By Rhonda Van Pelt
The calendar features iconic actors, singers and athletes, even the Dalai Lama. But take a closer look — each month’s “model” is someone served by The Arc Pikes Peak Region. On the cover, an updated Rosie the Riveter promises, “We Can Do It!”
Most pages include a quote from the subject. For instance, May’s star is Danny, dressed as baseball’s Babe Ruth. The quote is “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”
The calendar is raising funds for The Arc’s programs, but executive director Wilfred Romero has high hopes that it also will open eyes in the community.
“It was a way to bring awareness to see past the disability and see the beauty of the individual,” Romero said. “We thought, ‘What is normal?’ Since I’ve been in this field, ‘being normal’ definitely has a new definition for me. I find myself thinking, ‘I have some disabilities in these areas.’ So what is normal? That’s what we’re trying to help ease, to remove the stigmas around disabilities so that, in the eyes of an individual, you’re looking at the person, not the disability.”
Local Arc Thrift Stores supply 95 percent of the chapter’s budget, so shoppers’ purchases of gently used clothing and household items support The Arc’s free services for people with disabilities and their families.
Romero never says “disabled people.” For him and his staff, they’re people first. He’s on a mission to ensure that everyone — potential employers, caregivers, the general public, et al — feels the same way.
In a typical year, the local chapter provides services to 500 individuals, although some are repeat visitors. Romero, who just completed his third year with The Arc, oversees 10 full-timers and four part-timers at the office just north of Memorial Park.
Three of those staffers serve as guardians to 75 clients who have no other family members.
“For lack of a better term, we’re ‘professional parents.’ We step in the middle of those health care crises, life decisions, all those types of things,” he said.
Two other staffers provide educational advocacy for clients and families.
“We are one of very few agencies that actually send an advocate specialist with the parent to the school [Individualized Educational Program] so they can lend some support,” Romero said. “Many times, parents, no matter what type of background they come from, very high education or no education, just don’t speak IEP language. We’re there to make sure they’re understanding the rights and responsibilities of the school and the rights and responsibilities of the parents to ensure a quality education.”
Another staffer, who has nearly 30 years experience in judicial advocacy, spends every workday helping clients navigate the judicial system.
“We have a very close relationship with the courthouse, which makes a big difference. It’s sad to say, but with the closing of institutions, our jails are becoming the storehouses for individuals with disabilities.”
The calendar also includes statistics; one of the most chilling comes from a 2005 study of the first 200 DNA exonerations in the United States. Researchers found that 69 percent of the exonerated people with mental disabilities were wrongly convicted because of false confessions.
“They’re afraid,” Romero explained. “We teach our individuals to respect law enforcement and that law enforcement are the good guys, tell them what they want to hear and so forth. But under the stress of interrogation, ‘Maybe I should just tell them what they want to hear and I’ll be able to go home.’ They rarely realize what the long-term outcome of the confession will be. You look at the numbers, it’s frightening to see how many times this happens.”
Another study quoted in the calendar looked at adults with developmental disabilities and found that 83 percent of girls and women and 32 percent of boys and men have been victims of sexual assault.
The Arc trains families so they can better advocate for their loved ones and works with them to ensure they’re planning for the years and decades ahead.
“One of the big challenges today is that we have parents [the primary caregiver of the child] entering assisted-living homes and there’s not that plan in place about who’s going to take care of that brother or sister,” Romero said.
Quality of life
On the lighter side, clients also have year-round opportunities for socializing. The chapter partners with Special Kids Special Families for Sibshops, events that give the siblings of disabled people the chance to play games and receive support from others in their situation.
Romero envisions a campus for these and other activities and programs.
The Arc is expanding to the building next to its original office on 12 N. Meade Ave., which the organization owns, and he has his eye on a few others nearby.
He wants to have a kitchen where clients can learn to prepare healthful meals; a computer lab for job searches; a music room; an arts and crafts room; a health clinic where medical interns can learn to communicate with people with disabilities; conference rooms that other nonprofits can use — the wish list goes on.
Romero has big dreams for The Arc and the people it serves. Bottom line, he and his staff are giving people with disabilities everything they need to live happy, productive lives.
“These are the people who fall through the cracks,” he said, “and we’re kind of like the basket that catches them.”
For more information on The Arc Pikes Peak Region, go to www.thearcppr.org. To donate via the Give! campaign, visit www.indygive.com/big-ideas/the-arc-pikes-peak-region.