By Lisa Capobianco
The Arc of Southington began its journey 60 years ago when a local mother named Irene Desmaris submitted a newspaper article in “The News,” searching for other families with children who also had developmental disabilities like her. After three families with common experiences responded, regular meetings took place at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. That same year, SARC was born: The Southington Association of Retarded Children, Inc.
The original goals of SARC included enhancing opportunities for all children with developmental disabilities, advocating public understanding of the needs of children with developmental disabilities and helping parents of children with developmental disabilities in addressing their problems. SARC also aimed to further medical research in the cause and treatment of individuals with developmental disabilities.
“The parents fought very hard to be recognized,” said Sandy Amato, the CEO of the Arc, adding that the human service agency evolved as more individuals became educated about developmental disabilities. “They were very vocal about the need, and I think that opened some eyes.”
From there, SARC started to grow. By 1964, the town of Southington leased the building at 201 West Main Street to SARC for $1.00 per year. In 1970, the human service agency established its first formal adult program, offering training for self-care and a recreation program. More than 20 years later, after opening several group homes, SARC merged with The Southington Association for Independent Living, Inc., becoming The Arc of Southington in 1993.
“In the beginning it was just a parents’ group, and we’ve come all this way to what we are now, so it’s just amazing, and the Arc movement wasn’t just in Southington, it went national,” said Amato.
What started as a support group and volunteer organization has transformed into a human service agency that offers education, advocacy, information, and individualized services and supports to individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. Arc’s Board of Directors is comprised of individuals from all walks of life, including professionals, family members, business people, advocates and interested citizens.
As an advocacy organization and service provider, Arc offers a number of supports and services today. A residential service provider for more than 30 years, Arc operates seven license group homes, including three in Southington. The agency serves as a vendor for the Connecticut Department of Developmental Services, Individual and Family Support Waiver, and is also a qualified vendor offering services to adults with Autism. Arc also provides the Social Services and Advocacy Program, which is funded by donations from the Knights of Columbus to offer information and education to families, individual and legislative advocacy. The agency provides a recreation program for adults with disabilities, giving them the opportunity to participate in small group activities, including shopping, eating out, day trips and vacations.
“The agency has grown so much,” said Kathy Panella, the office manager at Arc.
For Panella, the 60th Anniversary of Arc serves as a reminder for the impact its recreation program made on her son Chris, who has Down syndrome. A participant of the program for ten years now, Chris has made new friends and traveled to different places. From going out to dinner to taking a trip to the beach to visiting places like Lake George, Panella said her son looks forward to every activity.
“The recreation program for Chris has been just a remarkable asset,” said Panella, adding that Chris will take a cruise in September. “He looks forward to it so much—he comes out of his shell.”
In honor of its 60 years of service and growth, Arc celebrated its anniversary with the annual dinner dance held at the Aqua Turf Club, recognizing volunteers and thanking other people who played a role in the advocacy organization. Besides the dinner dance, Amato said other celebrations will take place this year, including a picnic in September, when Chris Burke, the first actor with Down syndrome to appear on TV, will be a guest. Burke appeared on the American television series, “Life Goes On.”
“We all have to be a part of movement, and we have to advocate for people that can’t advocate for themselves,” said Amato. “When I came to the Arc of Southington, the mission fit me perfectly because I was already in that mindset.”
Working in this field for 30 years in different agencies, Amato became the CEO of Arc in 2005. Growing up, Amato recalled how she was the child who would attend a birthday party for a girl with a disability in her school. Amato worked as a housekeeper for her first job at a children’s hospital that served people with disabilities—her first interaction with the field. At that point, Amato knew for sure she wanted to serve individuals with disabilities.
“I think that intrigued me to get into the field,” said Amato.
Reflecting back on the growth of Arc, Amato said she feels proud of the role the human service agency has played in the community, getting involved with different organizations and groups in town, including United Way and the Giving Back Girls. In 2010, Arc became a sponsor of the Giving Back Girls, a group of junior high school girls who hold fundraising events quarterly and donates all proceeds to Southington Community Services. Arc is also a sponsor of “A New Way Advocacy Group,” a chapter of People First CT that helps individuals with disabilities better themselves in today’s challenging world.
“One of my goals when I started in 2005 was to reconnect with the community and really make it so they understand who we are,” said Amato, adding that Arc always welcomes new board members. “Southington is a very team-oriented community—it’s such a good channel for people that need assistance.”