Filling a Vacuum for LGBTQ Supports: A Conversation with The Arc Mercer’s Steve Cook

Last year, a client at The Arc Mercer approached Executive Director Steve Cook to confide in him about his struggles feeling accepted in the community. It was an “aha” moment for Steve – and one that led to the creation of what is believed to be among the first initiatives that exists to meet the support needs of individuals with disabilities who identify as LGBTQ.
Members of The Arc Mercer's SNAP program supporting LGBTQ individuals, including executive director Steve Cook, are seated on a couch smiling for the camera.
Tell us about the SNAP program and how it came to exist! What type of activities does it involve?

When I realized that someone we served in our agency was struggling with how to successfully integrate into the community as an LGBTQ individual with special needs, I researched other possible resources and found none really existed that comprehensively provided integrated community settings and professional counseling.

I decided The Arc Mercer would commit to developing a program that not only met the needs of someone who identified as LGBTQ with special needs, but that we would share our experiences to allow others to replicate the program.

That is basically how SNAP was formed.

How is the program helping you build a presence and connections/partnerships in your community – both with media and with other organizations?

SNAP has garnered incredible media support due to its unique status as one of the first of its kind in the nation.

As we shared this organization’s mission throughout New Jersey, and the region, we found leaders of other organizations are receiving feedback from their frontline staff about the need for LGBTQ supports for those that they serve. This has led to an incredible surge in awareness by organizational leaders about the need for this type of support.

How do you create that safe space where individuals to feel comfortable participating in the group activities?

One of our first steps was to identify staff within our organization who sympathize with, and support, the mission of SNAP.

This allowed us to build a supportive environment for those we serve to engage in community activities and dynamic professional counseling sessions (through our health care clinic) that focus on creating integrated and safe community events and professional counseling sessions (individual and group), that have evolved into a social environment for members of SNAP to thrive within.

What does the future of the program look like to you?

It is our hope that the framework of our current SNAP organization, including integrated community events, and a comprehensive counseling program (that encourages individuals, their friends and family, and others who identify as LGBTQ with special needs, to openly communicate about how they feel and their goals), will be able to be replicated throughout the nation.

Why do you think establishing groups like this is important? Do you have any advice for other chapters looking to build out programs that address traditionally underserved/under-represented communities like this?

Chapters of The Arc have always strived to find best practices and share them with other chapters nationally.

I think our experiences will allow others to build programs that create safe environments for those we support to be integrated, healthy and safe in the LGBTQ community.

My advice to any chapter looking to replicate our program is to identify those in your organization who support this mission and encourage them to organize events with LGBTQ organizations in local colleges, schools and community organizations.

More importantly, identify counseling resources to support staff, family members and those we serve who identify as LGBTQ.

This may be hard, but thanks to a suggestion by a member of The Arc’s national team (Allen Miller), we are exploring the use of telemedicine (counseling) through our Healthcare Center.

Of course, I am always available to talk directly with anyone who wants to explore forming a similar group at stevencook1@msn.com.

 

Back to School Tips for Families of Students with Disabilities

Two sisters with glasses, backpacks, and tablets stand against a white background, with other students unfocused behind them.The start of a new school year can bring both excitement and anxiety for students and parents, especially for families of students receiving special education supports. Students with disabilities who struggle with change may need extra help making the transition to a new school or teacher.
To help families start the new school year off right, The Arc@School offers the following tips:
  • Prepare your children before school starts by discussing any anxiety your child may have, setting clear expectations, and slowly transitioning back to your child’s school routine and schedule.
  • Review your child’s IEP prior to the start of the school year to ensure that the goals, support services, and placement are still appropriate. Make sure to consider any progress or regression your child may have experienced over the summer or since the last IEP.
  • Meet with your child’s teachers and related services providers before school starts to review the IEP together and ensure everyone is on the same page regarding implementation of the IEP. This is also a great opportunity to establish a communication plan with the teachers and related service providers!
  • Once school begins, allow your child some time to get used to the new classes, teachers, and schedule, and your child’s teachers some time to get used to your child’s unique strengths and needs, but do not wait too long to address any issues that might arise!  Having open and respectful communication and dealing with challenges early can help avoid much bigger problems later.

