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Friday Focus: The Arc of Southern Maryland

By Monica Meinert • March 27, 2015

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. The Arc of Southern Maryland is one such organization. For this week’s Friday Focus, we caught up with Nkeshi Free from The Arc who spoke with us about her organization’s background, mission, and some of her personal favorite experiences working in the nonprofit 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 was started in 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. These are the stories that highlight the lives touched, how we’ve made a difference in the community and continue to grow and adapt with the times. These stories include the young man who flew in an airplane for the first time, self-advocates participated in an adapted public speaking course, the music and yoga therapy programs. That said, some of the recent events that reflected the progress and strength of the organization include:

  • 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 expanded community partnership programs which include, but are not limited to, bidding on state government contracts, Morgan State University Patuxent Environmental Aquatic Lab at Jefferson Patterson Park, St. Mary’s College of Maryland Service Learning Program, and Community Caravan Day with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs.
  • The increase of self-advocacy and legislative involvement by individuals supported by The Arc is reflective of our mission to “promote self-advocacy and community involvement.” Over the past few years, individuals supported by The Arc participated in state level committee hearings, met with their legislative representatives, participated in First responder training programs and led workshops at two national conferences. Additionally, people with developmental disabilities are more visible in the community. They are working in retail, fast food and the hospitality industry. They are participating in inclusive classes and recreational activities and sports. For the past three years a group of people supported by The Arc and staff have held a camp-out fundraiser to raise money for a local homeless shelter.

Q: What do you see as your biggest challenge? 

A: As an organization that serves individuals with disabilities, The Arc faces many challenges. One of the greatest challenges is the lack of resources. This includes lack of funding for programs, highly specialized trained staff, especially staff with a medical background. That said, one of the greatest challenges faced by The Arc as an organization are the societal stigmas associated with developmental disabilities. Many of these stigmas are unconsciously based on fear, embarrassment, 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. This is why organizations such as The Arc are so valuable. We strive to focus on abilities and the rights of individuals and their families.

Q: How can people really help?

A: There are many ways that people can help. Financial donations are always helpful. Donations help make programming possible. While The Arc has an annual giving campaign which usually begins 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.  

This year on April 30, 2015 The Arc is participating in the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs “Crabs for a Cause” fundraiser. A portion of the tickets purchased online using a special code will be donated to the agency.

There are also 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. Additionally there are volunteer opportunities where individuals can provide assistance.

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, are "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 design adaptive equipment or create adaptive apps? 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 are, in many ways, like any other company. While their purpose is rooted in helping, serving, and making a difference in the world, non-profits are still organizations that 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!