Advocacy gives her a voice

ESCANABA – When Annette Vanlerberghe was growing up in Escanaba, she never imagined herself in a position where she would have to speak in public, much less, speak as an advocate for herself and other individuals with disabilities.

But she has. Despite her difficulty with communication, Annette was recently among a group of individuals advocating for a traffic light on South Lincoln Road close to the Willow Creek Apartment facility where she makes her home. The group made a video in hopes of creating public awareness for their campaign.

“At first I was scared to do it, but I got my spirit up and said I would,” she said with a shy smile. “But when I watched myself on the video, it was really embarrassing. I’ve never made a video before and when I saw it, I realized that I was looking down at a paper and reading off it instead of looking right into the camera and just talking.”

But despite her initial embarrassment, Annette is considerably satisfied with the journey that has taken her from a youngster who was bullied because of her disability to a woman who is finally comfortable enough to speak her mind.

Born and raised in Escanaba, Annette said her early years in school were difficult.

“I guess I was considered a ‘slow learner,'” said Annette. “I had a reading disability. Actually I could read, but after I read something, I had a hard time remembering what I read.”

Because of her disability and the fact that she was in a special education program at her school, she was teased by other youngsters in the school.

“But that changed once I got to junior high and high school,” Annette said with a smile. “The other kids treated me pretty good then.”

Despite her learning difficulties, Annette earned her high school diploma in 1978.

Now 57, Annette lived with her parents until she was 39 and moved into Willow Creek Apartments in 1996. She frequently (when weather permits) rides her bicycle to visit her widowed mom on the other side of Escanaba.

Over the years, Annette has worked cleaning offices around the town and at the Welcome Center where she shoveled snow during the winter months.

“That was really hard to do until I finally got a routine,” she said.

In recent years, she has found the cleaning and shoveling too difficult to continue.

Instead, she has become an active member of Delta County RICC (Regional Inclusive Community Coalition) and serves as co-chair of the RICC Board. As part of her involvement with RICC, Annette will be at the disability awareness event at the Delta Plaza Mall on Saturday where she will at a table with her best friend, Bonnie Champeau, showing the video that both of them took a part in creating.

“I joined because I needed to be near friends and I needed to get out into the community and meet people,” she said. “It’s easy to stay at home by myself and be a hermit, but it’s better for me to be out in the community and around other people.”

Annette’s advocacy for the traffic light came about because of her difficulty getting across South Lincoln Road on her bike.

“Sometimes the traffic was so busy and the cars were going so fast, I couldn’t make it across,” she explained. “I know a light will help me and other people like me.”