If you have any concerns about your child’s services or supports, you can visit The Arc@School to learn more about your rights and where you can find help.

A young elementary-aged boy sits smiling in a chair, and an older girl poses behind it. There is a school bus in the background.

Creating Healthy Habits with The Arc of Kentucky & The Arc of Central Kentucky

Throughout 2017, The Arc of Kentucky and The Arc of Central Kentucky participated jointly in The Arc’s Health and Fitness for All program. Health and Fitness for All addresses increased obesity propensity in the disability community by teaching healthy eating, portion control, and physical activity and helping individuals with I/DD adopt healthy habits and lead healthier lives. Sherri Brothers chatted with us about the chapter’s work, the importance of teaching healthy habits, and how other chapters can do the same.

 

Tell us about your chapter’s Health and Fitness for All efforts. How did you hear about the program? How are you tailoring the program to your chapter and participants?

Health & Fitness was created in Kentucky because of the obesity rates, sedentary lifestyles, and unhealthy eating habits. Some of our individuals were not well- educated in nutrition facts or the options of exercise. The Arc of Kentucky heard about the program through The Arc of United States. We created an individualized program for each person. One young man with autism in our program loved writing but had no interest in exercise at all. A psychologist used the young man’s interest in writing to facilitate a relationship with others who loved writing. We created a program where he would start working out on a stationary bike while at the same time sharing his stories with his peers and the psychologist. He now enjoys exercising and looks forward to class each week.

Sherri Brothers, executive director of The Arc of Kentucky, participates in a fitness class with another instructor and two students..

Why do you think it’s important for people with disabilities to learn about living a healthy lifestyle?

Chronic ill health can diminish an individual’s enjoyment in and ability to engage in all that life has to offer. By providing people with I/DD an opportunity to make informed decisions about their health by educating them on the value of proper nutrition and exercise and the impact it can have on how they feel physically and emotionally, we are giving them the tools to own their well-being. That is the key to success.

Was the program successful? How so?

Yes! We have seen so many positive outcomes in the time we’ve been running the program: program weight loss – 168 pounds; lowered blood pressures, regular participation in exercise programs; participants learning how to shop and making healthier food selections; learning how to prepare healthier meals; and improved self-esteems and friendships made. At our three-month post-training check in, Annie has lost an additional 38 pounds and wants more information about healthy diets. Josh is watching his diet and is using less salt. Shaud is drinking more water and changed to drinking diet soda over sugary drinks. Nyketta has joined the YMCA to be able to continue her exercise.

Are you planning on expanding the program past the conclusion of the 12-week training? How so?

We passed the 12-week program and are planning to offer an additional four weeks of fitness classes in the fall and four weeks of cooking classes. We are also starting The Health & Fitness for All in other local chapters around the state. I am visiting with them, providing materials to them, and replicating the program which was very successful in our chapters — although encouraging them to tailor the program to their individuals’ needs. This just gives them a starting point – some helpful materials, ideas to start creating field trips, speakers, activities, games, etc.

What advice do you have for other chapters looking to implement health and lifestyle programs to enrich the lives of their constituents?

My advice is to look at the program as an enjoyable lifestyle change for the individuals. Think of it as creating a fun atmosphere for them to create the class, participate as the leaders in the class and the games. For instance, you teach a dance class, and then have each participant lead their favorite dance routine.

Tell us about all the great things your chapter is doing! If you’re interested in being spotlighted, please email Pam Katz at katz@thearc.org.

Making The Arc a Name in Giving Back!

Scranton, Pennsylvania already has a claim to fame as the setting for the TV show “The Office.” Now, The Arc of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Scranton is getting its own name out to the public by collaborating in community events honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and creating public service announcements.

The Arc of Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) was awarded a MLK Day of Service* grant for 2017. The city of Scranton has long recognized Dr. King’s commitment to service through the Greater Scranton MLK Commission, which promotes Dr. King’s principles of non-violence, equity and love through education and service.

Every year, The Greater Scranton MLK Commission plans a full schedule of programs and special events that honor Dr. King’s life and legacy during the MLK Jr. holiday weekend. This year, The Arc of NEPA saw a fantastic opportunity to add to Dr. King’s vision for a more inclusive world and reached out to the commission to plan a food drive for families in need.

