More MS news articles for Oct 2001

Business manager chosen for award

Employee of Center for Independent Living to be honored for triumph over adversity, aid to others

Of The Morning Call

Eleven years ago, Ralph Cowell was going to school to be a pastor and working nights at a print shop when his legs suddenly gave out on the stairs of his Bethlehem home.

Taken to the hospital, where he was told he had multiple sclerosis, Cowell spent the next several years in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation.

Cowell, who uses a motorized wheelchair today, has worked full time for three years as business manager for a staff of 13 at the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living in Allentown, where he helps refurbish computers and other equipment for disabled clients.

Cowell, 49, will be honored at 11 a.m. today for his triumph over adversity as the winner of the C.A.R.E. award at the Allentown Office of Vocational Rehabilitation's Customer Achievement Day in Bethlehem's Banko Community Center.

The award is given to a person who not only overcame disabilities to maintain employment but also helped other people with disabilities, said Rick Walters, assistant district administrator of the office.

"He's just a wonderful man," Walters said of Cowell, who uses his background in computer programming and repair to customize computers for each client's needs.

"I really enjoy my job, and I'm delighted to be be able to do it," said Cowell.

Cowell remembers that day 11 years ago when one of his legs went numb at work. He thought taking a rest would make it better, but his other leg started bothering him too, so he went home from work. At home, he collapsed, and his life changed.

Cowell said at first his condition deteriorated rapidly; at one point he couldn't keep solid food down and was fed intravenously.

"I got depressed, and I got mad," he said. "I'm only human, but sitting back doing nothing helps no one."

Slowly, Cowell started to improve and finally was sent home.

"I had to go home in a hospital bed, but at least I was home," he said.

With the aid of a stair lift in his three-story home and a converted van, Cowell was able to start working part time through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. But a relapse put him in the hospital.

He said it was frustrating but he persevered and soon was working part time for the Center for Independent Living.

"I wanted to help people," he said. "I started there four hours a day and built it up as I got stronger and better. I ended up working full time and gave up my Social Security benefits."

In his job, Cowell fits donated computers with special equipment and helps clients with money. He also helps out with an equipment bank of wheelchairs and lifts.

He has set up his staff, some of whom also are disabled, with equipment so they can work from home if necessary. Sometimes he's the one who has to work from home.

"I have my ups and downs," he said.

Although he never finished his degree, Cowell has found other ways to take advantage of his religious training. He goes to nursing homes where he talks to the residents and is active at Calvary Wesleyan Church in Bethlehem, where he occasionally teaches Sunday school, sings in the choir and plays saxophone in the church band.

"I help out whenever I can," he said.

He added he drew on his faith after he became sick, and that prayer and trust in the Lord helped keep him strong.

"You just have to move forward," he said. "If you help others, you help yourself."

Married with three adult children, he also juggles family weddings and college events.

"It keeps me hopping and not thinking about problems," he said.

Also being honored at the event are four partnerships of disabled employees and employers who have gone out of their way to accommodate the employees.

Walters said the employers have provided adaptive devices for phones and computers and set up accessible workstations among other things to help the disabled employee.

The honorees are Scott Bechtel of Macungie and his employer Buckeye Pipe Line of Emmaus; Darren Nierer and Big Kmart of Walnutport; Cindy Orr and Yocco's Hot Dog King of Allentown, and Tracy Weaver of Bethlehem and Liberty Resources of Allentown.