Tearing down barriers
Local organization serves children with special needs
On any given day, the sounds of children swinging and sliding or movies playing can be heard at the Arc of Morgan County. Nestled off the Beltline in Decatur, the organization serves children with special needs from across Morgan County and allows them a place to socialize and play.
Abby Smith, who oversees the organization, said the Arc provides the children it serves with the things every child wants: plenty of room to play, computers, video games and toys. In the summer months children also get to enjoy swimming sessions, field trips and more.
“We run like crazy. We go swimming twice a week; we might go to the McWane Center;
we have been to the Chattanooga Aquarium, and we go to the movies,” Smith said. “Our kids want to get out and do the exact same thing and have the same summer that every other child has.”
The center serves those with special needs from ages 3-21, providing after-school care, holiday care and more. Programs are open to any child who has intellectual or cognitive development issues and is for both working and non-working parents.
“The kids need to have a friend group and get out of the house, or they need to have a safe place to go after school until their parents get off,” Smith said.
Smith said the Arc of Morgan County provides a service that is not available through other facilities or avenues. Although several students in the program would technically qualify for daycare, for example, they might be turned away because of not being toilet trained.
Smith said the Arc’s program allows parents to work to support their children while also giving the children the socialization they need.
“Our parents would love to take the summer off or get off at 2 p.m. each day to get their child off the bus at home, but that’s not the case. We have several single parents, and 90 percent of us have 9 to 5 jobs,” Smith said.
Smith has been involved with the Arc of Morgan County since she was in college and said even after graduating she knew she wanted to come back.
“A friend’s son was attending here, and she asked my mother if I had heard of the Arc. I was looking for a summer job, so I started working the summer program,” Smith said. “I graduated from college, and … I wanted to go back, so I looked, and they had a position. I have been here ever since.”
Having worked with the organization for more than 10 years, Smith said she has seen many of the children grow up in the program.
“One kid just had her 13th birthday, and when she started, she was 5,” Smith said. “Another is 17, and I met him when he was 5, and I was working the summer. I remember taking that kid swimming, and now he is almost a grown man.
“It’s crazy to think about. These kids grow up here. I have learned a lot from them,” Smith added.
The United Way is the primary source of funding for the Arc of Morgan County.
“We answer for every penny that we spend. We have to justify what we are requesting for and show how we are going to grow it and be good stewards of it next year,” Smith said.
The organization also receives occasional support from local churches and organizations.
The Arc of Morgan County also accepts volunteers to help support the organization. Because of mandates from the Mental Health Association, all volunteers must have a background check, drug screening and tuberculosis test.
Smith said anyone who works with the children at the Arc will be getting just as much as they are giving.
“If I have learned anything, it’s that we are definitely more alike than different,” she said. “Our kids are incredibly charming and incredibly smart, and I want to show what our kids are capable of.
“It should never be ‘us and ‘them;’ it’s ‘we.’ We can learn a lot about confidence and just being ourselves from these kids.”
Those interested in volunteering can reach the Arc at 256-355-6192.