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Nonprofit organizations play an integral part in shaping our local communities. Relying primarily on foundation support and contributions from others, the faces of nonprofit organizations are dedicated individuals who work tirelessly to support, improve and affect change in the areas in which they work.

Throughout the summer we’ll be spotlighting a different local non-profit organization, sharing a little about the great work they do as part of our ‘Friday Focus’ series.

This week, we had the opportunity to speak with Nkeshi Free, Development and Public Relations Manager at The Arc of Southern Maryland, who was able to talk to us about her organization’s background, mission and some of her personal favorite experiences working in the non-profit sector.

Q: Tell us a little about your organization. Who do you serve?

A: The Arc of Southern Maryland is the largest grassroots organization in Southern Maryland serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Arc promotes community involvement, independence and personal success for the individuals we support. The Arc is a 501(c)(3) affiliated at the state level with The Arc of Maryland, and at the national level with The Arc of the United States.

Q: When was The Arc of Southern Maryland founded?

A: The Arc of Southern Maryland has been in service since 1975. It started as small group of parents and friends in Calvert County. In 1992, that group merged with advocates in St. Mary's County and in 1993, extended services into Charles County, thus becoming a tri-county agency.

Q: What kind of services does The Arc offer?

A: The Arc now provides the following primary programs and services:

  • Residential
  • Employment training and placement
  • Family support  services
  • Day support services
  • Community inclusive living support
  • Respite care

Q: In working for The Arc, what would you say has been your favorite “moment” (an example of how your organization helped)?

A: There are many major milestone markers for The Arc. More importantly, however, are the personal successes of individuals supported by The Arc. There are stories, such as the person who overcame their fear of the water to work on a marine project at Jefferson Patterson Park, or the young man who flew in an airplane for the first time. That said, I think there are three events that reflect the growth of the organization.

  • The completed project in 2010 that transformed the original building from a workshop into the Community Resource Center (or CRC).
  • The "Re-branding" campaign that began in 2012 that connected more than 700 individual chapters under a new national organizational identity with a new logo and mission statement.
  • The launching of the Sprout Film Festival is another great moment. The festival uses the artistic medium of film to create awareness of individuals with intellectual disabilities, their lives, families and experiences, while breaking down myths and stereotypes by often focusing on people's abilities.

Q: What do you see as your biggest challenge?

A: As an organization that serves individuals with disabilities, The Arc faces many challenges. They include—but are not limited to—lack of resources, such as funding for programs or highly specialized trained staff, especially staff with medical backgrounds. That said, one of the greatest challenges faced by The Arc as an organization is the stigma associated with disabilities. Many of these stigmas are an unconscious bias based on fear, lack of knowledge and/or a lack of exposure to someone with a disability. Sometimes the unconscious bias toward individuals with a developmental disability is caused by all three of these factors. That's why programs such as the Sprout Film Festival are so valuable. Through these films, The Arc hopes to connect and engage the community in thoughtful communication that will impact change and open hearts.

Q: How can people really help?

A: There are many ways that people can help. Financial donations are always helpful. Individuals can participate in the annual giving campaign. Ours usually begins in mid to late November and lasts through the end of the year. There are two major fundraisers held annually, both of which include sponsorship opportunities. These events are the Pat Collins Golf Classic (held in honor of a former board president) and the Sprout Film Festival, which showcases films featuring individuals with developmental disabilities.  These films range from traditional feature films to documentaries, cartoons, poetry showcases and music videos.
There are other ways to support, which are just as critical as direct donations and sponsorships. Businesses can partner with The Arc to provide employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. By employing people with disabilities, it creates exposure, opportunities and community inclusion, thus breaking down stereotypes and barriers. There are even a few yearly opportunities for volunteers to work with the organization and individuals supported by The Arc.

Q: What advice can you give someone looking to work at a non-profit?

A: The advice I would give for someone looking to work at a non-profit, is "be open to new experiences."
There may be an organization where you would be a great fit, but just never considered. Individuals that are in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) career tracks, for example, often plan for careers working in IT, the government, military and even teaching. How many future engineers or scientists are thinking about putting their skills to use to improve the life of someone with a disability? How many accounting students are graduating and thinking about helping a non-profit save money? How many English or communication students are thinking about writing grants, media releases or managing the social media for a non-profit? Yet, with the adaptive equipment being built for soldiers returning from war, or to assist people who are injured in accidents, there is clearly a need for this type of technology. The same applies for other skill sets. Non-profit organizations, in many ways, are like any other company. While their purpose is rooted in helping, serving and making a difference in the world, non-profits still need the same type of structure and administrative support as a traditional business. When people bring both their talent AND their passion to a non-profit, the end result is sheer magic!