On June 26, 1961, a group of parents in Redford Township formally filed incorporation papers with the state of Michigan to operate a nonprofit, parent organization called the Redford Association for Retarded Children. Although we trace our roots to this historic beginning, the state did not recognize the incorporation until February 9, 1962, and the Redford Association received its tax exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service in 1963. In June, 1963, the Redford Association affiliated with the state and national associations. At this same time, parents in other communities were also forming small groups whose purpose was to comfort and aid one another with all the problems inherent in raising a child with mental retardation.
To understand the need for parents to join together, it is necessary to understand the community as it was in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. The special education programs in the public schools in our area prior to 1957 were either the Type A program or the Type C consultant and were only for students with I.Q. ‘s over 55. The Type A program was a self contained classroom with a special education teacher within a public school. The teacher was responsible for all teaching in the elementary programs. However, in the secondary schools, special education students were integrated with the general education students whenever possible; primarily in such classes as gym, home economics, woodshop, art, and music.
In the Type C Consultant programs, special education students were placed in general education classrooms, but spent part of their day with the special education teacher, known as the Type C Consultant. The consultant spent the rest of his/her time working directly with the general education teacher, as opposed to working with the students.
Those children who could not meet the 55 I.Q. test were not part of the public school system. It was to meet the needs of these children that brought parents together in the late 1950’s.
Early records indicate that one of the primary purposes of the original Arcs was to begin school programs to serve students who were not eligible to attend the public schools. There was some experimentation going on, but it was not until 1963 that the school districts of Redford Union and South Redford jointly took over the administration of the parent-run schools. These programs were designated as Type B programs. This came about as the result of Public Act 221 enacted in 1963. This act ruled that it was permissible for local school districts to operate “trainable (Type B) programs” — and, if they did so, the cost for such operation would be reimbursed by the state. This act resulted in the consolidation of all existing Type B programs in this area. September 12, 1966, was the first day of school for the newly formed Regional Program for Trainable Retardates with students from the school districts of South Redford, Redford Union, Livonia, Garden City and Plymouth. The program consisted of three classrooms housed in Elm School in Livonia with its first director, Clifford Page.
The regionalization of the school programs resulted in the parents who were members of various parent groups at that time coming together to discuss merging into one. The Redford Association was the only parent group who had affiliated with the state and national organizations. The decision was made to disband all the other groups and become one organization – the Northwest Communities Association for Retarded Children. This “new” Arc published its first newsletter in April, 1967. It was hoped that the merger would result in several improvements: more members united together would create a stronger voice and have a greater influence; as well as more members sharing the load of things to be done — fundraising, creating more opportunities for people with mental retardation, running social/recreational activities, etc.
For a number of years following the merger, most of the activity of the Arc centered around presenting monthly informational meetings for the membership, production of a monthly newsletter to keep members informed, fundraising (card parties, dinner dance, rummage sales,
Christmas card sales, etc.), and operating social/recreational programs primarily for teenagers and adults with mental retardation. The membership was actively working for the passage of the Michigan Mandatory Special Education Act which become law in 1971, with implementation by fall, 1973. Prevention activities included pressuring public health to require PKU tests for newborns and routine administration of the German measles vaccine to all children.
The organization formed the Parent to Parent group to inform doctors and hospitals about the Arc and services available for babies born with mental retardation. Trained parent couples also made themselves available to talk to parents of newborns and young children identified with mental retardation. During the 1970’s, much emphasis was placed on the early development of group homes for adults with mental retardation as an alternative to institutions. While the Northwest Communities Association for Retarded Children did not directly seek to operate group homes, the organization worked closely with such groups as Community Opportunity Center to assist in the development of the first homes in our communities. Additionally, work opportunities were considered a high priority Again, the Arc became involved with other organizations to develop a sheltered workshop in our area. Volunteers in our organization wrote a grant in 1976 that received funding to develop a day activity program which was the forerunner of today’s northwest unit of Services to Enhance Potential.
However, the members of this organization were visionary – even in those days. There were those parents and professionals who envisioned people with mental retardation working at typical jobs in the communities, and not just sheltered settings. To help reach that dream, money raised through weekly bingo games was invested in a new organization – ARC/Business Ventures and used to open a restaurant. While this restaurant only operated for one year, it has been credited with helping establish the concept of supported employment in our communities.
