Arc: Providing Numerous Services in the Community

For more than 60 years, the Erie County Chapter of NYSARC, Inc., dba Heritage Centers, has offered persons with developmental or intellectual disabilities a wide scope of supports.

Many people aren’t aware of some of Heritage’s services that it provides to about 2,500 individuals and their families by about 1,000 employees.

These include Medicaid service coordination, mental health services, children’s services/Heritage education program, adult services (Allentown Industries), residential services, community support services and recreation training for the community. The organization focuses on socializing, volunteering, building work skills, and enrichment.

Michele Vaughters, coordinator of communications and public relations, said that many don’t realize Heritage helps with Medicaid application, a process that families find arduous. Heritage also helps families find support from other agencies with whatever they need, including housing, day programs, and more.

“At Heritage Centers, we provide supports for a life time from early intervention through pre-K, school age, career services and retirement and volunteerism,” said Mark Mortenson, CFO.

Beyond those opportunities, Vaughters added that Heritage seeks to offer support to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities with job coaching and community employment services.

“Work coaches provide work training and can supply them with additional knowledge and help them find employment,” Mortenson said.

Heritage seeks to find long-term employment opportunities that offer fulfilling, meaningful work in an environment in which the client feels comfortable.

Many adults retirement age volunteer through the Work Without Walls program where individuals may work at the library, care for flowerbeds at a public site or help at a food bank.

In addition to career opportunities, Heritage provides means for clients to participate in recreation in the community with chaperones.

“It gets them in touch with other people with disabilities who share their interests and are in their own community,” Vaughters said.

Clients work on social skills like ordering at a restaurant, taking public transportation and engaging in conversation.

“Hopefully at some point the individuals will feel comfortable enough to call the people they’ve gone out with and make arrangements on their own,” Vaughters said. “Their parents are involved, too. It won’t be that beneficial unless someone at home is supporting it.”

These skills naturally segue into better self-advocacy so clients identify and ask for the supports they need to live as independently as possible and make and meet their personal goals.

Heritage also supports family members with meetings and informal networking to share moral support and information.

In 1988, Buffalo resident Joan D. Harms discovered Heritage as a resource for her son, Robert Edwards, now 50. She has been involved in numerous organizations supporting people with developmental disabilities and says that Heritage “ranks as the best. They’re a terrific organization.”

She said that when Robert was born with Down syndrome, she was told not to become too attached to the baby and that she should probably not take him home. Hospital personnel told her Robert would likely not live to age 5.

“In 1966, that was the norm,” Harms said. “I’m so glad we didn’t take that crummy advice. He’s the vice president of his self-advocacy group. He’s quite a guy. I always say, ‘We only know the “ups” of Down syndrome.’ That explains Bob in a nutshell. He’s determined to do what he’ll do even if it takes a long time. Heritage has instilled that in him.”

Robert has two brothers and two sisters. He has been involved in Heritage and worked there since his high school graduation in 1988. He lives in a group home and volunteers when he’s not working.

“Very often, I bump into people who don’t know about all the resources they offer,” Harms said.

She said that these include the many social opportunities Heritage offers, along with programs about life skills such as money handling and discerning unsafe from safe strangers.

“It’s been a fabulous experience with Heritage,” Harms said.