Erie County Arc Helps Participants Build More Independence

Nonprofit assists over 2,000 participants

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Doug DiGesare, executive director of Erie County Arc in Williamsville.

It’s only natural to feel like you want to belong to and contribute to your community.

For adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, Erie County Arc in Williamsville provides services that can help them reach goals of employment and living more independently.

“It’s our mission to support them in any way possible,” said Doug DiGesare, executive director of Erie County Arc in Williamsville.

This can include providing coaching and mentoring to volunteer and work at a paid job.

“We’ll work with someone as far as he wants to go” in obtaining employment, DiGesare said. “You have to have the right structure so they can be successful.

“We have services to wrap around the person with case management and where they’re living. At some point, the family has to make decisions about what the future will look like for them. The sad truth is some folks don’t plan well.”

Unfortunately, some families wait until something unexpected happens and the family member mentoring the person with disabilities is unavailable. Erie County Arc offers programs including traditional employment, day habilitation, residential housing, education from ages 6 to 21 as a private school contracted with the public school and community support.

DiGesare said that the employment program is “a strong focus.”

Erie County 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. Volunteer venues include various senior centers, the SPCA, Meals on Wheels, AMVETS, Feed More and Habitat for Humanity. Once they know where their interests and aptitudes lie, they can participate in Project Search, a 10-month program that helps them gain employment.

Last year, Erie County Arc opened a training center in Buffalo that includes a full commercial kitchen, hospitality suite, and a janitorial training suite to offer participants opportunities to train for potential employment.

“As we get folks going through the training program, they’re prepared to go out in the workforce,” DiGesare said. “Several employers have asked about training employees in our center.”

Erie County Arc has also hosted completely booked day camps for high school students where they can learn job skills.

The supported employment program includes placement at jobs throughout the community. Erie County Arc currently works with 30 employers regularly 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 eventually phases out as the supported employee gains confidence in both the job skills and things like using public transportation to get to work and back. The program helps participants obtain jobs paying from $18 to $22 an hour.

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

“The employer gets someone who’s very reliable,” DiGesare said. “We find that we’re mindful that many of our participants have Medicaid benefits. We’re cognizant of how much they can earn so they don’t compromise their benefits. Some move off their benefits and don’t need them anymore. They’re self-sufficient and can afford their apartments.”

The Arc assists more than 2,000 participants and their families with services, including 300 who are actively employed.

“Obviously, with a focus on individuality, inclusion and integration, having a job and one that pays decent is very significant,” DiGesare said. “It builds self- esteem. You build friendships and relationships. Seeing someone become self-sufficient: that’s our goal. Seeing someone make those strides is very satisfying for us.”

Erie County Arc plans to open a farm program in Alden on 130 acres of donated land. Construction begins next year. The facility will offer opportunities for people to explore arts, horticulture and eventually animals.