A Little Age, A Lot of Perspective

Jill Vaught, Executive Director of The Arc of Indiana Foundation 

It’s not very often that I’m happy to be reminded of how old I am. Today I was. You see, I grew up at a time when people with disabilities were considered disposable. If they hadn’t been sent to live in institutions, they lived in the community – but certainly weren’t included.

Today I received a photo. A student from the Erskine Green Training Institute (EGTI) had gone to one of the food courts at Ball State University for lunch. While there, he ran into friends from high school. He was invited to join their table and later go to a campus event with them.

What does this have to do with my age? I’m glad I’m old enough to remember when scenes like that weren’t possible. It helps me truly appreciate The Arc and how far we’ve come.

I have been lucky enough to work for The Arc in one way or another for 20 years. During that time I’ve seen some amazing things, but nothing has touched my heart quite like EGTI, which opened in Muncie, Indiana in January.

One of the many things that makes The Arc of Indiana such a special organization is that we still take our direction from self-advocates, families and our chapters. In 2012, it became very obvious that the lack of employment opportunities was an issue that had to be addressed.

The reason people with disabilities couldn’t find jobs wasn’t because they didn’t want to work. It wasn’t because our chapters weren’t working hard every day. It wasn’t that families weren’t trying. It always seemed to come back to training or, more specifically, the lack of good postsecondary training options.

In January, 2016, EGTI opened its doors to provide postsecondary vocational training opportunities in hospitality, food service and health care.   EGTI is housed inside a Courtyard by Marriott. Students reside in the hotel for 10 – 13 weeks as they attend classes, receive hands on training and gain experience though an internship. In addition to work skills, the students are improving their self-confidence, self-determination, soft work skills, problem solving skills, relational skills, and communication skills.

I’m happy to report that the program is working. Graduates are securing jobs with a competitive salary and benefits. We are doing exactly what we set out to do. But the thing that I enjoy the most is getting to know the students and watching them grow in skills and independence.

Zach, the young man from the story I mentioned above, told me this week that what he loves the most about being at EGTI is getting to enjoy the college environment and experience what going to college is like.   He has been taking classes at a local community college, but now he has access to a full college campus.

Leslie was one of our first students. About half way through the program she called her mother and told her to pack up her things because she wasn’t coming home. She learned that she was a “city girl” and she was moving to Indianapolis. She picked Indy in part because of her love of horror movies and Indianapolis hosts an annual horror film convention. She had a choice!

Aaron was working two jobs and still didn’t make enough money to be independent. He recently completed a program in Nutritional Services and is how working at Parkview Hospital full time with benefits. Because of his tremendous work ethic, he had hospitals fighting to hire him!

Larry, a dietetics graduate is working in the cafeteria of an elementary school. His mother told me at graduation that the first few weeks of the program she expected a call every day asking her to come and pick him up because nothing had ever worked before. She never got that call.

So far 22 students have completed the program and 17 are currently enrolled. We’ve had three graduation ceremonies and I haven’t been able to get through any of them without crying.

I can’t help but think of all of the friendships I missed out on because society wasn’t as accepting when I was growing up. I wish I could have gotten to know the Heidis and Jimmys and Sarahs that grew up in my hometown.

So yes, I’m glad I’m old. I’m glad I understand just how important the work of The Arc is and where we would be without all of the incredible chapters of The Arc across this county.

If you’d like to get to know the amazing students attending EGTI, please visit our website at www.erskinegreeninstitute.org and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @ErskineGreen