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Maynor Maldonado, with Nationwide Homes, removes the cover from a house that will be part of the Heartland Conference in Waterloo next week. Photographed Saturday, June 4, 2011.(BRANDON POLLOCK / Courier Staff Photographer)

WATERLOO, Iowa --- Once again, an "accessible home" will serve as a centerpiece for VGM Group's annual Heartland Conference Tuesday through Thursday at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center.

Accessible Home Improvement of America, a division of VGM Group Inc., worked with vendor Nationwide Custom Homes to bring the all-accessible "Care Cottage" to the convention center grounds. Custom-designed to meet of the needs of Angie Plager, 28, a former Ms. Wheelchair Iowa and president of the Iowa Spinal Cord Injury Association, the home will be moved to Plager's family property in Cambridge after the conference concludes Thursday.

Plager, 28, has been a C5/C6 quadriplegic since an August 2003 car accident. She currently lives with her mother in a two-story farmhouse.

The 650-square-foot accessible home will have an array of amenities that often aren't accessible in her mother's house, Plager said.

"It's the difference between having a quality of life or not," she said of the need for an accessible home. "It's hard to describe; it's the same as anyone: you need to reach every aspect of your home. It's how you live, work and function. You have to have everything. It makes your quality of life so much better and independent. Having the space and equipment increases my independence tremendously. I'm able to have less stress on my body with proper equipment."

The cottage concept, developed by Nationwide Homes, allows the structure to be attached to an existing home or placed as a separate dwelling on a caregiver's property.

In addition to Plager, the current Ms. Wheelchair Iowa, Jenn Wolff of Waverly, will be at the conference, as will a number of nonprofit consumer advocacy groups, including People for Quality Care, an organization dedicated to ending so-called competitive bidding for home medical equipment for Medicare beneficiaries and those who are disabled.

VGM Group participating vendors will be in the spotlight Tuesday when the exhibition hall opens with a reception. On Wednesday, the group will attend the Heartland Gala at Young Arena.

As has been custom, the conference will feature 104 educational sessions, 91 speakers, up to 23 hours of credit from seven continuing education entities, 74 exhibitors, fireworks, plus the care cottage.

The event opens Monday with a golf tournament at Irv Warren Golf Course at Byrnes Park, followed by a pig roast and fireworks at the VGM Group campus in South Waterloo.

Matthew Eversmann, an Army Ranger who fought in the Battle of Mogadishu, which was the subject of the film "Black Hawk Down," is scheduled to deliver the keynote address from 8 to 9 a.m. Tuesday at the convention center.

Eversmann, who has spoken to audiences worldwide on his Somalian experience will discuss "Dedication, Pride and Commitment."

VGM officials said the annual conference brings an average of 3,575 hotel room nights annually and $777,500 in direct spending to Waterloo. VGM's investment is more than $575,000, for a total of $1.3 million in economic impact.


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