Delarc gaining attention for positive approaches

By Julia Green
There’s a special gem in Delaware County that you probably don’t even know about, but the secret’s about to break.
The Arc of Delaware County (Delarc) has been gaining attention on some rather impressive stages as organizations from a variety of areas around the country are taking notice of the agency’s success and seek to duplicate it. This past week, representatives from an agency in Georgia visited the Arkville facility as part of a year-long contract that Delarc signed with the state of Georgia to introduce its methods to six agencies and programs in the state.
“It gave me a chance to view how the agency was run and see how close-knit and like family the staff was,” said Donna Gillis, one of the guests from Satilla Community Services in Georgia. “The whole agency is like a huge family that is there assisting, meeting different needs for individuals. I was very amazed at the different things going on, and we’re hoping to take what we’re learning here and make changes for the better. It’s such a positive environment.”
“For the most part, it’s due to our positive approaches,” said Catherine Tweedie, director of community relations for The Arc of Delaware County. “It’s disheartening to hear about other agencies that do things differently. Some organizations still do physical restraints or highly medicate individuals – we’re in complete disagreement with that.”
Delarc CEO George Suess of Halcottsville echoed a similar sentiment.
“It’s not so much that they’re coming because we’re doing training, it’s more about our philosophy. Our proactive philosophy and positive approach is very unique and we’ve been at it long enough that we have developed some good practical systems. Everybody wants to be proactive, everybody wants to be positive, but few organizations have figured out systems to assure that that happens, and people are looking for different ways.
“Somehow or another, they’re hearing about us, and what’s striking them is how different we are. Proactive philosophy and positive approach. That’s how they’re coming to learn about us and why they’re coming to visit: they’re hearing good stuff and they want to see it in action. And when people do come, what they’re telling us is that it’s even better than what they heard.”
A large part of the success, Suess said, is a due to the people within the organization.
“We know we need to hire people that share our values, so our recruitment process is pretty elaborate and pretty selective,” he said. “If we want to do the very best for the people we serve, we have to hire the very best. Once we have them, our training programs are completely different. In the beginning, they get very timely and specific training, and that training continues as long as they’re here.”
He also highlighted the emphasis placed on coaching and leadership at the supervisor level.
“When we hire the proper candidates, they need coaching and support, and so the bond that develops between supervisor and supervisee is productive, strong and positive. And then, when you have the staff aligned and training, what are you training people in? That’s where the whole positive approach comes in.”
He added, “Our philosophy with the people we serve and our approach is that by establishing caring relationships and people feeling like they’re cared about, when people feel deeply cared about, good things happen all the way around, and we think that we build a great partnership with the people we serve, that we listen to the people we serve, we are responsive to the people we serve, and we always want to make them feel that we’re on the same side of the fence as they are.”
Suess also said that a large part of the agency’s philosophy deals with identifying potential problems and offering solutions before they occur, rather than simply doing damage control.
“A lot of what we do makes sense to a lot of people,” he said. “Prevent a forest fire, don’t celebrate how good you are at putting them out. It seems like so many cultures and so many organizations haven’t been able to move beyond fire after fire. We give people a clear alternative to that kind of culture.”
Overall, Tweedie says the visits from other agencies are as beneficial to the Arc itself as they are to guests.
“The positive impact on our staff morale, for staff to see that people from across the country are coming to see what we’re doing. The community should be proud of that, too.”
“We’ve been better at creating this wonderful gem than telling people about it,” Suess said. “There’s an organization here to serve people with disabilities in Delaware County and we believe we do it as well or better than most in the world, and we hope that the people in Delaware County would be proud of that. We have beautiful leaves up here this time of year, but people can always use one more thing to feel good about, and this is a world-class organization. That’s the best way I can say it.”
The Arc of Delaware County was founded in 1967 with the mission to help people in Delaware County “meet the challenge of their individual disabilities with a growing sense of personal dignity, independence, and productivity, in an accepting and interactive community.”
As part of the hands-on opportunities afforded to the visitors, Gillis participated in the Vantage Point program, through which she spent her first day at the facility in the role of a consumer rather than an employee. Every staff person hired by the agency spends the first day in the program.
“They’re able to feel what it’s like to receive services, in the shoes – or the chair,” Tweedie said. “They really get to see what it’s like on the other side so that when they start, they have a greater understanding of how important it is to be caring.”
One thing that struck Gillis was the level of communication between consumers and employees and among consumers as a group.
“Things you wouldn’t expect them to be able to do, they’re doing,” she said. “I was amazed by the communication with consumers. Here at the Arc, they have the opportunity to be who they want to be, and are able to communicate back and forth.”
In addition to verbal communication, the facility utilizes sign language and nonverbal communication skills as well.
“It’s the total communication aspect,” said Hope Townsend, program director for the Arkville Community Living Skills Program.
“We’re here to teach them and help them learn, and to be able to do that, you have to be able to communicate with them,” added Barbara Rothenberg, the agency’s chief operating officer.