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BURLINGTON, Vt. – Sarah Littlefeather knows first-hand the challenge of living with a disability. Suffering from a spinal-cord condition that makes movement of her arms and legs very painful and difficult, Littlefeather relies on a wheelchair to move around. A particularly bright day in her life was when a ramp was installed at her home that allowed her to once again sit in her garden. But greatest of all was when she received a loan from Opportunities Credit Union to purchase an adapted van that allows her to travel outside in her community. “It was extraordinary to be able to get around my home,” Littlefeather said. “It was extraordinary to be able to get out and visit my garden, but to be able to get out and work on behalf of other people with disabilities or to mentor absolutely normal kids in my school was beyond words.” Littlefeather is one of nearly 300 Vermonters who have benefited from more than $2 million in loans for assistive technology distributed through the state’s Adaptive Equipment Revolving Loan Fund. Opportunities Credit Union has administered the loan fund for the state since 1993, and after much public lobbying, the credit union has ensured that funds will be available for many years to come. “About five years ago, we saw that the time would come where the fund would be loaned out,” said Caryl Stewart, president and CEO of Opportunities CU. “There’s a lot more work to do, and we didn’t want to see that end.” Under Opportunities’ new agreement with the state, the remaining $800,000 was transferred to the credit union as equity and an additional federal grant of $635,000 has been added to the fund. Opportunities will continue to oversee distribution of loans through what now will be known as the Independence Fund. The agreement also allows Opportunities to actively market the loan fund and partner with other organizations to raise money for the fund. The credit union has pledged to raise nearly $800,000 in new capital over the next five years, to bring the total fund to $2.2 million. To assist in the success of its new venture, Opportunities will hire a full-time fund manager and is in the process of reviewing applications. “We know that the need [for this fund] is huge,” Stewart said. “We’re really looking forward to getting the word out. We’re excited to have gotten it to a place where we can grow the funds as well as administer the loans.” Under the program, loans can be made for any technology or equipment-such as wheelchairs, scooters, hearing aids and adapted computers-that enables persons with disabilities “to have greater independence, productivity and confidence in their home, at work, at school or in the community.” Equipment or modifications must be connected to an applicant’s disability. Loan rates and payment terms vary depending on the individual applicant’s ability and financial situation-with the ultimate goal of making the loan affordable for the borrower. “We’re dealing with people who’ve had an accident [and are now disabled] to people who’ve never been abled,” Stewart said. “Some have no work history, and as a result, there’s a lot of creative underwriting that has to be done. But, like everything else, we’ve learned to do it very efficiently.” Loans ultimately are reviewed and approved by members of the fund board of directors. “Under the management of Opportunities, this fund has helped hundreds of Vermonters afford the technology to improve their lives,” said Independence Fund Board Chairman Mike Richman. “We are very excited about the future of the fund and to be on the path to provide Vermont individuals with disabilities with much-needed financing.” “The field of assistive technology is a truly burgeoning field,” Stewart said. “And, we’ve got a way to reach a really important population in a way that they don’t normally get approached.” [email protected]erizon.net

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