by Mike Sharkey
For almost 20 years, the downtown branch of the Association for Retarded Citizens has been on North Davis Street. For most of those 20 years, the facility that cares for those who can’t care for themselves battled for decency, respect and legitimacy.
Battled the fact they operated out of a run down building.
Battled the fact their guests would spend upwards of two uncomfortable hours — freezing in the winter, smoldering in the summer — getting to the ARC.
Battled the Blodgett Homes complex and its drug dealers and prostitutes that used to be directly across the street.
Battled the stigma that mentally and physically handicapped people somehow don’t deserve to live like the rest of society.
Enter Jim Whittaker — the Schwarzkopf, Patton and MacArthur of the mentally handicapped industry all rolled into one.
Issue by issue, Whittaker won the battles. Today, as ARC celebrates the completion of its Davis Street renovation, it’s quite apparent Whittaker has won the war.
Whittaker is the executive director of ARC and not one to blow his own horn. Rather than talk about what he’s done, he’d rather show what his guests can do. Knowing Whittaker isn’t big on self promotion, those around him often do the talking for him.
“He’s been here a year and a half and we have completely renovated this building,” said Bernadette Moran, a member of ARC’s board. “Our consumers used to ride for an hour and a half to two hours on a school bus with no air conditioning to get here. Now, they have about a 15-minute ride in air-conditioned cabs and vans from Gator City Taxi.”
Wednesday morning, ARC, its employees and board hosted a guided tour of their recently renovated facility. With money granted by City Council, the one-story building was completely transformed. The walls have been repainted and each room has a theme. The floors have been refurbished and many have new carpet. One atrium has a new deck and low fencing, while the other is elegantly landscaped and ready for a cookout at the drop of a spatula.
The only thing more impressive than the facility are the smiles that seem to be permanently affixed to the faces of employees and board members as they proudly walk the halls and open doors. The 70-plus employees handle up to 350 customers a day and offer a multitude of programs.
(The employees call their guests “customers” for a couple of reasons: one, they want their guests to feel like they are welcome and two, the ARC is not a living facility, but rather a daytime service for the mentally and physically handicapped.)
“We have our life skills program,” explained Moran, who is the sister-in-law of Mayor John Delaney’s chief of staff Audrey Moran. “It’s an employment program where they come here and work. They are paid at the rate they produce. We also have the only program in the city for the medically fragile, those who are mentally handicapped that also have serious medical needs.”
ARC also offers programs for senior citizens, which they define as those 55 and older.
“Our people tend to age sooner than the general population,” said Moran. “We get them jobs volunteering at the animal shelter or the library. Things they enjoy.”
One of Whittaker’s main objectives when he came to ARC was to better incorporate the mentally handicapped into mainstream society. He knew that taking them by the bus load to a mall or park can sometimes be intimidating for them and everyone else, so he devised a way to accomplish the same goal but in little doses.
“Jim believes our people ought to be out in the community, but in small groups,” said Moran.
While ARC offers many medical and rehabilitative services that help make life bearable for many, perhaps their most impressive in-house program is their work program. Jacksonville-based Vistakon is one company that has utilized the work force available at ARC. In two different rooms, a dozen or so ARC customers spend the day putting together boxes. The folks at ARC make money and Vistakon gets a well-made product in return.
“Last month we sent out over 100,000 folding boxes for Vistakon,” said Howard Wintamute, a supervisor at ARC. “We send out 24-36 pallets of boxes a day.”
The program is so successful that virtually everyone at ARC wishes other businesses would use ARC and its reliable work force.
“We need more contracts because we have lots of people who can do repetitive work,” said Moran.
“We are always looking for new businesses to give us work,” said Whittaker.
ARC also offers many programs outside its three facilities. They have a supplemental employment program in which supervisors are sent to jobs with ARC customers.
“They are capable of working in a competitive environment, they just need a little coaching,” said Moran. “We also have a supplemental living program for those who live on their own, but need help with finances, clothing and doctors appointments. We also have an enclave employment program where two to three people work in a normal employment environment with a supervisor. The might wander a little and should not be by themselves, but they are capable of working. Because they have a behavior issue, they need a supervisor.”
Other corporations have gotten involved, as well. One is Merrill Lynch.
“A lot of our furniture was donated by Merrill Lynch,” said Whittaker.
Finding a success story at ARC is simple. Just open a door to any room and there are self-sustaining people living to the best of their abilities, and then some. People learning to communicate with others via innovative methods. People learning to clean up after themselves and others. People getting the most basic education and applying that knowledge to life. All in a clean, safe environment.
Jason Shelton welcomed all those who attended Wednesday’s open house. He promptly greeted guests with pamphlet in hand and a smile on his face. With dignity, Jason wore his Publix shirt, the same one he wears all the time.
“I work at Publix,” he said with conviction, with pride. “I’m everywhere.”