Linda Collins really wants -- and needs -- a new wheelchair-accessible van with hand controls so she can regain the independence lost to multiple sclerosis.
"Right now, not being able to get around is a devastating thing, It would be for anybody," said Collins, of Elk Grove Village, who serves as board president for the Elgin Theatre Company.
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The 53-year-old says her unsuccessful attempt to win a nationwide contest for a new van reaffirmed that, no matter her circumstances, there are people out there who need that so much more.
The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association announced four winners Tuesday. A new van costs $45,000 to $65,000, Collins said.
" I always feel like there's a million, zillion people more deserving than me," she said.
"(In the contest) there were people from all across the country. People with children with cerebral palsy, people who need a caregiver. I'm very fortunate that I'm actually the driver."
Collins was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 24 and has been using a wheelchair the last eight years.
That didn't affect her ability to work. She was an assistant accommodations specialist at Harper College until a year ago and, more recently, doing office work through a temp agency. She's taken classes at Harper College and volunteers at Elgin Theater Company, where she has acted, produced and directed.
It was only in January, when her 10-year-old van became too costly to repair, that things changed, she said.
Her boyfriend, Edward Duncan, a fellow board member, transports her as much as possible, but she can't hold a job or volunteer by singing at Friendship Village in Schaumburg, she said.
"I'm trying to save my money for it. That's what I have to do," she said.
Collins, a former nightclub singer and now a cantor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview, said her first love is singing, with theater a close second.
"This is my baby. Elgin Theater Company is my home. I live here, I should move to Elgin," Collins said.
Collins has "a lot of guts," said Herb Gross, who's served on the Elgin Theatre Company board for about 15 years.
"Regardless of handicaps or whatever, she is as independent as possible," he said. "If she had a van back, she'd be totally independent."
Collins is the assistant director for Elgin Theatre Company's "Brighton Beach Memories" by Neil Simon, opening Friday in the Kimball Street Theatre, located in the lower level of the Rider Center of Elgin Academy, 261 Dundee Ave.
It's remarkable that Collins learned to direct so well in a relatively short amount of time, Gross said.
"She does not let her disability, which is serious, get her down," he said. "I imagine there's times when she's a little bit despondent, but mostly she rises to just about any challenge she faces and tries her darndest to overcome it. And she usually does."
Collins started acting while growing up in Burr Ridge, but took a 30-year break to raise six children.
Her foray back onto the stage was about six years ago at Harper College -- only this time in a wheelchair.
"To return in a wheelchair was scary," she said. "You have to be pretty confident when you get up onstage and you're in front of people."
She was turned down often, but got a "huge boost" in 2010 when she was cast in "The Vagina Monologues" production at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, she said.
"It's difficult to find a director that has enough vision that they can cast a person in a wheelchair," she said.
Another huge problem is finding performance spaces -- especially smaller ones -- that are wheelchair accessible, she said.
"The best actor gets the role, regardless of what it is," she said. "It's about opportunity, and being able to get in there. When we need a ramp, and that's the only thing keeping you out, it's just a little frustrating."
Getting diagnosed at such a young age was "a killer," Collins said.
"I never drank or did drugs, I was always an athlete. It can be devastating to have something sneak up on you like this."
Still, she is fortunate to have good upper body strength and no vision problems, unlike many multiple sclerosis patients, she said.
"The treatment is 'Exercise, watch your weight and keep a good attitude.' I don't know any other way to live," she said.
"I've always been of the opinion -- I hate to sound cliché -- that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," she said.
"Believe me, I have my bad days, I have my pity parties once in a while. However, I've had enough experiences with people who find me, and how I do face life, inspiring, that I feel that maybe that's what it's all about, that's my purpose."