East River Electric supports individuals with differing abilities through local organization

Girl and woman with mask on
Photo courtesy: LifeScape.

A little boy with severe mobility challenges seems to always be far away from the rest of the kids on the playground because they can run around and he can’t. With the help of innovation and some techy engineers, that child can now keep up with the rest of the kids using a battery-powered car that he can drive using his head movements. The look on his face when he drives away in the car? Pure joy.

There is a little girl who can move her eyes, but that is the extent of her mobility. In years past, only those who knew her best could read her emotions, and that was the only communication they shared. Today thanks to technology, she can “talk” to anyone she wants by using her eye movements to spell on a computer that then speaks what she spells. The technology proves she is a regular girl whose body just doesn’t do what she wants it to do, but now her intelligence, humor, and spirit shine.

Not too far from the little girl, the parents of a young man are heartbroken when they drop their son off at a specialty school away from where they live. The school offers more services than the public school in his community can provide. The young man lives at the school during the week and goes home on the weekends. Before long, he can’t wait to come back to the school on Monday because there, he isn’t different. He has friends who are each dealing with some sort of challenge just like he is. At the school, he is just one of the guys. His parents say they are so thankful he has finally found his community. A place where he feels he belongs.

All of these are true, inspiring stories about children from South Dakota and are made possible through LifeScape, an organization with the goal of helping disabled children and adults live their best lives.

“We all want to be happy, productive, and contribute to the world around us. The only difference with the individuals we support is their bodies maybe don’t work the same way as most of ours do,” says Jessica Wells, president of the LifeScape Foundation (formerly Children’s Care Hospital and School and South Dakota Achieve). “These people just need the world adapted a bit so their bodies can do what on the inside they want to do.”

people in a line serving and taking food
For nearly 60 years, East River Electric has hosted an annual “mountain oyster” feed to benefit LifeScape. The event has raised nearly $850,000 over the years. Photo courtesy: East River Electric Power Cooperative.

The thing is, the technology and services that help make this possible are not free. That’s where East River Electric Power Cooperative and its commitment to community comes in. For nearly 60 years, East River, a Basin Electric Class A member headquartered in Madison, South Dakota, has hosted an annual “mountain oyster” feed to benefit LifeScape. The event has grown to include a raffle and silent auction and has raised nearly $850,000 over the years to help with therapies, equipment, and anything else that helps fill a need for the individuals LifeScape serves. Basin Electric supports LifeScape, as well, matching a portion of East River Electric’s donations through its Charitable Giving Program.

“This event is a great opportunity for East River and the entire community to rally together for a great cause,” says Jennifer Gross, education and outreach coordinator at East River Electric. “It’s important to the East River family to support these children and adults because we want them to live their best lives, too.”

Wells says most charity events have a cycle – they’re successful for a while and then slowly decline – but this event has been hugely successful for 57 years. “And, the fact that the committee for the event consists of East River employees makes it even more impressive,” she says, “The committee has continued to choose to support LifeScape through almost 60 years of different employees. That is absolutely amazing.”

Wells says the funds raised at the event go to wherever there is the greatest need. Last year, it helped LifeScape quickly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by allowing the organization to purchase protective equipment and the technology needed to help patients do their therapies remotely, allowing them to sustain the progress they had made pre-pandemic.

Funds have also been used to support programs LifeScape offers, including: LifeScape’s specialty hospital which helps kids recover from illnesses, accidents, and surgeries. It is a place for people who don’t need a full-service hospital but require more care and therapy than can be provided at home.

Behavioral therapies for children with conditions such as autism, helping them learn to self-regulate their responses and emotions and learn skills to integrate well into society.

LifeScape serves some very rural areas, many of which don’t have the services some children need. LifeScape sends speech, occupational, and physical therapists to schools that don’t have them.

Adult services such as group homes and supported employment, allowing adults with differing abilities to live as independently as possible.

“East River’s support of LifeScape is a testament to its culture – they truly care about the people in the communities they serve,” Wells says. “Their generosity makes a difference in people’s lives – it makes miracles possible. It allows us to ask the people we support what they want to do and what they want to be, and helps us give them the technology and skills to make that happen.”

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