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By SHAINA STOCKTON
Through her extensive volunteer work through Appalachian Independence Center (AIC), Leigh Ann Heath of Galax now feels confident in her ability to make a positive difference for others.
“Before, I felt like I wasn’t a part of my community,” she said. “Now, I have more confidence in myself. I’m not afraid to go out in public like I used to. I an get up in front of others and talk about what I do without feeling insecure about myself.”
Living with a disability herself, Heath said that she was basically homebound before her involvement with the AIC. “I had not been out my front door in two years,” she said.
An AIC employee, Bill Duncan, convinced her to join their group in Galax. “We meet once a month to talk about current events that deal with disabilities. We promote advocacy and do work in the community,” she said. “It’s also wonderful to be around others that have similar disabilities.”
The AIC serves Southwest Virginia and has offices in Abingdon, Bristol, Wytheville and Galax.
Heath has worked with AIC for a little over 12 years, has been on the board of directors for nine years and has been president of the Galax Advocacy and Support Group for five years.
“As time went on, they saw some kind of potential in me,” she said.
The Jim Meadows Award, Heath’s newest honor, is named after a former employee of the AIC who died during an advocacy trip to Washington, D.C. The award is given to individuals and organizations that do a particularly outstanding job with improving the community for those who have disabilities.
Heath was presented with the award in September, during the annual AIC meeting at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon.
“They kept it a surprise up until the last minute, so I was shocked,” she laughed. “It’s an honor and it’s gratifying to know that I was given this award.”
The Galax AIC group consists of a dozen members who attend the meetings in person. “We also have participants that can’t make it to group meetings; some because of physical issues, and some who still don’t feel like they are a part of our community, like I once felt,” she said.
As part of her advocacy work, Heath works with local businesses to help them provide better access to potential customers with disabilities. “We explain [to the business] that there are people in the area with disabilities who are interested in visiting your business, but these are the obstacle they are facing,” she said.
Obstacles include things like narrow passageways and doors, obstacles along the floor and lack of ramp access.
For the past year, Heath has worked with Sunny Side, a business in Carroll County. “I got a call from them saying that they were putting in a ramp for the upper part of the shop,” she said after describing the entrance, which sat on a concrete platform too high for disabled customers to access.
Other memorable projects she has helped with include her trip to the Americans with Disabilities Act conference in Washington, D.C., where her group marched to the capitol, and a trip to New River Trail State Park and its Shot Tower in Wythe County, where her group observed and made a list of possible improvements.
Her next project, she said, is to help improve access for the restrooms in the Galax Recreation Center.
• The Galax AIC group holds a meeting at the Galax Public Library on the third Wednesday of each month, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Transportation is provided for those who need it, and anyone is welcome to attend. For more information, call 236-6055 or visit www.aicadvocates.org.