Arc of Alachua County marks decades of celebrating people with special needs

The day at the Arc of Alachua County begins at 8:30 a.m. when guests walk through the gates of the one-story facility at 3303 NW 83rd St., directly across from Santa Fe College. Some clients need to go to the nursery first to take medication or have their vital signs checked. Others may need to go to the University of Florida to see a doctor.

Until 2:30 p.m., they have a busy schedule filled with educational and recreational activities that prepare them to be active participants in society. And that’s what they want. People with disabilities want to be treated like everyone else. They want to be employed; they want to vote and they want to live independently.

“Our mission is to try to develop our clients to the point where they can learn, grow and become full participants in the community,” said Mark Johnson, development and public relations coordinator for the Arc of Alachua County. .

In 1966, parents of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities saw the need to create a space that could offer them appropriate services. Today, the Arc of Alachua County is one of the largest nonprofits of its kind in the county, serving approximately 300 adults with disabilities and providing them with resources so they can fully participate in the community. Of approximately 29 arches in Florida, the Arc of Alachua County is the fifth largest in the state. This October marked its 55th year.

The Arc works with people with developmental disabilities such as spina bifida, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and various intellectual disabilities. Johnson said the Arc is also internationally recognized for having one of the best Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS) programs in the Southeastern United States. PWS is a rare genetic disorder that affects many parts of the body, but not the intellect. “Intellectually, they’re capable of anything,” Johnson said.

“We provide meaningful activities during the day, including educational, recreational and work opportunities,” said Danielle Towery, chief operating officer of Arc of Alachua County. “We also offer support for independent and semi-independent living and residential supports in community group homes. “

Cultivate life skills

In the afternoon, vans waiting outside the facility pick up clients and take them to group homes. The Arc has approximately 17 group homes located throughout the Gainesville area. Each participant is allowed to choose where to live, and in these homes, they continue their routine while learning the tools they need to achieve their level of independence.

“The majority of our clients live in one of our group homes, and in the afternoon they come home and live a life like you and me growing up,” Johnson said. “There are about four to six people in a house together, and they have a staff member who is like a parent to them.”

Johnson said the staff member helps them with shopping, deciding what to cook and how to prepare a meal, what to watch on TV or what activity to do, such as playing board games or taking a walk.

According to Towery, all services and activities are provided by well-selected and well-trained direct support professionals.

“They need to learn what is available to them in their community, such as work, recreation, recreation and housing, as well as the skills, supports and services to access the community as everyone has access to them”, Towery said.

The Arc also has a supported employment program that supervises people who have jobs in the community and teaches them the tools and skills they need to find employment.

“We want them to realize they have the potential,” Johnson said. “We have a client who has worked with the public school system for over 30 years, and others who have been employed at the university, local retail stores and grocery stores around Gainesville.”

But other clients with severe intellectual disabilities can’t expect to be employed, Johnson said.

“Our goal is not to teach them how to use a computer so that they can find a job. Our goal is to improve their lives, ”he said.

People with disabilities in Alachua County are referred to The Arc by a physician, family member, or Exemption Support Coordinator (someone who works with people with disabilities in Florida).

“We provide service to these people if we have a space available for them,” Johnson said. “In Florida we have several issues with the treatment, care and support of people with disabilities. “

Challenges in Florida

Johnson said there was a waiting list of around 10 to 11,000 people with disabilities to receive services. He said there were not enough providers because the state of Florida was not providing enough reimbursement or financial support for the services people with disabilities need.

“Florida is probably 48th in state funding for people with developmental disabilities, which is not a very good position,” Johnson said. “If we are not well funded we cannot pay the employees, and therefore we cannot serve, so one of the things the Arc does is put pressure on the state to try to fund better. These persons.”

“We know what happens if we don’t have The Arc and other private providers,” Johnson added. “They can either go home to a family that could care for them but doesn’t have the knowledge or the ability to do so properly, or they can go to a public institution that really doesn’t offer the quality of care we provide. . “

Towery said The Arc and other private providers prevent people with disabilities from being institutionalized, which is more expensive and more restrictive.

“In state institutions, they are more or less stored; they’re just kept in a room, ”Johnson said. “Our clients would not be able to participate in society if they were in a public institution or with loving parents or caregivers who care for them but cannot help them thrive. “

The Arc also works to raise awareness in the community and reduce societal stigma against people with disabilities. People with disabilities are like everyone else, Johnson says. They have boyfriends and girlfriends, they care about politics, they can be angry about dieting and not having a piece of cake at night.

“They are fun,” he said. “They really are the best people in the world.”

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