By Jeff Murray | Star-Gazette
Four decades ago, parents of children with developmental disabilities who lived in Schuyler County had a big problem.
Those children enjoyed the benefits of a public education, but when they grew into adulthood, suddenly they had no place to go and little hope for a better future.
That all changed in May 1978, when concerned parents petitioned the New York State Association for Retarded Citizens — now known as The Arc New York — to charter a Schuyler County chapter.
That chapter has gone through several name changes over the years, but it is now simply known as The Arc of Schuyler, and the agency is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2018.
There wasn't much mood to celebrate in 1978, as things were pretty rocky in the beginning.
“The early years trying to get the organization off the ground were very tough. There was certainly some resistance from the community at first,” said longtime Arc board member Barbara Specchio. “The parents who formed the chapter had a vision, but no money to carry it through.”
In November 1978, the board hired its first executive director, James Wilson, who would lead the organization’s growth for the next 32 years.
Under Wilson's leadership, The Arc of Schuyler opened its first sheltered workshop in 1979 in the Padua gymnasium at St. Anthony’s school.
Vocational services such as supported employment and specialized transportation were followed by day treatment services.
Wilson retired from the agency in 2011, and he was replaced by Jeannette Frank, who has been with The Arc of Schuyler since 1979.
Over the years, New York state has changed the way it handles the state's population of people with developmental disabilities, and The Arc of Schuyler has evolved as well.
State institutions gradually closed and children with disabilities who had been placed at the facilities were returning home as adults.
The Arc of Schuyler opened its first community-based residence for 13 people in 1982 and more houses followed to accommodate new residents.
“For many years, our focus was to see the closure of large state institutions that were warehousing people with disabilities,” Frank said.
“I remember touring Craig Development Center (now Groveland Correctional Facility) in 1980 with the president of our board and mother of two girls with Down syndrome," she said. "After touring, she said ‘No one should ever have to live in an institution.’ I knew then why The Arc was here and what we needed to do to make people’s lives better.”
The Arc started with five employees who served about 15 people with disabilities. The annual budget was about $300,000.
Today, The Arc of Schuyler has grown into one of Schuyler County's largest employers, with a $9 million budget and 150 staff members serving about 200 people with developmental disabilities and their families.
It is also one of the most comprehensive providers of those services.
Day program options include vocational training, therapeutic interventions, and social skill building. The Arc also operates seven residences throughout Schuyler County.
The agency operates a community arts center called Franklin Street Gallery, along with Glen Copack, The Arc's food manufacturing division, and Schuyler County Transit, the county's public transportation system.