Rob Festenstein and the Center for Independent Living Options are helping those with disabilities find the help and resources they may needScott Unger The Mt. Auburn-based Center for Independent Living Options has been assisting people with disabilities in the Cincinnati area for 41 years and Executive Director Rob Festenstein joined this year to continue the nonprofit’s goals.
Festenstein detailed the different programs and initiatives the center provides to combat the challenges facing the community and his role with the group in a recent sit-down with Cincy Magazine.
Last year the center provided direct services for over 500 people with disabilities seeking low-income and accessible housing, including establishing permanent residences for 57 households in Ohio and 70 in Kentucky.
“We are part of a nationwide movement of independent living centers and our goal is to have people with a disability, any kind of disability, it can be visible or not, to live independently to have meaningful lives and to contribute in society as everyone else,” Festenstein says.
A native of Chicago, Festenstein joined CILO after working as an administrator for the Adath Israel Congregation. The drive to help others is motivated by his faith and the Jewish commandment to help other people.
“‘Love your neighbor as you love thyself’, that’s really one of my driving principles,” Festenstein says. “The concept of making the world a better place, keeping people out of homelessness, keeping people out of poverty. I don’t work so much with consumers, I’m strictly administrative, but I still enjoy knowing what I do, in the end, is helping people.”
The center certainly provides a lot of help, servicing individuals across Southwest Ohio and in 32 counties in Kentucky who self-identify with permanent physical, cognitive, sensory or psychological disabilities that substantially limit one or more major life activities.
“We want this to be a hub for people with disabilities to come and get the skills they need to be independent and work in the community,” Festenstein says.
The center leads by example, as the staff and board of directors is required to be comprised of 51 percent of people with a disability.
“We have a very dedicated staff here, it’s culturally diverse, gender diverse and people with disabilities and they’re all very committed to seeing our mission through.”
CILO provides five core services: advocacy, independent living skills, peer support, information and referral services and transition services.
The center’s advocacy service is focused on engaging in positive action and creating needed change to laws and programs that affect people with disabilities—those efforts are concentrated this year on voter registration and activism, Festenstein says.
“Right now we’re pushing big for the election. We encourage people to vote and to help with accessibility issues in polling places,” he says.
CILO takes a non-partisan approach to voting, focusing on issues that could have a negative impact on clients like circulating legislation that could weaken provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act, he says.
The classes provided by CILO vary widely, from life and career skills to creative outlets to social activities like Fun-day Friday, which offers movies and popcorn, card and board games and craft making.
Other classes focus on independent living skills, financial and career literacy and artistic outlets like a book and writing club.
A major creative endeavor is the Art Beyond Boundaries gallery located at 1410 Main St., which showcases artwork by people with disabilities and allows the artists to collect a portion of sold works, with the remaining income directed back to the program.
The exhibits include sculpture, photography, oil painting, mixed mediums and other forms and are generally displayed for six to eight weeks.
“This is a niche gallery, it’s meant for people who have barriers in their lives and obstacles,” Festenstein says. “It’s fulfilling not only to them but for the people who invest in the gallery because these are people who may not otherwise have an opportunity to showcase their art.”
Along with its core services, CILO operates a housing program for homeless persons with disabilities and funds services such as providing financial assistance for people who require personal assistants.
The center can’t house the homeless directly, but works through referral services with homeless clinics or state government to help them find permanent residences.
“If we can’t necessarily help them we will tell them how to get help and how to get referred to us,” Festenstein says.
Funded primarily through federal and other government grants, CILO spends its funding directly on its goals, with 94 percent going to programs and services last year.
There are many obstacles remaining for people with disabilities in the region, transportation options being one of the major ones, but Festenstein and CILO continue to make changes that will impact the community and he hopes to raise the profile of the group in the coming years, he says.
“We’re kind of an unknown in Cincinnati and we’re working to change that,” he says. “Even if we cannot directly provide a service to someone, we can get them in the right direction. We don’t want to see anyone homeless, we don’t want to see anyone not being able to live their life in as a full a way as possible.”