Salem resident named Ms. Wheelchair Oregon

Anne Giffin decorates her Salem apartment with reminders of how far she’s come. 

Her bedroom walls are covered with them – pinned shirts, awards and commemoratives from Foursquare Church, World Beat Festival, Alcoholics Anonymous and a drug and alcohol treatment program.

She wore the latest symbol of her journey – a white and blue sash and glittery crown – for an interview about her path to becoming Ms. Wheelchair Oregon.

“A lot of people don’t just change their life at the age of 40,” she said. “It was different, and difficult. I made it, though.”

The Ms. Wheelchair Oregon pageant seeks to empower wheelchair users, and give them a platform to advocate for people with disabilities throughout the state. As this year’s winner, Giffin has a spot in the national Ms. Wheelchair America competition this August in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

She wants to use her platform to share the positive impacts of peer support, programs which help with recovery by connecting people with shared lived experiences like mental health conditions and substance use. She’s already leading support programs in Salem.

Peer support changed Giffin’s life.

Giffin said she had a traumatizing childhood, marred by abuse. She started drinking around age seven and turned to heroin at 13. She had bouts of homelessness, and spent time in jail, including less than a year in Lane County in 1997, at age 18, for stabbing an ex-boyfriend. She said she was a different person back then.

“This was how crazy my life was living on the streets, that jail was the only place I felt safe where I didn’t have to sell my body to survive,” she wrote in a 2020 testimony about her recovery. After being released, she moved to Alabama, got married and had two children who she was not able to focus on.

In 2005, she moved to Salem, recently divorced. She lost her right leg in a suicide attempt a few days later.

“It was a rough road. Losing a leg, already not having much in my life. I just kind of went back downhill,” she said.

She spent the next 15 years mostly homeless, with two failed stays in public housing, while struggling with her faith in God. In her testimony, she wrote that she sobered up briefly in 2016, then things spiraled again.

One month, she used her life alert bracelet 75 times amid drug abuse issues. She frequented Northwest Human Services’ West Salem Clinic.

In 2019, at another low point, she said a deputy sheriff asked how he could help.

“He spoke to me with respect. He treated me as a person. That gave me the strength to get treatment. I believe he was sent from God to help me,” she wrote in her testimony. It got her to start wanting more for herself, she said.

In June 2019, she was planning to “hop” all the way to Alaska on her crutches. She was sick of Oregon, and there was a free faith-based treatment program up there that she wanted to try. She was halfway across a narrow Portland bridge when an older couple pulled over to check in with her.

When she said she was planning to go to Alaska, and had already covered over 40 miles, they bought her time to take a shower at a truck stop, and a one-way plane ticket up north. She said she’d like to thank them someday, but all she remembers is that they were named Sandra and Mike, and that they played really good music in the car.

The two-week treatment program included discussions about community and faith, which, along with having somewhere comfortable to sleep, was a turning point for her.

She had enough disability money leftover to pay for a plane ticket back home.

“I came back and said ‘I need a bed, I need a home… I’m not going back to that broken down tent,’” she said. “I came back and I started listening.”

With the help of Be Bold Street Ministries and support from shelter staff, Giffin quickly secured a spot at Salem’s Salvation Army shelter. To keep busy, she started going to treatment. She’s been sober since April 2020.

That year, she was baptized at the West Salem Foursquare Church.

She said Polk County Behavioral Health, where she graduated drug and alcohol treatment, helped give her a voice. The county service introduced her to Project ABLE, which offers programs to Marion, Polk and Yamhill county residents with mental and physical health conditions.

After some time with that program, she got a scholarship to get certified in peer support. She now sits on the program’s board, and volunteers and has run support groups in the community for people with disabilities and addiction.

“I just kept going,” she said. “It was the next right thing, and listening to the next right step. Being of service, all those things just clicked in my head.”

The Mid-Valley Literacy Center tutors Giffin at home, and has given her scholarships. Her teacher and the program director visited her hospital bedside during several recent hip surgeries, too, she said.

During her recovery, she also started participating in the dragon boat races at the World Beat Festival. When she was homeless, she watched the races and told herself that one day she’d be out there on the water. Her team won in 2022.

Through the dragon boats, she met her friend Gwen Lewis, who plans to accompany her to the Ms. Wheelchair America competition at the end of the summer. Lewis will be a caregiver and assist using her knowledge of pageants.

“She’s a great friend. She’s really tenacious, she’s got a lot of spirit. She’s got a lot of heart,” Lewis said.

Giffin heard about the Ms. Wheelchair Oregon competition through the support program Power on With Limb Loss. One of the former winners participated in the group’s events.

Giffin wanted to participate as soon as she learned about it. She was runner-up out of five contestants last year, and this year was an uncontested winner. She laughed, saying she wanted more of a challenge, but that the small event was lovely.

She currently runs a support group at Project ABLE. Along with promoting peer support programs, Giffin hopes the Ms. Wheelchair platform will help her launch an 800 number for people to call in and get peer support.

She’s hoping to raise a total of $4,000 for the trip to the national pageant, including the $2,000 commitment required to participate. She’s posted a GoFundMe to raise money for it. She’s raised about half the amount so far.

“I get to meet 50 women in wheelchairs. That week, I get to spend an entire week with people like me, because I hang out with able-bodied every single day.”

The pageant will have a full schedule, and each day will have dress codes, like Disney characters, the 1950s and under the sea. She described it as a weeklong slumber party with people who see that being in a wheelchair is a wonderful thing.

“It’ll be the best week of my life,” she said.

Anne Giffin, left, being crowned Ms. Wheelchair Oregon in March 2024 (Courtesy/ Anne Giffin)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.