On January 16, 2017, The Arc of NEPA and the United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania co-led a food drive to benefit Angel’s Attic Food Bank. The food drive brought together participants from the United Neighborhood Centers and University of Scranton, volunteers from the Aktion Club, a community service group of adults with I/DD; and The Arc Responds, a group of employees from The Arc NEPA who raise funds to help people in the community.

After the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, Aktion club members became part of the regular volunteer corps at Angel’s Attic Food Bank, sorting and delivering food two to three times each week. Their efforts were much appreciated in a community where hunger is a significant problem— nearly 22.1% of Scranton families live in poverty according to 2016 US Census data.

The Aktion Club is truly helping to make The Arc NEPA a name in giving back. To help spread the name further, the chapter has also created public service announcements for its NEPA Gives Back Campaign to show how people with I/DD and The Arc NEPA contributes to their neighborhood. One PSA features the Angel’s Attic volunteers and the good work they do in their community.

In time, we hope that The Arc of NEPA’s name will become as common in Scranton as “Dunder Mifflin.”

For more on inclusive volunteering and how disability organizations can build partnerships that serve community needs and strengthen The Arc’s presence in the community, visit http://www.thearc.org/inclusive-volunteering.

*In 2015, The Arc was selected by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that leads the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, to plan and execute volunteer projects that unite Americans in service for the MLK Day of Service and throughout the year. To date, 16 chapters of The Arc around the country have organized inclusive volunteer service projects where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) volunteer alongside people without disabilities to provide food to people in their communities who are in need. In total, these projects have brought together over 1,000 volunteers to serve more than 14,000 people in need.

It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time!

Have volunteer activities gotten stale? Donating and shelving canned goods at food pantries or making and delivering meals are fun and meaningful activities that work so well that we seldom think outside the (donation) box. However, the time is always right to put a twist on these old favorites and create a new instant classic, as The Arc of South Carolina did this past MLK Day.

PB&J CompetitionThe Arc of South Carolina was awarded a 2017 MLK Day of Service* grant to provide food to members of the local community in need. The chapter decided to focus its activities in Lexington and Richland Counties, which continue to suffer from a lack of access to food and high levels of poverty since a flood in 2015.

On the 2017 MLK Day of Service, The Arc of South Carolina and The University of South Carolina’s Best Buddies Program teamed up for a one-of-a-kind event: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich-making competition.

Volunteers had a great time making sandwiches and competing with one another. Volunteers who could make the fast PB&J sandwich or make the most sandwiches in 1- to 5-minute intervals won event t-shirts.

But just like the two flavors of peanut butter and jelly come together to make one great taste, the best part of this event was the result. After the competition ended, volunteers worked together to distribute sandwiches to homeless people in the area and to families who frequent a local food pantry that was closed for the day. Because MLK Day is a federal holiday, many local food pantries and soup kitchens are closed; so, these sandwiches helped feed people who may have otherwise gone hungry.

The whole day was a smashing success, proving that creativity and community service go together like PB&J. For more on inclusive volunteering and how disability organizations can build partnerships that serve community needs and strengthen The Arc’s presence in the community, visit http://www.thearc.org/inclusive-volunteering.

*In 2015, The Arc was selected by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that leads the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, to plan and execute volunteer projects that unite Americans in service for the MLK Day of Service and throughout the year. To date, 16 chapters of The Arc around the country have organized inclusive volunteer service projects where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) volunteer alongside people without disabilities to provide food to people in their communities who are in need. In total, these projects have brought together over 1,000 volunteers to serve more than 14,000 people in need.

“Our Community Serves Each Other…”

There’s a reason for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quote, “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.” Community service, especially inclusive community service, does so much more than benefit the person receiving it. Inclusive community service creates opportunities to build and strengthen connections among members of the community who might not otherwise meet and work together. This was the case for The Arc of Davidson County and Greater Nashville, which organized activities with Upsilon Psi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority and the Nashville IDD Housing Group.

In 2016, The Arc of Davidson County & Greater Nashville was awarded a MLK Day of Service* grant to provide food assistance to people in need in their community. The chapter reached out to Upsilon Psi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority to plan an event for the MLK Jr. holiday. AKA, famous for its members Toni Morrison and Star Jones, and fabulous for its pink and green colors, is the oldest Greek organization founded by black women.

