Scott Elliott, Norman Smith and Steve Gruzlovic are board members for the Progressive Center For Independent Living.

Like most college graduates, Steve Gruzlovic wanted out of his parents’ house.

Gruzlovic, a 28-year-old Hamilton native, has cerebral palsy. After graduating from Edinboro University, he couldn’t leave his house without physical help. Most days, he was confined to a reclining chair.

“I didn’t have a job,” he said. “I didn’t have any place to go. I didn’t have aide services to help me. I didn’t want family to have to take care of me.”

The independence he sought was hard to find. Until, that is, he found the Progressive Center for Independent Living.

PCIL, with locations in the Ibis Plaza in Hamilton and in Flemington, advocates for people with disabilities and helps them live and maintain independent lives. The organization offers five core services: information/referral assistance, peer support, independent living skills, advocacy and transitional services. PCIL serves disabled clients of all ages.

Things started to change for Gruzlovic as soon as he reached out to the center—he got a job, moved out of his parents’ house, arranged social security benefits with PCIL’s help. He also discovered a number of adaptive devices through PCIL, like kitchen tools, a device that allows him to put on socks without bending over, different wheelchair modifications, apps and more.

Living in a home where he couldn’t do much on his own was prohibitive, Gruzlovic said. It was hard to make community connections and even harder to feel independent. He currently lives in Robbinsville’s Project Freedom development, which provides independent housing for people with disabilities.

“I’m in a much better, safer and happier place,” he said. “And more independent. Getting assistance for myself, just to function in everyday life, job or no job, that was super hard. Dealing with insurance companies, that was kind of hard. I came out of school, I didn’t know how to use a microwave until my senior year of college because someone always did it for me. Getting that form of independence was a good thing, but it was scary.”

Gruzlovic now serves on the PCIL board—most members are adults with disabilities—and sometimes volunteers out of the Hamilton office helping other teens and adults with disabilities transition to living independently. He also writes emails and works on the center’s quarterly newsletter.

“I would have never thought five years ago that I’d be where I am now,” he said.

That’s what Scott Elliott, PCIL executive director, likes to hear.

Elliott, 54, has muscular dystrophy. He worked for many years in the corporate world, but the disease started to progress when he was in his 40s, and he ultimately decided that retirement was the best option for his health.

But with retirement came boredom, and that’s what first brought him to PCIL. The Lambertville resident saw an advertisement for a part-time job at the center, so he applied and was hired. After a two-year stint as a legislative coordinator with the Division of Developmental Disabilities (while also serving on the PCIL board), he came on full-time at the center.

“I brought the business perspective to the human services perspective,” Elliott said. “Somebody like Norman (Smith, PCIL board president and Project Freedom founder) was able to help me years ago with the whole advocacy thing, the disability perspective. I was kind of living independently. It was such a help as I progressed. You meet people with all different disabilities. I was in this world that was very different.”

Smith, like Gruzlovic, has cerebral palsy. And like Gruzlovic, he desired independence after graduating college in the 70s. Smith graduated from Steinert High School—incidentally, where he knew Gruzlovic’s father, Mark—and went on to attend Long Island University, where he graduated with a degree in journalism.

‘I couldn’t get a job, so I started this organization and created a job for me.’

“I lived with my parents,” Smith said. “They were in their 60s, and they were taking care of me. After about two years, I said, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ I couldn’t do anything without them. It was not fair to them.”

So he met with his friend, Frida Applegate, and the two set out to create a place where people with disabilities could live independently. Seven years later, Project Freedom came to life.

“I had a great education,” he said. “I wanted to come home and be a journalist. I couldn’t get a job because of my speech. A lot of reporting is done by phone. I couldn’t get a job, so I started this organization and created a job for me.”

Smith and Gruzlovic first met when Gruzlovic was six years old. Smith says the child of a former neighbor lives in a Project Freedom apartment, as does Smith himself—along with his wife, Shirley, who also has cerebral palsy, and their 10-year-old son, Josh. He says he never could have imagined how much Project Freedom has accomplished 30 years ago, or how many connections with friends from his past were restored through his efforts.

