More MS news articles for Sep 2001

Agency offers support, friendship

Last updated on Sun Sep 2 00:41:53 CDT 2001
By GAYDA HOLLNAGEL of the Tribune staff

Patti Westrud of La Crosse has made a lot of adjustments since she was diagnosed five months ago with multiple sclerosis.

But Westrud's struggles have been a bit easier since she has found a friend and supporter in Christine Meisenheimer of West Salem.

"It's made a big difference for me," said Westrud, 39, a divorced mother of three teen-agers. "I was just so frantic when I found out I've got MS."

Westrud met Meisenheimer through Great Rivers Independent Living Services, a resource and referral program housed in Shelby Mall, 4328 Mormon Coulee Road, La Crosse.

Meisenheimer, a peer support volunteer and president of the Great Rivers board of directors, also has MS. She also is a mother.

"I'm just kind of a resource," Meisenheimer said. The two connect mostly through the telephone but have met a couple of times for coffee or lunch.

"Most of the time, it's just someone there that's available, that's walked the same walk," Meisenheimer said.

Meisenheimer, a clinical super-visor and therapist at Family and Children's Center in La Crosse until her retirement in 1997 for medical reasons, said she doesn't do formal counseling with Westrud or any of the people she supports.

Instead, the relationship is more friend-to-friend, with Meisenheimer providing the occasional "kick in the pants" to challenge and motivate Westrud and others to stretch themselves and live more independently.

For Westrud, a former cashier at Kmart, remaining independent has meant enrolling at Western Wisconsin Technical College to train for a less physically taxing computer job. She also has had to limit her driving.

Steve Johnson, a Great Rivers staff member who is legally blind, helped Westrud with the driving issue by introducing her to the city bus system.

Michelle Olson, assistant director of Great Rivers, said Johnson and some other staff members with disabilities also serve as peer support volunteers, but many more are needed. For those who qualify, some reimbursement of expenses is available.

People with all types of disabilities seek the agency's help for a variety of issues, including family, employment, transportation, medical and social services, Olson said. The agency goal is to assist people with disabilities to live as independently as possible.

Great Rivers was founded in 1994 and serves 13 counties: La Crosse, Trempealeau, Jackson, Monroe, Vernon, Crawford, Juneau, Buffalo, Richland, Sauk, Grant, Iowa and Lafayette. Offices are in La Crosse and Richland County.

The agency receives some funding the state and the United Way of the Greater La Crosse Area, and also gets support from a variety of grants.

Last year, Great Rivers had 3,400 contacts for information and referrals, and opened 248 files for people needing more intensive services, said Kathie Noble-Iverson, executive director.

Johnson said the peer support volunteer program is not about shared disabilities, but "the shared idea of reaching independence or maintaining it."
"How did you cope? How did you manage? What are some of the tricks of the trade?" are all questions only a person who has coped with disabilities can answer, he said.

Gayda can be reached at ghollnagel@@lacrossetribune or (608) 791-8224.

Peer Support Training

Great Rivers Independent Living Services will offer a two-day training program for peer support volunteers Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 10-11, in La Crosse. Some limited scholarships are available for housing and mileage reimbursement to those living outside of the La Crosse area. For more information or to register, call (608) 787-1111, or toll free 1-888-474-5745.

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