Community service is an important value of AKA, and members of the sorority and The Arc of Davidson County and Greater Nashville teamed up to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and legacy by volunteering at Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee in January 2017. All volunteers had a great time. AKA member Belva Weathersby shared, “as a volunteer it is important for me to make a difference, and to be able to see the difference I can make to someone’s life. By volunteering with The Arc Davidson County & Greater Nashville, I truly enjoyed my experience, and hope to volunteer again.”

The Arc of Davidson County and Greater Nashville continued volunteering in the spring, and reached out to the Nashville IDD Housing Group, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing to people with I/DD and students at Vanderbilt University’s School of Divinity. These residents live alongside one another in a supportive community. The chapter donated forty boxes of food to residents, who per Carolyn Naifeh, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Nashville IDD Housing Group, have food budgets as low as $30 each week.

Both The Arc of Davidson County and Greater Nashville’s experiences illustrate how The MLK Day of Service Project can act as a community web, weaving together members of AKA, Vanderbilt Divinity Students, and people with I/DD, who without the project might not have had reason to come together.

For more on inclusive volunteering and how disability organizations can build partnerships that serve community needs and strengthen The Arc’s presence in the community, visit http://www.thearc.org/inclusive-volunteering.

*In 2015, The Arc was selected by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that leads the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, to plan and execute volunteer projects that unite Americans in service for the MLK Day of Service and throughout the year. To date, 16 chapters of The Arc around the country have organized inclusive volunteer service projects where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) volunteer alongside people without disabilities to provide food to people in their communities who are in need. In total, these projects have brought together over 1,000 volunteers to serve more than 14,000 people in need. 

Kecia’s #MeToo Story

WARNING: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault

Individuals with disabilities are seven times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than those without disabilities. Kecia, sexual assault survivor-turned-advocate, is one of those individuals. She was raped, but justice was denied to her because of the failings of our criminal justice system. This is her story, in her words.

Kecia #MeTooI met this man at a self-advocacy meeting and we had very similar hobbies. I invited Michael back to my house to play chess with me. As soon as Michael entered my house, he started to kiss me and then drag me towards the couch where he proceeded to rape me.

I called the police after Michael left to report the rape. They sent a female investigator to take my report. After asking me questions, the investigator told me they would interview Michael about the rape and get back with me. Michael lied and said I wanted to have sexual contact with him. I was informed by a detective later in the week that the case closed since it was a “he said/she said” incident. For the record, I absolutely didn’t want to have any sexual contact with Michael whatsoever.

Shaken up, I called my social service agency for help and reported the rape to my case manager. My case manager listened and filled out a Special Incident Report (SIR) without offering any additional support.

I checked back with my case manager but she didn’t respond back to me for many days. I had to keep calling her to get a response. I never received a copy of the SIR report.

I am unaware if my case manager reported my rape to APS because I never received a visit from a social worker. I am totally unaware if my case manager told anyone else about my rape because once she took my report, she simply stopped responding to me.

The system had totally failed me—law enforcement, my case worker, and the case management agency. As a result of the system failing to help me, I sunk into a deep depression for several years with very severe physical and psychological events.

I am healthy today because I was referred to an excellent in-patient program with specialized therapy and a structured follow up that continues today. I have been in recovery for three years and have gained strength and found my voice so I can speak of the rape incident now.

Today I am an Abuse Awareness Prevention Advocate with the earnest desire to help other individuals rise from abusive situations and become stronger, like I am. It is because of the rape incident that I am a very strong person and I love to help others.

Kecia’s #MeToo story is a stark reminder that society needs to be discussing the very real risk individuals with disabilities are facing every day, every hour, and every minute in this country. This month, NPR released a powerful series on sexual assault and disability that included testimony from survivors – completely in their own words.

This series is drawing national attention to the epidemic facing individuals with disabilities, and we must keep the momentum on this issue going. Only then will we be able to change these jarring statistics and make systemic changes to ensure no victim has to suffer alone. All victims must have a way to tell their stories when they are ready, to be heard and believed, and to get the help they need to move from victim to survivor – just like Kecia did.

