By Bruce Edwards
There was a time not so long ago when those with developmental disabilities were segregated from society and often shunned.
Since 1958, ARC (Advocacy Resources Community) has taken the lead in assisting those with developmental disabilities in the greater Rutland area.
“We are about advocating for people living with developmental disabilities to have lifelong opportunities, self-growth,” said ARC Executive Director Lisa Lynch, adding that their mission is to promote “abilities rather than the disabilities.”
Key to accomplishing that is to ensure that those with developmental issues, which include autism and Down syndrome, are integrated into the general population.
ARC offers a number of programs and services including:
Payee services — Social Security and service providers often refer individuals to ARC as their payee, assisting in paying bills and other financial matters.
Rutland Family Support Network — provides support to families such as care and respite providers, and family get-togethers.
Aktion Club — gives those with disabilities the opportunity to develop “initiative and leadership” through community projects. The group is sponsored by a local Kiwanis Club.
“The Aktion Club has gone from growing a garden, buying T-shirts and sending them overseas to our servicemen, to writing cards to wounded soldiers who are home recovering at Christmastime,” Lynch said.
She said this past year club members adopted a family for Christmas. The club also sponsors a bingo night at the Bardwell House for its residents.
“They’re just an awesome group of people with differing abilities,” said Lynch, referring to her clients.
Roy Gerstenberger calls the three ARCs around the state the linchpin for helping individuals and their families.
“Self advocacy, advancing self advocacy, is a core objective of our system,” said Gerstenberger, Developmental Disabilities Unit director with the state Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living. “And organizations like the ARCs provide training for families. They provide critical information for individuals so they can stay on top of changes and they can know when their voice needs to be heard.”
Gerstenberger said Vermont was one of the first states to realize that institutionalizing those with disabilities was a mistake, and as a result closed the Brandon Training School.
According to the state, based on national prevalence rates, there are approximately 15,644 Vermonters and another 141 children born each year with developmental disabilities.
Gerstenberger said having community-based programs like the ones supported by ARC is essential to integrating those with developmental disabilities into society.
He said, “people with a disability have a right to full participation in their communities, and the way that they do that is to build meaningful relationships,” including education and employment.
Social interaction isn’t always easy for those with disabilities, so the Rutland Area ARC hosts five dances a year. Lynch said those events are important because they give people another opportunity to interact with each other. On average, she said each dance draws between 70 and 100 people.
Lynch said a lot has changed since 1958, when ARC was known as the Association for Retarded Children. At the time, many families had little choice but to send their children to the Brandon Training School. Over time, policy and attitudes changed so that integration into the community and not segregation was embraced. Brandon Training School closed in 1993.
Today, the Rutland Area ARC has 500 clients and operates on a budget of just $80,000 a year. “It’s so minimal for what we do,” Lynch said.
As a United Way Agency, ARC receives $5,000. The rest of the money is raised through donations, grants and the support of area towns.
This March, ARC is hoping for funding requests to be on the ballot in 16 towns in the county.
Lynch said her organization is also in need of three or four volunteers to serve on the board of directors.
ARC also depends heavily on volunteers, including clients, “for day-to-day work” in the office on Merchants Row.
John Dunlap, president of the local ARC board of directors, became involved when he saw how his stepson benefitted from ARC’s programs and services.
If there is one concern that weighs on Dunlap’s mind, it’s whether ARC will have the resources to survive.
“I’m just afraid of finances,” he said. “We have to do so much fundraising.”
As ARC approaches its 60th anniversary, Dunlap’s goal is for “the organization be financially healthy and prospering and continue providing services for people and families who enjoy the social environment” that ARC provides.