The Arc of Rensselaer County originated at a time when institutions were the primary service option for people with developmental disabilities. In 1950, when our Arc chapter was founded as part of the Capital District Chapter of the New York State Association of Retarded Children, it was a radical act to keep children with disabilities at home as opposed to shipping them off to an institution. Our Arc chapter was built on the hopeful visions of parents who saw their children as capable and contributing members of an acceptant and inclusive community - living, loving, and working beside neighbors, friends, and families. The formation of our chapter provided an opportunity for parents to talk about and plan for ways to support their children who were excluded from typical places in the community such as schools and workplaces. At that time it was public policy to deny an education to children who were unable to “benefit” from public instruction. This led The Arc to create training or activity centers housed in the free space of church basements and vacant community buildings such as the Acadia Building in Frear Park and School 10 in Troy, New York. The training centers provided some educational instruction, but mostly crafts and recreation. These formative activity centers were not funded by government dollars, therefore parents and friends engaged in many fundraising activities such as bake sales to cover program expenses.
Our Arc chapter separated from the Capital District Chapter in 1965. By 1969, Pinewoods Center, an Arc school that provided instruction for children with developmental disabilities of all ages, including some adults was in full operation. The existence of Pinewoods Center reflected the belief of the parents that their children could, in fact, benefit from instruction. Later in 1969, our Arc chapter implemented an “integrated” social-recreational program for adults. In 1971, this program was expanded to include a summer camp, which continues to operate at the Tamarac High School in Brunswick, New York, that now includes children with and without disabilities. A few years later, in 1974, we opened one of the first community residences for adults with developmental disabilities in the State of New York. This residence included people who were repatriated from an institution to their home community.
A major breakthrough with respect to public education of school age children occurred in 1974 when new federal laws (Public Law 94-142) articulated the responsibility of local school districts for the education of all children regardless of handicapping conditions. Although not all Arc chapters in New York State stopped running segregated schools, our Board of Directors immediately turned over education for children with developmental disabilities to Rensselaer County school districts based on their strong beliefs about inclusive communities. Pinewoods Center continued for a few years as an activity hub for adults then turned exclusively into a center-based pre-school for young children with developmental disabilities and delays. In 1982, Pinewoods Center was expanded to include an early intervention service (our Home-Based Program) that offered supports to parents and young children at home and in typical day care. This service started when the child was born and still in a hospital neonatal unit and continued in the family home until the child was three years of age when pre-school or day care began.
In 1986, resources were expanded to families with children at home through our Family Supports Program. The philosophy of Family Supports was to assist families to provide for their child at home in healthy and holistic ways. Service Coordinators helped to connect families to resources, and special programs such as reimbursement and stipends for things families identified as necessary to support their child at home.
Pinewoods Center closed in 1998 due to a saturation of children services providers in the Capital District and a change in reimbursement methodology that reduced funding. Prior to this, our chapter was moving its supports into day care settings as part of a strategic agenda to integrate its services into community settings.
Our adult programs evolved from activity centers based on an educational model that followed a school calendar to a vocational training program similar to the 1950s’ rehabilitation programs aimed at disabled veterans and people injured in industrial accidents. Starting in 1977, we went through a number of sites for its vocational training programs, finally settling in a building at 484 River Street and a cooperative crafts store on State Street in Troy. The early years were challenging due to a lack of knowledge about how to run a business and provide consistent work in a sheltered setting for people just relocated from institutions or kept at home away from the mainstream and unaccustomed to work. By early 1979 the work center established its identity as Riverside Enterprises: - a subcontractor to businesses for assembly work, a wire-forming and -bending operation, and packager of powder products for the State of New York.
Never static for long, we took two divergent pathways to day supports in 1982. One path led to the development of a group day treatment program (a clinical/educational day care model) for adults we assumed could not engage in work. The other was the recruitment of a coordinator of alternative vocational programming who was charged with developing vocational options outside of a sheltered setting. This resulted in job placement, supported employment, and some work enclaves in local businesses. We eventually became known for working with “more challenging” individuals in supported employment, people whom other agencies typically served in sheltered workshops and day treatment programs. The day treatment program (later renamed to reflect the shift to day habilitation funding in 2001) pushed the limits of the funded model by finding individual volunteer work for many of its participants on a weekly basis in local non-profits and paid work in businesses outside the center walls.
In 1992, Riverside Enterprises intentionally reduced its census by over 50% (158 to 70 participants) through a downsizing initiative that both expanded our supported employment program and birthed our Community Inclusion Project, one of the first individualized day habilitation programs without walls (i.e., not centered in a service building) in New York State. Over the years, many of our new referrals have come from a School-to-Community Transition program, which was developed through collaboration between our chapter and the Troy school district. Students graduating from schools were primarily directed to our supported employment and individual day habilitation services given Riverside Enterprises’ policy on capping enrollments at the downsized level. Recently, we have bundled day and residential resources to support a number of people in individualized 24/7 support arrangements. We have labeled this “seamless services.”
R-Arc continued to open group homes that typically supported six to eight individuals each year until 1988. The Arc Board of Directors purposefully avoided the intensively medical modeled ten to fourteen-person Intermediate Care Facility (ICF) in favor of more home-like settings serving smaller numbers. Initially, many of our group homes had shared bedrooms, but this practice was stopped in the mid-1980s when we methodically eliminated two-person bedrooms. This was an acknowledgement that adults needed their own personal space. In 1983, R-Arc made a commitment to individualized living arrangements and opened four supported apartments (a less than 24 hour-7 day a week support model.) Now our Arc is the largest provider of this type of residential support in New York State, proportionally.
Our 1988 strategic plan directed its administrators to downsize its group settings. As previously mentioned, Riverside Enterprises’ work center was downsized by fifty percent, after which referrals and investments were directed towards integrated employment and volunteer work. The day treatment program was capped at 105 people and efforts were made to support people in limited volunteer and employment opportunities in the community and some small resource reinvestments were made to support individualized arrangements. For residential services, this strategy resulted in capping new residential development at three-person homes, continuing to open supported apartments, and a slow process of downsizing and then closing group homes to reinvest resources to individualized residential alternatives.
The agenda to develop small and personalized living arrangements has dominated our strategic orientation throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. The closure of the 10-person apartment building located at Prout Avenue in Troy signaled our determination to systematically phase-out group settings and offer individualized support arrangements.
From 2003 to the present, our Arc chapter has pursued creative residential arrangements with shared living, live-in and live-next-to supports, and paid neighbors. All of these types of support promote the concept of self-direction, where the individual experiences greater degrees of autonomy and decision-making. Our agency obtained additional funding (Options for People Through Services - OPTS) in 2006 to convert nearly half of its residential services to self-directed and co-designed supports. In 2009, R-Arc participated in OPWDD’s self-determination initiative by assuming Support Broker, Fiscal Intermediary, and ongoing support roles for individuals self-directing their resources. As of the present, we continue to work at closing group homes and reinvesting resources in individualized supports. Most new arrangements with people are individualized and self-directed. In our legacy programs, we continue to identify unused legacy resources to shave off here and there to develop an individualized arrangement one person at a time.