Arc not immune to economic realities

DOWNEY -- Kevin MacDonald is walking a high-wire, high-stakes tightrope these days. He is executive director of Arc of Southeast Los Angeles County, a non-profit organization that is bracing itself for a slash in state funding - possibly as much as 10 percent, although the final figure is still unknown.Arc serves people with developmental disabilities and MacDonald, who relies on the state for 50 percent of its funding, is grappling with the very real possibility of eliminating or reducing services to its approximately 400 consumers. And if you think that's simply a scare tactic - a PR move to drum up donations for the upcoming Arc Walk for Independence on March 28, the organization's major yearly fundraiser - consider that MacDonald already was forced to downsize his office staff last year. "Our funds have been frozen the past few years, but this is the first time we've ever had our funds cut," said MacDonald, who recently returned from a trip to Sacramento to meet with state legislators. Still, despite economic straits, Arc is staying optimistic and maintaining a course of growth. Last month, Arc unveiled a new, state-of-the-art kitchen. Swathed in stainless steel, the kitchen is large enough to accommodate about 20 consumers at a time, all training for a job at a restaurant or hotel. "This is a real industrial kitchen," MacDonald proclaimed, adding that a portion of the kitchen was paid for using a grant from the Weingart Foundation. "These are the same dishwashers they have at the Marriott, because if our students want to work at a hotel, they need to know how to use the equipment." Students start work at 8 a.m. in preparation of two lunch shifts, where they may serve up to 70 meals, said Domenica Cowan, a kitchen supervisor. After the final meal is served, the students mop the floors and scrub the counters, returning the kitchen to its original pristine condition. Students receive beneficial job training for sure, but a side benefit is a measurable boost in self-esteem, Cowan said. "When they come in here, they are so shy," she said. "But after they start working, their confidence goes straight up. You can just see it." The kitchen is located adjacent to a cafeteria, which can double as a banquet hall and be rented for special events. The room has already hosted a wedding reception and 70th birthday party. (As part of the rental agreement, caterers using the kitchen must hire Arc students as employees for the day. While California's unemployment rate hovers at 10 percent, the unemployment rate for people with mental disabilities is closer to 70-80 percent, MacDonald said.) Meanwhile, Arc is also increasing promotion of its Center for Human Rights. Located in a small, nondescript office on Woodruff Avenue, the center is a vital resource for intellectually disabled people seeking different forms of help. Some people need assistance collecting Social Security, while others were left homeless when their parents passed away, said Nan Stoudenmire, the center's outreach director. "We help people navigate the system," Stoudenmire said. "We're advocates for people with developmental disabilities, and we also do a lot of referrals. We're not lawyers, but we do try to help." A jilted and unpredictable economy is Arc's reality, but for now MacDonald and his Board of Directors are dedicated to continuing Arc's growth and development. Next week's Arc Walk will be an opportunity to celebrate the organization and, more importantly, the consumers it serves. "I hope people will come out and forget about their troubles for just that one day," MacDonald said. "We want people to have fun and celebrate our hopes and our dreams." ********** Published: March 20, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 48