Kecia is helping others speak out and get help in many ways. One way is by supporting the work of The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability® (NCCJD®). Kecia is a National Advisory Committee Member and is working with NCCJD to ensure people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have equal access to the justice system, and that criminal justice professionals are well-trained to understand disability issues. She is also featured in the Talk About Sexual Violence project, which is a compilation of short videos for health care professionals to help them know how to talk to women with disabilities about sexual violence.

Every person has a role to play to STOP sexual assault and violence in the lives of people with disabilities. That includes you.

To support The Arc’s efforts, please contact us to learn how you can get involved in the #MeToo movement for people with disabilities. Share your story, engage leaders in your community, or make a donation.

Building Partnerships to Serve…

The time is always right to do what is right. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Engaging in community service is a win-win scenario. For community organizations, volunteers with disabilities represent a group of eager and active people who want to help improve their community. For disability organizations, supporting inclusive volunteering serves our mission to promote the inclusion of people with I/DD, and helps people with disabilities gain confidence and participate in their communities. In addition to volunteering being the right thing to do, supporting community service also helps chapters of The Arc develop community partnerships that can advance The Arc’s mission.

In 2015 and 2016, The Arc of the Nature Coast in Hernando and Pasco counties, Florida, received MLK Day of Service* grants to provide food assistance to people in need in their community. To accomplish this mission, the chapter reached out to two groups often affected by lack of access to food: senior groups and youth groups. The result: two win-win scenarios.

 Serving Food and Building Friendships

Serving Food and Building FriendshipsThe Arc of Nature Coast partnered with Pasco Elderly Nutrition, which serves more than 800 senior citizens at three community centers in Pasco County through its Meals on Wheels program. To support this program, volunteers from The Arc Nature Coast deliver, prepare and serve food to people in need. More than this, volunteers have developed friendships with their fellow volunteers without disabilities as well as the senior citizens. In fact, after they volunteer, many volunteers with and without disabilities spend time playing cards and games at the senior centers.

Feeding the Hungry and Dancing the Night Away

Feeding the Hungry and Dancing the Night AwayThe Arc of Nature Coast partnered with the BETA Club from Fox Chapel Middle School in Spring Hill, Florida. The BETA club first got involved packaging produce for The Arc Nature Coast’s food delivery in January 2017. This club had such a good time that they began attending The Arc Nature Coast’s social events. BETA club members served food and drinks and helped clean up after events, and enjoyed dancing and socializing with people with I/DD. Recently, the BETA club received a national volunteer recognition award from the BETA National School of Merit for service with The Arc Nature Coast. To celebrate this awesome achievement, they invited The Arc of Nature Coast staff and people served by the chapter and their families to their dinner dance, and hired “PJ the DJ”, a local self-advocate, to provide the music for the evening.

Each partnership has been a win-win scenario for The Arc, the volunteers, and the partner organizations.

Per The Arc of Nature Coast’s Development Director, Nancy Stubbs, these volunteer programs and activities have led to social inclusion, friendships, and closer community connections for volunteers and between The Arc and partner organizations.

More than this, these opportunities have also raised the community’s awareness of the chapter. The Arc of Nature Coast has only recently expanded to Pasco County, Florida, and was “virtually unknown.”  Because of these partnerships and volunteer programs, The Arc of Nature Coast is making a name for itself and being known as a community leader and a server of people with I/DD in the area.

Congratulations to The Arc of Nature Coast for creating these great win-win scenarios! And, for more on inclusive volunteering and how to build partnerships that serve community needs and strengthen The Arc’s presence in the community, visit http://www.thearc.org/inclusive-volunteering.

*In 2015, The Arc was selected by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that leads the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, to plan and execute volunteer projects that unite Americans in service for the MLK Day of Service and throughout the year. To date, 16 chapters of The Arc around the country have organized inclusive volunteer service projects where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) volunteer alongside people without disabilities to provide food to people in their communities who are in need. In total, these projects have brought together over 1,000 volunteers to serve more than 14,000 people in need.

What Does Giving Back Mean to You?

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to
serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace.
A soul generated by love.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

Inclusive volunteering programs give people with I/DD an opportunity that is special
and often rare—a way to give and not just receive community service.

