Disabled find their way

Mainstreaming: Forty years after it was born, ARC of Howard County operates on an $8.5 million budget and is committed to helping integrate the developmentally disabled into society.

March 28, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

About 40 years ago, a group of concerned mothers met in a church basement in Lisbon in western Howard County to talk about how to make better lives for their retarded children.

Their meeting was an act of courage. In those days, many doctors told mothers to commit their developmentally disabled children to institutions right away, before they began to love them too much.

The mothers could never have dreamed that their group, formerly known as the Association for Retarded Citizens and now known simply as ARC for Howard County, would one day become one of the largest nonprofit groups in the county.

Founded on the idea that retarded people deserve more than life in an institution, ARC for Howard County now has 1,000 direct clients, 300 employees, 45 group homes and an $8.5 million budget.

And the group is still growing. Soon, the nonprofit will kick off a $1.9 million fund-raising campaign to renovate its central facility on Homewood Road in Ellicott City and build an addition. Jacquelyn M. Ring, deputy executive director of ARC, said it has raised about half of that amount.

ARC has helped clients like Cathy Malone, 46, who always wanted to work with animals. An ARC job coach helped Malone get a job cleaning cages at PETsMART in Columbia. The ARC Family Support Program helps her live alone, along with a multitude of pets, in an Ellicott City apartment.

Malone, interviewed with a parrot sitting on her shoulder and nibbling her glasses, said she has never been happier.

"I like this job a lot," said Malone, who added that she always wanted to work at PETsMART.

That, said Ring, is what the ARC is all about: helping clients become integrated into the community rather than putting them in institutions where they have no control over their lives.

"People just blossom when they get out working in the community," Ring said.

The $1.9 million goal is lofty. Never before has a nonprofit in Howard County -- other than Howard County General Hospital or the Columbia Foundation -- raised so much money, said Jean Moon, a free-lance public relations specialist working for ARC.

The Howard County ARC -- one of more than 1,000 ARC chapters around the country -- still has to overcome some bad publicity. Several years ago, a caretaker for ARC clients pleaded guilty to stealing more than $19,000 from clients.

Then, last April, a former ARC employee, Linda O'Dell, sued the nonprofit, claiming it fired her when she tried to expose the thefts. She is suing for about $2.5 million, alleging "loss of income," "substantial emotional injury" and "humiliation, frustration and embarrassment." The case is being litigated.

Ring said she could not comment on the case but that ARC screens its employees more carefully now -- even though, due to the strong economy, she said, it is hard to find people to work for the starting salary, which is between $7.20 and $8.50 an hour.

When the Howard County ARC was founded in 1961, the mothers just wanted more programs for their children. ARC chapters had been popping up in more urban areas of the country for about 10 years before that, said Steven Eidelman, executive director of the national ARC, based in Silver Spring.

The founders purchased a bus to provide transportation to a local day program and established a Howard County Activity Center. In the 1970s, the group began to fight for group homes where their children could live semi-independent lives.

Ring started working at the nonprofit about 25 years ago, just as ARC was trying to open its first group home in the county. She said it was an overwhelming job for a young woman just out of college. Prejudices ran high, and neighbors sued ARC to keep the nonprofit from entering their neighborhood.

"It was just overwhelming," Ring said. "Back then, people didn't really know people with disabilities. You didn't go to school with people with disabilities, you didn't work with people with disabilities. It was kind of an unknown. I think it scared people."

ARC opened its first group home in the mid-1970s and has about 45 homes scattered throughout the county, Ring said. A year after that court case, ARC started an infant stimulation program for children from birth to age 3 with developmental delays.

In 1980, ARC moved into a permanent building, the D.H.A. Wright building on Homewood Road in Ellicott City. The same year, ARC began helping people with developmental disabilities, like Malone, find employment with job training and support. Several years later, ARC established a respite program to give families relief from continual care of their developmentally disabled children.

As ARC clients have aged, the agency has continued to add services while accepting new ARC clients. Ring said that is one reason ARC needs a new building -- it has outgrown the old.

"We are there from the time a kid is born to the day they die," she said.

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