2003 – Philadelphia (Free Our People March) – Nancy Salendra

Free Our People March

The biggest day of my life was approaching after 6 months of 24/7 butterflies. I believe most people never thought this march would take place except for Daniese from Delaware and Crosby from Maryland.

September 3rd, on the eve of the march at the Holiday Inn in Philadelphia, I was speaking to a room full of ADAPTers, about to make history. We were marching 144 miles with 85 wheelchairs to charge a night and 65 tents to set-up and break down every day. This would be the first time in history that 200 disabled people would march all 144 miles to Washington DC sleeping outside in tents every night (except 2, and one of those nights was on an ice skating ring that was wet and freezing cold).

We traveled with 12 port-o-potties (Royal Flush). Without them and one of the workers, Mike, we would not have survived.

The first day we roll out onto Market Street in Philadelphia in pouring rain with smiles on our faces. The first day between the weather, chairs that broke down because of the weather, bad directions given to the van drivers, no port-o-potties at our lunch stop and the smallest quarters to sleep in but we figured things could only get better.

Second day Erik from Philly had a stroke and had to be taken to the hospital. Jimmie, Erik’s partner and our food director, would not be able to continue on this march and we were about to embark on the longest day of the march – 17 miles. Things were going great.

One of the amazing things throughout this march was how the public treated us. We did get in the newspaper (Philadelphia Inquirer) on the first day, but we never got any television coverage. Somehow people knew we were coming, because they would be out on the streets to greet us, give us money and water and cheers. I don’t think the public has ever treated ADAPT so well. We were traveling on highways, not residential neighborhoods. So how would people know about us? When we told them we were marching so people could live free in the community and not die in nursing homes, they were just taken aback. In one small community, Aberdeen Maryland, we were given a $200 check and a proclamation from the city council.

We slept at the state troopers barracks in Delaware and had a pig roast, (no pun intended). But ADAPT sharing bathrooms with state troopers who would have thunk it? We slept on the grounds of the firehouse in Arbutus Maryland. While we were there, Sparky from Texas went to a convenient store around the corner. They did not treat him nice in the store and were throwing him out and he said to them that a bunch of his disabled friends were around the corner. Of course they didn’t believe him. So he left and returned with some of his 200 friends and he was treated much better.

Not being a religious group we had many encounters with churches because in our 14 day march we stay on 7 church properties. We were fed some of our best food by the churches. People said they ate better on the march than they do at home.

We looked forward at the end of the day – going to our tents and finding our belongings and seeing the Philadelphia neighbor, Texas neighbor, Denver neighbor and so on. We were truly a city with blocks of the different states and their tents. People were going about their business, getting ready for dinner or the next day’s events. What a site to behold from the roof of the firehouse we were staying at.

I had a friend who is from an activists group in Philadelphia that has done many marches. They came to visit us on our last day. I got up at 6 AM to go to the bathroom at our camp site in DC and I thought I was hallucinating when I saw my friend from Philly. I said “what are you doing here?”

He said: “Nancy, I just had to come and see this for myself.” He had been walking the campsite in total amazement. He could not believe that we had all these tents, wheelchairs, an industrial generator, 12 port-o-potties and that, with most people in wheelchairs, we could pull this off. He said that on his marches they never walked the entire way and they always slept indoors. He said after seeing this, if any of his people never complained he would tell them what we endured and went through to further our cause.

I must say, what amazed me the most was the commitment from everyone to do this march. We left people whose chairs broke down in the middle of nowhere and they would just smile and wave goodbye and wait till the van picked them up. It could be minutes or hours in the hot sun with no food or drink, but they would endure whatever it took for their brothers and sisters in nursing homes. I was just blown away by the courage of those individuals whose chairs tip over on the highway. The big state troopers would help pick people back up and they would say they were fine and onward they went, with the state trooper’s mouth hanging open. They didn’t know how strong disabled people really are.

People were focused on the mission to get more attention to MiCASSA and get it passed. We obviously didn’t get Community Choice passed, and we didn’t get on national news but the disability community around the world knew about the march. It was the greatest adventure of our lifetime and it showed that anything is possible.