What we were also learning during the 70’s was that people with mental retardation were not only children – but adults with needs and abilities. Therefore, the Associations for Retarded Children felt their name needed to reflect this. There was a brief period when we were known as the Association for Retarded Children and Adults; but, in 1976, we settled on the Northwest Communities Association for Retarded Citizens (mostly referred to as the ARC) which was to be our name until 1992.
Toward the end of the 1970’s, it was becoming more and more apparent that the monumental tasks still ahead would require more than the already overworked and overextended members
would be able to provide. Other local Arc chapters in Wayne County were receiving United Foundation funding and had paid staff to assist the volunteers in their endeavors. In January, 1979, Northwest Communities ARC received United Foundation funding to establish an office and hire an executive director. The first office was one room in the Redford Community Center, opened in February and staffed by the first executive director. Margaret Olesnavage. Later that year, the office was moved to the old Beech School located at 12259 Beech Daly in Redford, where it remained until 1994.
The early 1980’s saw a rapid growth in the organization. Times were changing, and the members were feeling the pressure of keeping up with new ideas and innovative programs. The staff expanded to include a secretary/bookkeeper and various others available through a federal program, CETA. Social/recreational programs were expanded to include children’s activities and Special Olympic sports programs. A self-advocacy organization began, and a monitoring program to visit area group homes was instituted.
More emphasis was placed on the legislative arena. From the early years, it was evident to Arc members that, while they might take the initiative in starting programs. ultimately it was necessary to get public support if these programs were to continue. With paid staff, the Arc became increasingly involved in “systemS” advocacy. The executive director played a role in many committees, task forces, etc. to influence the development of appropriate services for children and adults with mental retardation. Ms. Olesnavage left the Arc in 1983. She was replaced by Deborah Bartnick, who left one year later. In 1984. Sylvia Kloc became the Executive Director and continued in that position until Christine Lerchen took over the reins in 2005. After experiencing phenomenal growth and expansion in staff and services from 1979-1982, the federally funded CETA program came to an end. With its end, the ARC found it necessary to cut four staff and fall back on only an executive director and secretary/bookkeeper. However, even though we experienced these significant staff losses, volunteers once again came to the forefront, and none of the activities begun were lost. In fact, we continued to experience growth and development, although – in keeping with the times – in a different direction.
We also began to develop and operate new programs, in keeping with our history. We were approached by Redford Township to develop additional recreational opportunities. Thus began our partnership with Redford to operate a summer day camp for older teenagers and young
adults. This program has experienced many changes, but the cooperation of Redford Twp. and its block grant funding has been ongoing.
In the mid 1980’s, the Arc began to focus on activities that would assist parents of younger children. At the same time, changes were occurring in our language and how we thought about people with mental retardation and other disabilities. Families and adults with mental retardation were saying that they did not like the label of “retardation”. Additionally, we were finally recognizing that people are not their disability – but are “people first.” The national organization adopted a position paper stating that we would use “people first” language. We also gradually began to refer to people with developmental disabilities, as opposed to using the term “mental retardation.” The Arcs were becoming an aging organization. However, the leadership of Northwest had remained young and vital – if not always in years, certainly in spirit. They recognized that all the strides made did not mean that parents of younger children with disabilities had “everything.” It was vital that we include these younger families – not only to help them, but to ensure the ongoing future of the organization.
Therefore, we started our Lekotek program, began the first latchkey program in the area to serve special education students educated in center programs, and greatly increased our educational advocacy efforts. Outreach to younger parents made us aware that the same reasons that brought people together in 1961 still existed. There were still insufficient services, inadequate opportunities, and too many people telling parents to stifle their dreams for their child with a disability. And, there was a new breeze blowing – that of inclusion and full community participation. People were beginning to say that the creation of our separate school programs, group homes, sheltered workshops, social/recreational programs for people with disabilities only, etc. were not enough – nor adequate. Adults with developmental disabilities and families of younger children were saying that they were not satisfied with these programs older parents and friends had worked so hard to develop. They wanted to be a total participant in the community – included in general education classrooms, living in their own homes, working in “real” jobs, participating in community recreation activities. Acknowledging that this was not possible for many people without appropriate supports. The Arc had a new goal – and yet, the same goal – that of helping people with developmental disabilities and their families accomplish their dreams. As we entered the 90’s, we – individually and collectively, as an organization – struggled with reconciling changing ideas and philosophies with meeting the needs of all – young and old.
