Larger home serves greater needs


Nearly three decades ago, Harford County's new building for the mentally disabled was hidden in thick maples off Interstate 95.

Considered unemployable, the men and women were herded into a nondescript cinderblock building on Philadelphia Road to string beads and sing songs in an activity center, the prevalent educational mode for those with developmental disabilities in the 1970s.

But The Arc Northern Chesapeake Region celebrates its 50th anniversary this year - it bounced around small locations before landing in Aberdeen in 1976 - with a new attitude and yet another new look. Its $3.17 million center, designed by one of the state's biggest architectural firms, will be showcased in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m. Saturday.

"It'll be a nice opportunity to tell people about who we really are," said Arc Executive Director Tim Quinn.

The Arc provides support programs - from job training and housing assistance to foster care and counseling services - for more than 300 disabled people and their families in Harford and Cecil counties.

In contrast to the outmoded belief that those with mental retardation and other disabilities should be sequestered in group homes and workshops, The Arc's main focus is to find them jobs.

"Typically, that was a segment of the population that was put in the middle of nowhere - there was a kind of attitude like, 'Let's keep those people away from civilization,'" he said.

"We are redefining that," he added.

More than 70 area businesses employ more than 120 adults, or roughly 90 percent of the people who participate in The Arc's programs, Quinn said. The national employment rate for the same segment of the population stands at about 37 percent.

For example, Joe Gilbert, Scott Baird and Linda Casey, a trio of one man who uses a wheelchair and can read and two illiterate adults who can walk, deliver mail for the Departmental Test Command headquarters at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where budget cuts forced a stop to regular mail delivery.

Another client, Darlene Ward, 34, has worked as a janitor in several county businesses, including Frito-Lay Inc. in Aberdeen. She said working gives her the financial freedom to spend a little time with her newfound boyfriend or to go clubbing with the girls.

"I really like it," she said.

The 1990s launched a decade of change for The Arc, beginning with a 10-year strategic plan that outlined plans for expansion.

It first closed its group home and found residents apartments and homes to live in. It later closed its workshops, where Arc clients performed contract work, such as copying and collating bulk paper orders. The Arc began to train them for and employ them in service jobs in the marketplace.

The group also planned to build a facility to accommodate a "dire need" for public services for the developmentally disabled, Quinn said.

The Arc's estimates show that more than 400 people in Cecil and Harford counties now wait for such assistance, and that demand is likely to grow. According to state demographic data, the area's overall population is expected to jump as much as 20 percent through 2020, which indicates the region will experience a growth in the number of developmentally disabled adults as well.

The hallways and doors at The Arc's 27-year-old, 6,600-square-foot cinderblock building were too narrow for wheelchairs. The building was so small that as many as four people crowded into offices built for one.

With the help of a state grant that covered about half the cost, The Arc broke ground on the new building last year.

It was designed by Morris & Ritchie Associates, a 25-year-old firm with headquarters in Abingdon that is known for its work on Havre de Grace's City Hall, several Bel Air public buildings and the Historical Society of Harford County headquarters.

The architects renovated the old building and connected it to a 15,000-square-foot center that brought all The Arc's services under one roof. Some, such as the janitorial training program, had been scattered across the county.

The new building, decorated in apricot and earth tones, offers nursing services, meeting rooms, observation rooms, a computer center and a drop-in center for retired adults.

The Arc's services will continue to evolve to meet clients' needs, Quinn said. This year, it will begin to shift toward a new program that lets families design the programs they need while relying on The Arc solely for financial aid, he added.

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