SCHUYLER COUNTY--Every parent wants their baby to grow up to have a happy, healthy, satisfying life--even though not every child comes into the world with the same genetic advantage.
Forty years ago, in 1978, a group of determined parents formed The Arc of Schuyler County as a chapter of the statewide organization NYSARC. They joined forces so their special children could have opportunities they'd lack without advocacy. "There was a great deal of resistance at first," says executive director Jeannette Frank. "Why did Schuyler County need an ARC? Those early pioneers fought a lot of stereotypes."
Back then, the letters were short for "Association for Retarded Children." But as time passed and the "R" word for people with developmental disabilities has so often been used as a hurtful, insulting term, the current name "Arc" is more descriptive of the scope of the organization's impact on membership and the larger community.
Inclusion is the ideal, meaning the mainstreaming of individuals with diverse skills and talents in school and the larger community--because over time, it's been learned that everyone benefits. "We support people with disabilities and words do matter," Frank says. "It's more than just being politically correct. Recognize me for who I am, rather than for my disabilities."
Frank has been with the organization almost since its beginning, working first in outreach services with youngsters and their families. The experience taught her all parents want the same things for their children, regardless of ability--to work, to have friends and a productive life, as well as an independent adulthood, to whatever extent this is possible. "Each person is different and there are a lot of choices," Frank says. "Everything we do is based on a person-centered philosophy."
So when schooling is complete, some children do indeed go out to hold jobs in the mainstream world. For others, a sheltered workshop environment or a day-program may be better.
And this, in turn, has led to the expansion of The Arc's community reach. When a staff member with extensive experience in food services suggested re-purposing the under-used cafeteria for food production, The Arc began training program participants and looking at ways they could work on the project. The Arc's commercial kitchen now serves as a place where skilled employees produce pickles, spaghetti sauce, hot sauce and pack gelato mixes and other foods on contract with various small businesses. "We're USDA certified and FDA approved to produce food products in accordance with food safety standards," Frank says proudly. While making it possible for small food producers to have their products processed and safely packaged, Glen Industries also provides meaningful work for eager and enthusiastic employees.
Similarly Seneca Shine, a car detailing service and the Franklin Street Art Gallery provide opportunities for participants to showcase their skills and talents from artwork to cleaning to greeting people; some participants also volunteer in the community for a variety of tasks from assisting nonprofits with tasks to helping with senior congregate meals.
About 200 participants are served by The Arc, which also counts about 175 people on staff. There are seven group homes, staffed 24/7, an apartment for more independent living, support staff for the group homes and day programs. Children in need of services receive early intervention from their toddler years; the oldest people in the program are senior citizens.
In this continuum of care are people like Larry Tanner, who began receiving services many years ago. He makes use of The Arc's residential services and benefitted from vocational training; he now also serves on the board of directors. "Technically, he's my boss," Frank says. "He's made a lot of connections and he's very useful in terms of providing me with perspective."
Another of the many success stories Frank can cite is that of a young woman who trained with Glen Industries and dreamed of having a community-based food-service job. After a few tries, with the help of job coaches, she found the right job. "And now she's very happy and independent and has become an active self-advocate," Frank says proudly.
Board members and volunteers say interacting with The Arc clients makes them feel "like a rock star," quotes Frank. "People are happy to see you and know you by name and ask how your day's going." This adds an additional sense of reward to those who volunteer their time.
As a community-based organization, The Arc is often looking for opportunities to include the community in activities like the Tai Chi programs, as volunteers with The Arc and more. Their services keep expanding, like the inauguration of bus service several years ago, using The Arc buses and drivers to help others in the county get around after clients are delivered to the day's activity site.
The current outreach focus is to people on the autism spectrum, some of whom have multiple needs. And more expansion is expected. For now, it's under wraps but officials say it's going to be exciting.In the meantime, there's a celebration afoot. "We're launching our membership drive this month and increasing our membership and communications list," Frank says. An anniversary luncheon is planned for May. "This is a great time for people to get more involved," she says.
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