During the early 1990’s, we sought grants to develop and implement a number of programs that promoted the inclusion of children and adults with developmental disabilities into the community. These projects included KIDPOWER, SELFPOWER, AmeriCorps, Whose Future is it Anyway?, and a day camp inclusion project. The successful implementation of these projects grew into the various programs we are currently providing. Seeking funding to develop innovative projects continually helps us to expand opportunities for both children and adults with developmental disabilities.
We also expanded our educational advocacy with an outreach effort to educate parents as well as school professionals about the benefits of least restrictive environment which would ultimately lead to inclusion in regular education classes of all students, even those who needed special education services. This educational advocacy effort included more involvement with our state organization, as well as other organizations serving people with developmental disabilities, to encourage the necessary systems change to make it possible for all children to attend school together.
1992 saw yet another name change as we listened to our members and self-advocates. After years of trying to find a name that put people first, did not use the word “retarded” and satisfied everyone, our national organization settled on “The Arc” a national organization on mental retardation. We followed suit and became “The Arc of Northwest Wayne County”, a local organization-serving people with developmental disabilities and their families.
1992 also saw the beginning of an extremely innovative project, both for our organization and people with developmental disabilities. Originally known as the “Voucher Project”, this program allowed adults with developmental disabilities to have control over the mental health dollars allocated to them. Since various rules and regulations prohibited the money to go directly to the individual. The Arc served the role of Financial Administrator over the funds. By 1996, we were providing this service for about 20 people with developmental disabilities in Wayne County who were utilizing their mental health dollars to develop individualized budgets, hire their own staff, and have more control over their lives. In the mid- 1990’s, the state of Michigan received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to implement a self-determination initiative in Michigan. Wayne County became one of the original pilot sites, and The Arc played a major role in this project. Our old role of Financial Administrator became the new role of Fiscal Intermediary. In addition, The Arc staff have played a significant role in the various systems changes necessary to make self determination a reality.
During this time period, additional staff were hired, job titles and descriptions changed to meet the needs of the time. As we enter into the new millennium, we have five full time employees and four part time employees. With the addition of the summer day camp staff, the numbers rise to 16 — a far cry from our early days. Yet, we are still very dependent on volunteers. Without them, we would not be able to do the many things we do. Our social/recreational programs are totally dependent upon volunteers to plan and implement the activities. Volunteers in the office make it possible to get out the newsletter and other mailings. Volunteers spend countless hours planning, organizing and pursuing fundraising events to help maintain all the programs. Goals for the organization and a vision for the future are ongoing tasks of the dedicated volunteers who serve as officers and directors. While staff can focus on assisting families and individuals with complex issues, and work to change the system, it is the volunteers who are the backbone of the organization. Without them, we would not exist.
Another major step was taken in 1994 when we purchased our own building. We had outgrown our rented site in the “Old Beech School” as well as the space used in the Redford Community Center. After months of searching and discussion, our building at 26049 Five Mile Road in Redford was purchased. Renovations to make the building handicap-accessible were necessary, but we moved in on August 30, 1994. Again, it is necessary to acknowledge all the hours of volunteer effort that went into making the building accessible and habitable. An even more momentous occasion occurred in August, 1999 (five years later), when we were able to pay off the mortgage on the building — a tremendous achievement in a five year period. Once again, this was made possible through the generosity and involvement of the members and friends of The Arc.
In 1997, we entered into a contract with the Detroit-Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency to develop two new projects. The Community Participation Program builds on the experiences learned through previous projects. This program works with adults to help connect them to their community through participation in community leisure and volunteer activities. Another new program is After I’m Gone, an advocacy program working with parents of children with developmental disabilities to help them do future and estate planning.
Training and informational sharing activities were greatly expanded during the 1990’s. Collaboration with other organizations, especially the other local Arc chapters in Wayne County, became more important. Staff and volunteers assumed even more responsibilities on the state and national level. The state of Michigan sought to control ever-increasing Medicaid costs by
entering into a system of managed care for both health care and long-term services. This has brought new challenges for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.
We now enter not only a new decade, but a new century. The need for organizations like ours in the future will possibly be even more important than the past, as our system of supporting children and adults with developmental disabilities undergoes major change. As we write this history, the way in which mental health services will be provided in Michigan is uncertain. A new plan to use Medicaid dollars has been submitted to the federal government for approval. The Community Mental Health system as we know it has been in place since the late 1960’s. Certainly there have been changes over the years, but those proposed for the future are monumental. With the continued support of our membership, volunteers and friends, The Arc of Northwest Wayne County will be here to meet the challenge.