By Helena Tavares Kennedy, Contributing Writer
It all began with a parent who was told that her daughter could not attend public school because of her learning disabilities.
The mother placed an ad in the newspaper to see if other families had similar circumstances. To her surprise, seven families responded and shared stories of also being rejected by the school system for the same reason. These families got together to solve their problem and create a school for their children with special needs: The Arc, which was incorporated in 1964.
Helping Individuals with Needs
Karen Smith, the organization’s Executive Director, joined The Arc in 1967 as the school principal. She was fresh out of college with a degree in sociology and a minor in special education. The beginnings were humble. Initially, Smith sat on a garbage can in the oﬃce so that the school secretary could have a desk.
Back then, The Arc served 26 children in a school setting. However, it soon became apparent that the children needed more than just a place to get a good education. They needed other services like daycare and social activities. Parents also quickly realized that once their children graduated and became adults, they needed help with job training, getting employment and ﬁnding a place to live. The Arc began to fulﬁll those needs.
Today, the organization serves over 1,700 children and adults from within Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park. It provides over 10 major programs including two types of residential services. Group homes oﬀer a family-like atmosphere where counselors are always available to assist residents in developing independent living skills. Nearly 80 individuals participate in the group home program; some have lived there for more than 40 years. In fact, the child of an Arc founder still lives in one of the homes. “Some of the residents do not have family members around anymore and know The Arc as their only home. Everyone has a right to live in the community and have the support they need to live a fulﬁlling life,” says Smith.
A “supportive living” program is also available to those able to live semi-independently, with household responsibilities and supervision tailored to each person. Through supported living, individuals with special needs have the ability to live rather independently. Many are employed and participate in volunteer activities in the community.
Another key program is child care service for children with special needs, oﬀered at two centers: Muriel Humphrey in Dale City and Robert Day in Manassas. Every night, Smith watches parents pick up their children, because it reminds her that her work for the day may be done but it’s just beginning for the parents. She tells these parents, “You don’t have to walk this journey alone, you can walk with others.”
Cathy Klineburger, a parent who uses the daycare service, said, “The Arc means comfort to us. Comfort in knowing that our daughter is in a safe environment; being cared for and guided by a tremendously compassionate and loving staﬀ. And also lucky. Lucky that we can rest assured that Sammie’s physical and mental development skills are being honed and fostered on a daily basis in an atmosphere that truly makes her happy.”
In addition to the residential and child care programs, The Arc provides vocational projects like Spinaweb and VOSAC (Vocational and Skill Advancement Center) which help individuals with disabilities enjoy the sense of pride that comes with being productive community members.
Not Just a Job
The Arc may be one of the largest nonproﬁt employers in Prince William with over 200 employees at the 13 group homes, two daycare centers, vocational programs and other services. However, it is not just a job for many who work there. Chris Caseman joined The Arc two years ago as director of resource development. “It is the best job ever, even after 45 years of working at multiple places,” he says. “You get a clear perspective of what’s really important in life.” He and his wife have lived in Prince William for 32 years and have served on various local nonproﬁt boards over the years.
“You may only be here for a year or two or you may be here for a long time, but no matter what, your life will be changed just from being here,” says Smith.
Growing Needs for a Growing Community
As the population served by The Arc increases, facility and space needs grow. Their latest expansion project, at Muriel Humphrey, will be completed this month and ready for occupancy. The project added a new 13,800 square foot building to the existing center, allowing The Arc to now oﬀer therapeutic and nursing services and to improve its administrative space. The original building had become jam-packed as new employees, programs and services were added.
Caseman proudly explained that the expansion is fully funded thanks to grants and donations. The Hylton Foundation granted
$1.625 million, the Potomac Health Foundation gave $1 million and Prince William County will give $1 million over a ﬁve year period. Caseman said that donations from generous area residents and other supporters have also helped tremendously to make the expansion dream a reality.
The Arc is always looking to add to its team of 150-plus volunteers. They help in a wide range of activities, such as planning and attending social events for individuals with disabilities, helping out at the daycare or residential facilities or even just stopping by to play cards or games with individuals. All volunteers are required to have background checks and complete an average of 20 hours of training.
One such volunteer is local business owner Jen Jones , who manages the organization’s Facebook page. She said the best part of the experience is that “they [Arc staﬀ] genuinely love the people they serve and love what they do. Just visit any of the buildings or centers…as soon as you walk in, you feel the love.” Jones also attends some of the social events, helping to set up, serve punch or just encouraging people to dance and have fun.
A nonproﬁt marketing director, Helena Tavares Kennedy also works as a freelance writer and consultant. She has lived in Manassas with her husband and two children for over 11 years and can be reached at email@example.com.
Participants in The ARC of Greater Prince William recreation program, enjoying a recent trip to Kings Dominion.
School buses drop off children for the after school program at the Muriel Humphrey Center in Dale City.