Elliott says Smith’s insights have been invaluable to him, both professionally and personally. He calls Smith his mentor, saying that he helped him adjust to life with a disability as his muscular dystrophy progressed, and to working with people with disabilities. Elliott also serves on the Project Freedom board.

Elliott enjoys “the challenge” of helping people of all ages. He cited two current clients: the family of a four-year-old boy with severe medical issues and an adult with multiple sclerosis who was placed in a nursing home.

“He wanted out,” Elliott said. “They didn’t let him out. He was actually dying in the nursing home. He got to Princeton Hospital, and we helped him get back home. He has MS. He just can’t move any of his limbs. He’s home now, he’s happy, he has aides around the clock, almost. His whole house is set up with technology so he can voice command everything.”

Another PCIL service that Elliott is proud of is its first responder training, which teaches firefighters, police officers, human service providers and EMTs about vans that are equipped to carry wheelchairs and other techniques that help them treat people with disabilities who may be in crisis with care.

He’s also worked with Mercer County to make Arm & Hammer park more accessible with additional seating, lower counters, cup holder and functional doors, as well as advocating for curb cuts and accessible bus stops all over the county—including at Ibis Plaza, where PCIL’s Hamilton office is located. The bus stop at the complex was situated near a grassy area, impossible for wheelchair access. The center successfully petitioned to move the stop up a few feet to a concrete base.

‘It’s our job to advocate for people who want to advocate for themselves as much as they’re able to do.’

PCIL does a lot of work with children, like the Ready to Achieve Mentoring Program. RAMP is a national program where volunteers and PCIL employees introduce career-based curriculum to students who are physically disabled, court-involved or who have learning disabilities.

Antoine Nelson, who has been at PCIL since April, heads the RAMP program for the center. He and mentors who he recruits travel to Lawrence High School, Ewing High School and Rivera Middle School to work on etiquette, life skills and post-high school college and vocational tech options through a curriculum Nelson wrote based on a national RAMP outline. If a student expresses interest in the military, he might have an Army soldier visit school. If a student is culinarily inclined, he’ll have a chef speak to the class.

“I wanted them to have a broad outlook and not just think college is the only option,” Nelson said. “I wanted them to know what their options are and just show them different careers.”

Renee Pfaff of Hamilton has worked at PCIL for 13 years, and she deals with students, too. She spearheaded many of the center’s existing transition-based programs for high school students. Currently, she leads sessions to help students learn their strengths, speak up for themselves and, like Nelson, figure out what they might want to do after high school.

“They’re getting a lot of support right now, but the adult world is very different, so I want them to be prepared,” she said. “A lot of these kids are so used to coming into class, they’re told where to go, they’re told what to do. In the adult world, nothing will happen unless you speak up. That’s probably one of the biggest concepts they have to learn.”

After the transition is when support coordinators Kim Such, Sam Culbertson, Jenna Pecco and Sara Olexsak come in. They help clients 21 and older link up with DDD and create a service plan to help determine what services and providers are right for their needs.

“We help maintain and increase skills that they learn in the transition programs,” said Culbertson.

They also help clients with issues like finding housing or determining what to do after being denied social security, said Reed Thomas of Hamilton, an independent living resource specialist at PCIL. He helps individuals navigate what can often be murky waters of providers, social security, Medicare and Medicaid while also setting short-term goals like working with someone looking for a job to build a resume and improve interview skills.

“It’s our job to advocate for people who want to advocate for themselves as much as they’re able to do,” Thomas said.

Thomas also sets up PCIL’s recreational programs—that means trips to Trenton Thunder games, picnics, softball games, driving lessons, and more.

The range of services has been invaluable to Gruzlovic, he said.

“I know that I can call that office at any time with any question I have, and not just because I’m a board member, but because I’m board member with a disability,” he said. “We have people whose family members are disabled. They know they’re going to get an honest answer. A lot of times, when you deal with different organizations and spaces, they can give you the runaround. We try our best to cut through the red tape. I think that’s important. It’s a very valuable resource.”