Too often, people with disabilities are considered only to be the recipients rather than the givers of service. Thus, people with disabilities are not often given the opportunity to contribute to their community. By offering inclusive service opportunities, the MLK Day of Service project* gives people with disabilities the ability to give back, and counteracts this stereotype.

We asked volunteers at 2017 MLK Day of Service projects at The Arc of Luzerne County in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, and at TARC in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to describe what serving others means to them.

Giving Others a Fresh Start

Volunteers with and without disabilities at The Arc of Luzerne County provided food assistance to people in need in their community through the Commission on Economic Opportunity, a local food bank. Volunteers worked to help gather, package, and distribute food to seniors, children, and families in need in Pennsylvania.

For Jay Sterling, a volunteer with The Arc of Luzerne, providing food assistance was an opportunity to help others overcome a struggle his family had growing up. “It’s important to help with the food prep [at my local food pantry] because when I was little we didn’t have much money like some families today. It feels terrible to grow up poor.”

For volunteer Diane Williams, helping people get the food they need is an opportunity to make sure children, do not go hungry. “It makes me happy that I am helping because I have two children, and I like to think that if children need food they’re getting it.”

Practicing Our Civic Duty

MLK VolunteeringIn February, volunteers with and without disabilities from TARC, the University of Tulsa’s True Blue Neighbors program, the Bridges Foundation, and A New Leaf came together to prepare meals for those in need in Oklahoma.

President of Tulsa People First Sean Lewis, who participated in the event, considers the importance of giving back to his community:

“I think it is very important as citizens and self-advocates that we show we care about the needs of people around us by getting outside our own routines and giving our time and energy to the Martin Luther King projects. Food supplied by the Tulsa Food Bank helps put food on the table for families that otherwise might have none. I was very happy to serve in whatever way I was able to such a good cause and project.”

For more on inclusive volunteering and how volunteering can help people fight stereotypes, practice their civic duty and give back to their community, visit http://www.thearc.org/inclusive-volunteering.

*In 2016, The Arc was selected by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that leads the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, to plan and execute volunteer projects that unite Americans in service for the MLK Day of Service and throughout the year. To date, 16 chapters of The Arc around the country have organized inclusive volunteer service projects where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) volunteer alongside people without disabilities to provide food to people in their communities who are in need. In total, these projects have brought together over 1,000 volunteers to serve more than 14,000 people in need.

Volunteer Opportunities Lead to New Job Skills

Building a resume can be tough, particularly in rural communities where job opportunities may be limited, and competition can be fierce. However, serving your community can be one great and meaningful way to build job skills.

Since 2015, The Arc of the Glades in Belle Glade, Florida, has participated in The Arc’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service project. The Arc’s MLK Jr. Day of Service project brings together chapters of The Arc to organize inclusive volunteer service projects where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) volunteer alongside people without disabilities to provide food to people in their communities who are in need.*

For Scot Kannel, The Arc of the Glades’ Executive Director, volunteering opportunities like the MLK Jr. Day of Service project have been important gateways to employment in West Palm Beach County because “volunteering builds skills, relationships and good will in the community, paving the way not just for that person’s future employment, but also [raising] community employers’ expectations [and changing their perspectives] about hiring those with differing abilities.”

Throughout the year, volunteers with and without disabilities from The Arc of the Glades work together to prepare and serve meals to people in need at a local soup kitchen and food pantry. While they are there, volunteers not only meet new community members and grow their social network, but also build their confidence with important job skills. Skills include both soft skills like customer service and working with co-workers as well as responsibilities specific to working at a food pantry.

The great thing about soft skills is that volunteers can take what they have learned and apply it in other areas of their life, including future employment. We hope that The Arc of the Glades volunteers do just that, and their experiences working in the soup kitchen and pantry help in all they wish to do in the future.

For others interested in volunteering and building job skills, the MLK Day of Service project, visit http://www.thearc.org/inclusive-volunteering.

*In 2015, The Arc was selected by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that leads the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, to plan and execute volunteer projects that unite Americans in service for the MLK Day of Service and throughout the year. To date, 16 chapters of The Arc around the country have organized inclusive volunteer service projects where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) volunteer alongside people without disabilities to provide food to people in their communities who are in need. In total, these projects have brought together over 1,000 volunteers to serve more than 14,000 people in need.