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The Aegis
Harford County

‘Never a bad day’: Bel Air-based Aspire Living and Learning offers engagement for adults with developmental disabilities

“Who wants a few turns to fish?” John Stout, Jr., a program manager for Aspire Living and Learning, would call out to the group of about a dozen individuals meandering around a lake across from the Churchville Recreation Center.

“I caught a seaweed!” one of the individuals in Aspire’s day program shouted while chuckling. Members of the group were looking to reel in a fish but were quickly given help to cast lines back out and try again.

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A handful of individuals traded in and out of spots at one of the five fishing poles on the humid August morning, while others preferred to merely observe, some from the cool air conditioning of a car. The fish weren’t biting, but a turtle poking its head out of the water sufficed in garnering some excitement.

“It’s not all about catching fish all the time,” said Austin Richards, a member of Aspire’s day program. “It’s about having fun.”

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In Stout’s words, Aspire is an “agency that provides high quality residential day program vocational and personal supports for people with developmental disabilities.”

Stout has been at Aspire, based in Bel Air, for about four years, yet he saId he feels like he hasn’t worked a day in years.

“I love doing this,” Stout said. “And that’s what brings me back every day.”

One of the program’s main priorities is engaging with the community, whether it be the Churchville fishing trip, a visit to an apple farm or a yoga session at Rockfield Manor.

A variety of community activities are scheduled with input from the group, usually aiming to finalize a calendar about a month in advance, but it’s flexible.

Debra Stoecker, whose 23-year-old son Jacob is in Aspire’s day program, said even when Jacob doesn’t like a certain activity, he’s still happy to be at Aspire.

“He just likes to be in the flock,” Stoecker said.

Some events, like trips to Mt. Zion Church for various activities, are repeated weekly to help provide consistency.

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“Consistency breeds security and builds a rapport,” said Craig Brown, another program manager for Aspire. “If they know what to expect from us in the program on a daily basis, then they get more comfortable and they get used to coming in, and have no issues.”

Individuals have a choice in how involved they want to be. Some want to be in the middle of the action, tugging on a fishing line or rooting for their peers, while others are content surveying nearby.

Aspire serves a range of ages and abilities. It originally was piloted as an autism program, but has expanded.

Stout oversees the day habilitation program, which has 24 individuals and focuses on life skills and giving individuals a “meaningful day.” Brown oversees the vocational program, which has nine individuals and focuses more on providing job-related skills. Overall, Aspire has a staff to individual ratio of about 1 to 4.

And for the staff at Aspire, the fit is key to an individual prospering with their program.

“We genuinely care about the fit of each person that we bring in,” Stout said. “Is this person going to be a fit into the mix into the melting pot?”

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Since Aspire is so involved with the community, individuals who can’t make those trips into the community wouldn’t be good fits. Individuals who require more 1-on-1 care or high-intensive medical treatment also wouldn’t be good fits since they wouldn’t be capable of accommodating them.

Aspire accepts referrals to its program year-round and the paperwork to fully enroll takes 60 to 90 days.

It receive funding from federal and state government. Stout said they receive matching funds — the federal government will match the money received from the state. Brown said funding is based on how many individuals are in the program.

“The funding doesn’t doesn’t determine the individuals,” Brown said. “The individuals determine the funding.”

For Karen Taylor, she said she’s never been happier with a day program for her 40-year-old daughter, Bethany, since they joined Aspire about five years ago.

“She feels welcome and she feels loved and they know who she is,” Taylor, of Kingsville, said. “And they accept her for who she is.”

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Taylor said the positive reinforcement from the staff is helpful for Bethany, even on her bad days.

“If Bethany has a bad day,” Taylor said, “they just say: ‘Bethany, tomorrow’s gonna be better, don’t worry.’”

Taylor said her daughter loves the program so much she nearly cries when she’s unable to go. This past winter, Bethany was sick and unable to go to Aspire for several months. But Taylor said when Bethany was able to return, she was met with a welcome banner and cheers.

“It just couldn’t be nicer,” she said. “It couldn’t meet her needs anymore.”

When Gina Paul was looking for a program forson Josh once he finished school, she said it was obvious that Aspire is where he wanted to go.

“To me, he seems particularly just drawn to the group,” said Paul, who lives in northern Harford County.

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The program has allowed Josh, now 24, to do something outside the house while she and her husband work full-time.

“We’ve been very happy,” Paul said. “And Josh seems very happy.”

Stoecker shared the same sentiments regarding her son.

“It’s a place for him to go and to be productive and social versus being here,” Stoecker, of Fallston, said.

Stout said Aspire is getting ready to launch a personal support program that would cater to people living with their parents or not living in a residential setting.

Aspire is not based solely in Harford — they first started 40 years ago in Vermont and also have locations in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

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But for Stout, it’s the individuals and his fellow staff who make the job enjoyable.

“Some days are like work,” he admitted. “Most days are not. And that comes from actually enjoying what you do being good at what you do.

“This is a job where you cannot fake it.”

He said not being genuine in this role will be seen through. Stout also noted how positive the Aspire community can be.

“I don’t feel like there is any type of negativity when I’m here,” he said.

Brown shared similar sentiments.

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“It’s never a bad day,” Brown said. “I never leave here in a bad mood.”


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