The Arc Ontario Promotes Achieving ‘Their Best Life’

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

It’s only natural to feel like you want to belong to and contribute to your community. For adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, The Arc Ontario in Canandaigua provides services that can help them reach goals of employment and living more independently.

“We look to support people to achieve their best life,” said JoEllen Schaefer, family support and intake coordinator.

This can include providing coaching and mentoring to volunteer and work at a paid job. The first step is finding out what the individual is interested in. Schaefer said that involves understanding the person’s hopes and dreams along with support needs.

“We look to create a plan and do our part to support a person with whatever goal they’re looking for and whatever service we can offer that will support their life,” she said.

The Arc’s community pre-vocation program allows participants to volunteer at different places of employment and take programs at colleges to learn what they want to do and gain employable knowledge and skills. Pet Connections is a vocational training program that offers classes for dogs and connects dogs to people with disabilities for animal-assisted activities, animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted education.

Once they know where their interests and aptitudes lie, participating in Project Search, a 10-month program, is “a fast track to employment,” Schaefer said.

The supported employment program includes placement at jobs throughout the community, including The Arc’s own businesses, Bad Dog Boutique, FLX Premier Bottling, Spot On Cleaning, and North Star Café.

“The challenge is that there aren’t a lot of staff at those small businesses,” Schaefer said. “We can’t employ a lot of people. But it’s an example where people in the community pre-vocational programs go for career-related activity. If a job were opened, they can go through the interview process like anyone else.”

In addition, The Arc interfaces with employers throughout the community in helping individuals acquire jobs with an Arc-provided mentor. Businesses pay nothing for the mentor, who accompanies the individual for as long as it takes to achieve an acceptable level of proficiency.

“The mentor fades away so that person is well-trained and feeling confident to carry on in that place of employment,” Schaefer said. “They’re still available, but their role is diminished.”

The supported employment helps participants obtain jobs at and above minimum wage.

The numerous Arc participants who maintain long-term employment are a testament to the program’s success — and the capacity for people with disabilities to work in the community.

“Everybody wants to live their best life,” Schaefer said. “Sometimes we need support to make those dreams come true. Being a productive member of your community benefits everyone you touch.”

In the current economy, where staffing is tough for employers, Schaefer thinks that the population she serves represents an often-overlooked source of capable, competent and willing workers.

“We have beautiful feedback on people we’ve placed in jobs,” she said. “The dedication and commitment that the person places on that job really is mentioned time and time again.”

The Arc assists more than 700 participants and their families with services including crisis intervention; day program services for maintain and enhancing skills; Community Learning Center for personal enrichment and volunteering; 16 residential homes; and other supports for independent living.