Big Rapids man with cognitive impairment serves as inspiration

Levi Arrington, 45, of Big Rapids, works as a cart-pusher at the local Meijer outlet. He is also an advocate for people such as himself, who suffer from cognitive impairments. (Pioneer photo/Tim Rath)

BIG RAPIDS — Some might say Levi Arrington of Big Rapids has every reason to be mad at the hand he’s been dealt in life.

At a young age, he ate paint chips off the wall of his family’s home in Detroit and suffered from lead poisoning, which resulted in an intellectual disability that inhibits his ability to read and write.

But Arrington, 45, doesn’t spend time feeling sorry for himself.

“It’s one thing when you ask a person, ‘What can you do to help me in this situation?’ It’s another to ask, ‘What can I do?'” Arrington said. “When you do things for yourself, you feel a lot better about it. When someone does something for you, you might not appreciate it as much. Nobody’s going to take care of you if you won’t take care of yourself.”

Four years ago, due to shame he felt from not being able to help his youngest son, Levi Jr., with elementary school homework, he taught himself to read and received a high school diploma. Arrington has worked as a cart-pusher full-time at Meijer for the past five months (frequent shoppers may have seen him in his distinctive sunglasses and ballcap), which he uses to support himself and his son.

Arrington’s message is turning heads in the community.

On Wednesday, he will meet with state lawmakers Michele Hoitenga and Judy Emmons as part of the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council’s “Take Your Legislator to Work” Day. Next month, he will travel to Washington, D.C. with the Community Mental Health’s New Journey Clubhouse, a nonprofit organization whose services he has utilized to find work. Later this fall, he will speak before an audience at West Shore Community College, near Scottville, to share his story.

“He’s very hardworking and personable. He loves his kids and ultimately wants the best for them. He comes from a pretty hard background and wants the best for them, and he knows he has to work pretty hard to do that,” said Marcia Cebulla, who works as a manager and paralegal for a local attorney, and voluntarily assists Arrington with financial tasks. “I think he’s amazing. He’ll motivate people with his story, with how far he has come in life.”

Throughout childhood, Arrington said, he was in a special education classroom. While he lives independently today, he needs help with certain intellectual tasks like reading and writing. This impairment manifests when he tries to fill out job applications or pay bills.

A Detroit native, Arrington also has brushed up against the law, and dealt with personal issues. A wife of Arrington’s left him and moved out of state due to his problems with alcohol. (He is now sober.) In 2005, he said, he was set up to take the rap in a cocaine distribution ring. (The charges against him were dismissed by prosecutors.)

“I was getting into trouble, hanging out with the wrong people, and I knew I needed to change. I think if I wouldn’t have left, I’d probably be dead right now,” Arrington said.

After the drug issues faded, Arrington said, he moved to Big Rapids, which is where a sister of his lived at the time. Since then, his life has been much more productive. He received custody of his two sons in 2011 and three years later, earned a high school diploma.

He has worked various jobs, including those at McDonald’s, Goodwill Industries, and most recently, Meijer. He also is serving as an advocate for community programs designed to help people with disabilities that he has personally utilized, such as Michigan Rehabilitation Services, a program with the state Department of Health and Human Services that helps people with disabilities achieve employment and self-sufficiency.

Arrington also pointed to Dial-A-Ride Transportation, a public transit service that he has used to get to and from work, and Manna Pantry, a an emergency food pantry that he has used to feed himself, as helpful local resources.

“You have to be resourceful,” Arrington said. “When you’re young, you get a lot of information from a lot of people. But when you’re older, you have to search stuff out for yourself. Nobody is going to just give it to you. Society doesn’t owe you anything.”

Those who are close to Arrington hope the community takes his message to heart.

“Levi has been the only person I’ve ever worked with who has been so on top of his life, the decisions that need to be made and the things that need to happen. He’s taken ownership of that,” said Leslie Green, a benefits counselor with the Disability Network of West Michigan, who has helped Arrington with job-related tasks. “His day-to-day drive and determination is unbelievable. We can all learn from that.”

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