By Ellen Nason
Kerry Wehmeyer has spent hours in a garden at the Arc/Chalmette (La.) Community Center, working tirelessly and patiently alongside others to enrich the soil, giving plants a chance to grow and thrive. It’s a labor of love.
His efforts mirror the efforts of Arc of Greater New Orleans, the organization that gave him the opportunity to do the work he loves. Arc’s mission is to provide opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to live full, active lives – to grow and flourish as an integral part of the community.
Arc, a Humana Communities Benefit grant recipient, is in its 60th year and serves more than 900 children, adults and their families in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. But the facilities that had served St. Bernard Parish for 40 years were lost during Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. It has taken years to bounce back, but like so many others in the Greater New Orleans area, Arc never gave up and is thriving once again in St. Bernard Parish.
Arc has survived despite what might seem to be insurmountable odds. It no longer had a home in St. Bernard Parish after Katrina, and it did not receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to help rebuild its facilities. The Archdiocese of New Orleans provided Arc a new home by generously leasing two buildings and several acres to grow the fresh produce that helps make the community – and the organization – healthier. But that only solved part of the problem. The Archdiocese’s structures had been flooded after Katrina and were in need of total restoration.
Arc will use the $100,000 Humana grant to refurbish one of those buildings and add a commercial kitchen that will allow it to help train and employ participants to work in the hospitality industry. Once the kitchen has been completed, Arc intends to rent the facility to those who want to host a large event in the community. The organization also sells some of the produce from its gardens to local restaurants and farmers’ markets. The goal, said Arc volunteer Polly Campbell, is to become self-sustaining, able to serve more people and to provide employment to more program participants.
Campbell said that while Arc does receive some funding and donations, it is not enough and some people have to be placed on waiting lists. That focus on financial independence and self-reliance fits the overall model of the organization.
“We have moved away from the ‘sheltered workshop’ model to a ‘community’ model that encourages participants to be more active, more social, healthier and employed,” said Campbell. “They become part of the community in which they live. It’s not about feeling sorry for them. It breaks a stigma. They are equal and valuable members of the community.”
Arc provides a range of services including: early intervention, respite for family members who provide care for those with disabilities, vocational training and job placement, supported living assistance, day programs, volunteering opportunities at other nonprofits and activities to enhance health, fitness and overall well-being.
“The goal is to help as many people as possible live independently,” said Nicole Blair, Director of Arc Enterprises. “They are thriving, finding their voice, building relationships, being productive and becoming part of their community.”
Blair said there is a tendency for some family members to overprotect those with disabilities and shelter them from everyday experiences that can help them grow.
“I think about one young woman who had never been allowed to work, not even around her own home,” said Blair. “She now makes $13 per hour on a federal contract and is learning to become independent. She’s becoming an adult and has been given an opportunity for a future with new friends, new power, new hope. Everyone should have an opportunity to live a full life.”
She recalled another participant who works on a farm. “She comes early and doesn’t want to stop working,” she said. “She needs the money, but an equally important reason is that she is engaged in learning and sets an example for a team of her peers. She has found a sense of purpose.”
Campbell became an Arc volunteer in 2004 knowing that her own son, who has Down syndrome, might one day become a participant. She has grown to understand how important it is to control your own fears and let your loved one gain independence.
“It’s easier to do things for him sometimes,” said Campbell. “But at some point, I realized that he needed to learn. It’s about independence with support. You stand back and give them room to grow but stay near enough to jump in when support is needed.”
The Humana grant is giving Arc a chance to rebuild and continue to serve St. Bernard Parish, but Cliff Doescher, Executive Director of Arc of Greater New Orleans, said the grant goes beyond bricks and mortar.
“It’s about continuing to build a connection to the community and promoting healthy living practices,” he said.
It’s about sowing the seeds of independence and giving everyone the chance to grow, thrive and live life fully.