The existence of ShelterCare’s Uhlhorn Program, founded in 1990, can be traced to the tenaciousness of one man, a brain injury survivor named Ken Collins.
Appropriately, Ken’s daughter, Risa Holden-Collins, is a counselor advocate II at Uhlhorn. She was just a baby when the Uhlhorn Apartments were under construction. Risa remembers visiting the site with her dad and says Uhlhorn has always been a part of her life.
Ken suffered a brain injury in the late 1976, before Risa was born. At that time and well into the 1980s, the primary model of care for brain injury survivors was inpatient rehabilitation in a hospital setting.
It took Ken about 10 years after his injury to, in his words, “regain his identity” and work through the frustration and anger that is often associated with brain trauma. During his recovery, he began to explore alternative models of care that could provide brain injury survivors with greater independence and a stronger sense of community as they rebuild their lives.
In 1986 Ken joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a national service program fighting poverty in America. His work with VISTA connected him with Bill Uhlhorn, who was ShelterCare’s executive director from 1976 to 1988. Ken suggested to Bill that ShelterCare should start a transitional housing program for brain injury survivors. Bill agreed that the idea showed promise.
Together, Ken and Bill organized a “Dream Workshop on Housing” at the Eugene Hilton Conference Center. They invited people with physical and cognitive disabilities to attend and help identify the housing and support care needs of the community. Ken and Bill incorporated ideas from the workshop into their housing plan.
Bill had a contact with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Washington, D.C. He suggested that Ken call to explain his vision and why it was important. Ken calls it the “phone call that made [Uhlhorn] happen.” HUD provided the funding to build the project.
Next, the project faced significant resistance from neighbors in the area of the proposed housing project. “The neighborhood association was dead set against it,” Ken recalls. “There was a lot of fear and misunderstanding about brain-injured people.” Ken attended regular neighborhood association meetings for a year to help turn the tide in the program’s favor. He also went door-to-door, talking to people about the project and how it would make the community stronger.
Ken’s persistence paid off. With the support of the neighborhood association, construction finally started. Sadly, Bill died before the project was completed. Named in his honor, the Uhlhorn Program accepted its first tenants in May 1990.
Today Ken Collins lives in New Mexico where he manages an independent living center for people with disabilities. He was also was recently elected Chair of the New Mexico Statewide Independent Living Council.
Ken returned to Uhlhorn last year for the program’s 25th anniversary party and spoke at the event. He said he’s thrilled to see the Uhlhorn Program still going strong. Ken enjoyed being able to interact with the residents and see how much pride they feel about living there. “I overheard a resident inviting someone over to watch the game,” Ken says. “‘Come up to my place,’ he said. He used those exacts words. My place.”
Risa was also at the event and said her dad was positively beaming. She’s proud to continue his legacy of helping brain injury survivors recover their independence.