SWATS support staff come in the morning and evening to help with communication, cooking, cleaning and money management. He gets paid for the assembly work John does at the center and in his spare time watches movies in the library, goes to church every Sunday, walks in the park and enjoys bowling with friends. He’s been working to save his money for a second trip with a company that offers tours for people who need travel assistance.

SWATS has its origins in the late 1960s with a local chapter of the CRA, the first organization in the United States to advocate for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. At the time, there was no state or federal system in place to assist in the care and development of people with disabilities, leaving families alone. That changed in Nebraska in 1969 when the Nebraska Legislature established a statewide developmental disability system.


Yet in 1973, the only option local families had after their children graduated from the public school system at age 21 was to transfer them to a state-run facility in Beatrice, Neb. Many wanted to keep their children closer to home and SWATS was officially incorporated in 1973 by local individuals. The organization began with a group home and developmental work center and moved to its current location in 1982. Now serving 41 people from Hitchcock, Chase, Hayes, Frontier and Red Willow counties, it has 31 employees ( “I need about seven more,” Lawson said), and is funded by state and federal Medicaid.

Community inclusion and interaction are just as valuable as job skills. For SWATS support staff member Ariel Knosp, whether it’s shopping or getting a haircut, it’s important that customers are included in society, she said, not only for them but also for the community.

Knosp said it felt natural to work at SWATS because she grew up with an autistic brother and an uncle who had to be in a wheelchair, “so I grew up learning to anticipate needs,” she said. declared. “My grandmother always said, my uncle is like us, but on a chair.”

The staff’s goal is to “get down to business”, joked Amy Virgil, making people as independent as possible. Virgil, who works on the quality of services provided and the training of direct support staff, said seeing ability instead of disability goes a long way in raising the bar for individuals. With the right support staff and the right assistive technology, “there’s nothing that’s totally impossible,” she said.

About Jessica J. Bass

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