An Advocate For Others

Written by: Cathy Womble, Lake Okeechobee News

Krystal Sims is well-spoken and knowledgeable about all aspects of the subject. This 34-year-old young woman is the president of a nonprofit organization called Stand Up for Independence, a self-advocacy group on the Treasure Coast for individuals with developmental disabilities who learn how to be independent and stand up for their own rights. Stand Up For Independence also participates in Tip-A-Cop, which is a fundraiser for Special Olympics Florida.

Krystal is a Partners in Policymaking graduate. Partners in Policymaking is a leadership and advocacy training program that teaches individuals with developmental disabilities and their parents to become community leaders. While Krystal was in the class, she interviewed Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen and asked him what he does for people with special needs. How does he teach the people in his department to tell the difference between someone with special needs and someone who is on drugs?

The goal of this program is to try to get policies put in place that will help people with disabilities, explained Krystal and her mom, Kellie Mullens. Mullens said that often, the difference between someone with autism and a drug addict is hard to discern. Many with autism do not like to be touched, but the same is sometimes true for drug addicts. Sheriff Stephen told Krystal he sends his people to school so they can learn as much as possible and become better prepared on how to handle those types of situations. Krystal said she felt the OCSO did a good job with their training, and said she appreciated their participation in the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Florida.

Krystal is part of the Family Care Council. She and her group go to Tallahassee every year on DD Day (Developmental Disability Day). It’s held every year in February. Krystal said former Gov. Rick Scott knows her by name and will yell, “Hey, Krystal!” when he sees her. She plans to make sure Gov. Ron DeSantis knows her name before it’s all over. She stands up and tells the representatives what the needs are and what should be done.

The most recent one they went to bat over was SB 82, she said. That one was about cuts in the amount caregivers receive. Krystal and her group went and explained the caregivers do not make enough money now. They fought for the caregivers and won. Not only did they not get cuts in pay but they received raises, she said.

In June, Krystal and her mom participate in something called the Family Cafe in Orlando, said Mullens. “It is for every family who has a member with special needs. It’s not just the special needs person. It’s the whole family.” She went on to explain you have to reserve early. They reserve two hotels for the group. They have over 200 vendors there with all sorts of things. They might have group homes or support equipment or agencies that help with different things. Then throughout the weekend, they have seminars. You can go to any or all of them. They have live entertainment.

“A lot of the special needs people are in bands,” said Mullens. “On Sunday, they have a guest speaker. Last year it was Ms. Wheelchair USA. She has no arms, no legs and is in a wheelchair, and she is so inspirational.” At the end, they give away computers, bicycles, all kinds of things. They also have a dance on Saturday night, but the best thing about it, in Mullens’ opinion, is the amount of information you come away with.

Krystal grew up in Okeechobee and went to Okeechobee High School and later to Jensen Beach High School, where she graduated in 2007. She had some teachers who meant a lot to her over the years; Sharon Coker taught her many important things and Mr. Ingram was always funny and nice. She mentioned Susan Kupers as well.

She now lives in a group home in Port St. Lucie. It was important to Krystal and her family for Krystal to be able to take care of herself if anything ever happened to them.

Krystal has been a Special Olympics athlete for many years, and all of the Special Olympics events are her favorites. She can’t choose just one, she said. She has a gold medal for golf, but said eventually the heat got to her. The same was true for cycling. She enjoyed that a lot when she was younger, but does not like the heat anymore. She likes swimming, bowling, basketball and softball skills as well. She can’t do the outdoor sports anymore because of the heat, so she is hoping they start the indoor games up again soon.

While her normal activities have been shut down, Krystal has been busy collecting tabs from cans and then donating them to Dr. Mims’ Veterinary Clinic. They use them for the Shriner’s Hospital. She has also been collecting change for the Pregnancy Center of Okeechobee and she donated books about Down syndrome to the library in Okeechobee.

Krystal finds ways to keep herself busy, and these are just a few of the items on her long list of daily activities. Her next goal is to begin taking college classes. She has several interests and is not sure where her path will take her, but she knows she is not going to let anything get in her way.