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Community of Inclusion: It is about what you can do

Asking children and adults with disabilities what it is they want to do opens new opportunities for them. Writer Chris Killian finds the Arcadia Institute is asking all the right questions that are providing answers for those who want to be included in the community in a greater way.
Bill is a man of few words. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t involved in his community in big ways.

Every Monday, you can find him at the Ecumenical Senior Center on the Kalamazoo’s north side, where he plays checkers with other seniors. He works several days a week doing various jobs, including janitorial work at a local dentist’s office. He’s a movie buff who tries to get to the movie theater as often as he can. He volunteers at a nursing home.

Without the help of the Arcadia Institute, a nonprofit agency that partners with area advocacy agencies to create opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to participate in their communities, Bill’s options might be limited.

"There are people with disabilities, but not disabled persons," says George Martin, president of the institute. "We need to advocate for these folks and support them so that they can be fully engaged in our community and see that they are a part of the community like everyone else."

The Arcadia Institute opened over four years ago. It slowly got off the ground, Martin says, with its founding members pledging to not spend time raising money, but instead focusing on support for those in need. What makes it unique is the institute works with people to find out their interests, rather than simply placing them in programs that others believe they will like.

Through its Community Participation Initiative, over the years the institute has assisted more than 250 people with developmental disabilities become involved with over 70 different groups, agencies and businesses, from the Kalamazoo Nature Center to the Sherman Lake YMCA to the Boy Scouts of America to D&W grocery stores.

Bill is 60-year-old Kalamazoo resident but about half of those the Arcadia Institute works with are children.

Over the years, the agency has helped special needs children get into area camps and participate in music, art and recreational opportunities, like wall climbing at Climb Kalamazoo and Tae-Kwon-Do classes. It supports children in the community who have developmental disabilities or emotional disorders find interesting things to do.

It also works with area organizations to help them broaden their programs to be as inclusive as they can.

For youngsters the institute works with, the Kalamazoo Nature Center is one of the community's most popular destinations. Almost 10 percent of the nearly 800 kids who participated in the center’s summer camp programs in 2011 were special needs children, says Jennifer Metz, experiential director at the center.

But there is no distinction between a special needs child and other children, she says. All are treated equal.

"Everyone is treated like everyone else," Metz says. "It’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you can do."

Programming during special one-day camps in the spring and fall, as well as the week-long camps in the summer, ranges from learning about the natural world on the center’s 1,100 acres to participating in team-building and cooperation skills lessons, which are especially helpful for kids with special needs, she says.

"Kids with special needs do need some extra attention, but they do extremely well here," Metz says. "It’s the fact that they are outside, out of the classroom. It’s free form and very flexible for them. They are using motor skills and being engaged in ways they normally are not."

There are other benefits, too, and there is no restriction for special needs kids in terms of what programming they can get involved with.

Special needs youngsters, because they are fully integrated into programs, learn about the other children in their group and those kids get to learn about them, a two-way street of understanding that helps both when they leave the camp.

"Nature is diverse and so are we -- that’s one of the lessons they learn," Metz says. "If nature wasn’t so diverse, it (the lesson) would not be so strong. Kids are a natural support for one another. They learn a lot from each other. And by the end of the week, they all leave supporting one another."

Through the support the institute offers, adults and children with developmental disabilities are given opportunities to see that they are a part of the community like everyone else. Participating in jobs and programs also gives them a sense of pride in their work and a good measure of dignity in knowing that they can contribute, too.   

"It’s our job as a community to support and accommodate these adults," Martin says. "And we are fortunate to live in a community that has a good track record of doing that. But we still need to raise awareness."

One way the institute is doing that is through its third annual Building a Community of Belonging Forum, to take place March 15. The forum will feature a talk by well-known community organizer John McKnight, co-author of "The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods" and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute.

The main goals of the forum will be to increase opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in community activities with non-disabled people, develop a community map to strengthen and expand opportunities for individuals with disabilities and broaden the concept of inclusion beyond the focus on individuals with disabilities as a means to make Kalamazoo a community where all people belong.

The Community Participation Initiative also is expanding across the state. Through its Statewide Initiative, Arcadia provides training materials, resources and consultation to other communities so they can replicate the Kalamazoo Initiative. The pilot partnered with four sites in Michigan: Community Living Services in Oakland County, The Arc Kent County, The Arc of Western Wayne County and Washtenaw Association for Community Advocacy.

"We are creating a movement so that the community becomes more and more responsible for welcoming and supporting and responding to people with disabilities," says Allison Hammond, coordinator of the Community Participation Initiative.

Bill says he feels welcomed in the community, but wasn’t always interested in getting involved.

In 1994, when he first came to live with Barbara Mohney, an adult foster care provider, he was withdrawn and often stayed in him room for hours on end. The family he was living with prior to the move didn’t encourage him to do much of anything, she says.

Slowly, he came out of his shell.           
"He probably didn’t even know until he came here that he had options," Mohney says. "Now he’s more assertive. He’s more comfortable. When he came here it was 'yes ma’am, no ma’am.' He’s come a long way and just feels happier when he’s out and about.

"Without agencies like the Arcadia Institute, I don’t know what people like Bill would do," she says. "They do great work."

Jania Haskins knows all about Bill’s progress. As a worker with Kalamazoo Community Mental Health, she escorts Bill to several places around town, from the movie theatre to the Kalamazoo Valley Museum to the Crossroads Mall.

She hadn’t even heard of the institute until she started working for KCMH, an institute partner.

"I didn’t even know Arcadia was out there," she says. "It’s truly amazing what they do. Everything is so expensive, but they find things for our clients to do for free. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t know about a lot of these things. They are truly a great place."

On the days that Bill and Haskins venture out into the community, he waits by the door of the group home on Kalamazoo Avenue where he lives for her to arrive, excited for the day to begin.

"He’s such a kind, loving person," Haskins says. "I love him to death. He loves to be out."

Now Bill is interested in volunteering at the Kalamazoo Nature Center. He’s broadening his horizons, she says, getting more and more interested in the city he calls home.

And as the institute grows, so will the opportunities for Bill and many more like him.

"It’s all about self-determination," Haskins says. "And Bill has it."

Chris Killian is a freelance journalist based in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he's lived full-time since graduating from Western Michigan University in 2004. He writes regularly for local media outlets and specializes in feature, environmental and political stories.

Photos by Erik Holladay

The Arcadia Institute’s President George Martin, right, and the Community Participation Coordinator Allison Hammond.

The Arcadia Institues President George Martin.

Bill plays checkers with Jania Haskins.

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