The Arc of Blair County has been transforming lives of people with disabilities for more than 50 years, and with an expansion project and a partnership with a leading national business, those efforts will continue.
The Arc is embarking on an 875-square-foot expansion to its Becky Sheetz Recreation Center at 431 Jackson Ave.
"We have been here for 25 years and expanded programs and services to where we are out of room," Executive Director Maria Brandt said. "We want to offer more programs but don't have the space to do it."
Mirror photo illustration by Patrick Waksmunski and Tom Worthington II
From left, Leah Leiden, Carl Kiesewetter, Kathie Civils and Donnie Rabine square dance on March 24 at the Arc of Blair County, 431 Jackson Ave., Altoona.
Sheetz Inc. and Leonard S. Fiore Inc. are playing key roles in the expansion project, which includes adding a 575-square-foot storage room and vestibule area on the north end of the building and a 300-square-foot addition for a game room on the south end of the building.
Sheetz has contributed $50,000 toward the estimated $130,000 project, Brandt said.
"We have been affiliated with that organization for a long time. Becky was very involved with that organization," Sheetz President and CEO Stan Sheetz said. "One thing we try to focus on is our support of youth; the folks at The Arc do similar things. I believe it is a good fit for us and a good fit for them."
Becky Sheetz was a strong advocate for people with disabilities until her untimely death from breast cancer at age 38. The Becky Sheetz Recreation Center was named in her honor.
Leonard S. Fiore Inc., will be the general contractor and oversee the project. Sheetz is coordinating efforts to get materials donated for the project, said company Vice President Richard Fiore Jr., who also is vice president of The Arc's board of directors.
"L.S. Fiore and Sheetz have a track record of supporting charities that are run locally and provide great service to Blair County," Fiore said. "We support and focus our efforts on those kinds of organizations."
The Arc will start a capital campaign to help pay for the project, which is expected to be completed by mid-summer.
"It would have taken longer if not for the support of the Sheetz and Fiore families. They are great partners in the community," Brandt said. "If you look around, you can't find a baseball team or agency that hasn't benefited from the generosity of the Sheetz and Fiore families. They are multi-generational and have passed on to each generation the importance of supporting your community."
Community support is important to The Arc. There are about 740 chapters across the United States and most are service providers and get funding from the government. The Arc of Blair County does not.
"One thing I am most proud of is we function off of community funds and grants, not through government dollars. We serve from birth through life; that makes us an unique organization," Brandt said. "We serve people with all disabilities from ADHD, reading delays, speech delays, mood disorders. We work with autism and Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, emotional and behavioral disorders. There is much more to The Arc than what people picture in their mind."
Ruth Santella is credited with founding what is known today as The Arc of Blair County in 1954. The organization became incorporated in 1956.
After using three locations in downtown Altoona, the organization moved to its present site in 1986.
The Arc, previously known as the Association for Retarded Citizens, has played an important role in Blair County.
"Our number one goal is advocacy, to change government policy or make sure the laws are maintained," Brandt said. "We have worked very hard for the closing of institutions and integration into our community. Our main focus is on the employment of people with disabilities and their inclusion. My goal is to see every person who has a disability go to a movie, restaurant or the gym with a person who does not have a disability; that is a true friend."
Meanwhile, The Arc has a new logo, designed by The Arc's national organization.
"Our logo went from being a boring standard blue and white logo to a dynamic orange and yellow color. Out of the 700 or so chapters, 80 percent had a different look. That did not let people know we were a cohesive unit," Brandt said. "Every chapter is now required to use the new logo. It is dynamic and it just happened to coincide with our plans for growth and opportunity."
The Arc also has formed a partnership with Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield to start a year-long health and wellness program designed to help mind, body and soul. Highmark will contribute $15,000 in cash and in-kind services to print brochures for the program, which is to begin in June.
"We have been looking for partnerships in the Blair County region and this proposal involved not only health and wellness but also health and wellness in the disabled community. We thought that was pretty unique," said Mary Anne Papale, Highmark's director of community affairs for southwestern Pennsylvania. "We saw it as a positive and special program, so we jumped at the opportunity."
Many other things such as a reading enhancement program, after school tutoring program and a parent support group - part of a five-year strategic plan - are also happening at The Arc, Brandt said.
"We are excited for the changes taking place yet we remain focused on our grassroots mission of advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities," Brandt said.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.