This story is part of HuffPost Impact's 12 Days, 12 Cities, 12 Families series, highlighting Americans who have persevered to overcome incredible challenges and the nonprofits that helped change their lives. Check back tomorrow for the continuation of this series.
Michelle Dunlap never thought she'd be in that situation. In her mid-20s, she found herself living in Atlanta and stuck in a rehabilitation center with dozens of senior citizens, many of whom wouldn't speak to her and had trouble understanding her.
Michelle has cerebral palsy and she's been in a wheelchair since she was two years old. When she speaks, you can tell she has a disability, but she's sharp, intelligent and fluid. Almost everyone who meets her assumes that there's something wrong with her brain, that they shouldn't talk to her.
"When people look at me, they stop in their tracks," she told me. "They see me like there's a wall in front of me. All they see is the chair. They don't see the face or the person in the chair."
'Every Piece Of Humanity I Had Was Stripped'
Michelle wants to go back to school and study Criminal Justice. She's fully capable of living independently. But after she found herself without family or friends in Atlanta, and was hospitalized for dehydration, she ended up in the Crestview Health & Rehab Center on Springdale Road, and she couldn't leave.
She lived in a small room with three other people, and was told when to eat, sleep and urinate. She tried to keep up with her homework but had limited access to a computer (with her disability, it takes Michelle longer to type than most people). For a person who strove to live independently, to go to school and have a career, the experience was devastating.
"It felt like I was in jail," Michelle said. "They did not have any regard that I was trying to better myself. Every piece of humanity I had was stripped."
The Crestview Health & Rehab Center declined to comment for this story.
What she thought was, at first, just a temporary inconvenience was beginning to look like the rest of her life. That's when she met Zak Topor.
'He Is An Angel'
The Atlanta Legal Aid Society is a nonprofit group that assists lower-income families with legal counsel. They were aware of Michelle and introduced her to Derona King, program coordinator for Citizen Advocacy of Atlanta & DeKalb. It was clear to King that Michelle needed someone to fight for her and help her regain her independence.
"When I hear about a person in their 20s who lives in a nursing home, that's a priority. That's an atypical way for a young person to live." King's job is to connect disabled people in need with a volunteer "advocate," someone who can speak up for one whose voice has been ignored.
"He doesn't take crap from nobody," Michelle said of Zak. "He's become kind of like my big brother."
Zak Topor was immediately affected by Michelle's wit and ambition. He couldn't believe, however, the conditions she was living in.
"Four people stuck in this tiny, tiny room with just enough room for a bed," he told me. "They just treated her like she was a dog. The Atlanta Humane Society treats their dogs better. I couldn't believe it."
Michelle's connection with Atlanta Legal Aid and Zak's relationship as a citizen advocate were the biggest factors in getting Michelle out of Crestview and into her own home.
"I decided that if Michelle and I tried to fight them, that they were going to get worse in their treatment of her," Zak said. "I said, 'Michelle, I think they're escalating in their bad treatment of you. Let's just put all of our focus on getting you out.'"
And they did. The Atlanta Legal Aid Society was able to find an apartment for Michelle and took care of all the paperwork. Zak helped her prepare and pack for the big day.
"The day I got her out of there -- she just had clothes and few personal items and we got out. Her and I -- our elation -- we were both kind of like 'wow, we never have to come back here.' It was like we broke her out of prison."
Since late October, Michelle has lived in her own apartment, and she's getting back on the track she planned out years ago. She wants to pursue a degree in criminal justice, and potentially compete in the Special Olympics again, as she did years ago in Pennsylvania.
For now, though, she's putting her everyday life back together. She looks forward to getting a motorized wheelchair soon. Right now, however, money is too tight, and she continues to drive her manual wheelchair through the hilly streets of Atlanta.
Zak and Michelle are now more than Advocate and Protégé. They've become close friends.
"He is an angel," Michelle says of Zak. "[Citizen Advocacy] did the best thing they could have done when they put me with Zak. He's the only family pretty much that I got."
Michelle knows she's been fortunate to have such help, but that others who have disabilities and no family are still struggling. She wants to use what she's learned to help others.
"As a recipient of such help, I want to give back to somebody else. Even if just an hour a week or whatever. But, something. Because I do have a lot to give -- it's just finding out how to give it."
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