The Arc of Indiana County has completed a remarkable year. Since the March 2020 start of the coronavirus pandemic, The Arc has completed its mission of service to those with disabilities in Indiana County by taking to heart its own fundamental message: learning to adapt.

Through this year, The Arc has worked creatively to continue the community outreach, advocacy and resource support it has always provided and has launched new programs, training and initiatives.

The Arc has quietly achieved all this under new leadership. It was in late 2019 when Barbara Telthorster, executive director for 20 years, retired from service. That was on the eve of the arrival of the pandemic, and the appointment of a new leader for The Arc.

Meet Michelle Jordan.

“Barb was so well known. But maybe now is the right time for introduction, with a year under my belt,” Jordan said. “I have run into Barb since I’ve been hired, and she has given positive feedback.”

Jordan brings to this office a history of service and assistance to people.

For 23 years, she was an outpatient psychiatric therapist in Clearfield County, both with the Clearfield-Jefferson Mental Health Commission and DuBois Regional Medical Center.

At the same time, Jordan worked with Special Olympics of Clearfield County and served three years as the manager.

She moved to Indiana seven years ago and was named manager of the Armstrong-Indiana Special Olympics.

Transitioning to the executive director’s office at The Arc has been a natural thing for Jordan.

“The Arc and Special Olympics have a lot of parallel initiatives and goals: inclusion, community awareness and education,” Jordan said. “To me it was a no-brainer to come to The Arc. I think it has been a good fit. Having access to 150 athletes and knowing that population already, and to be able to provide them services and resources through The Arc has been really beneficial.”

The challenge for The Arc’s new director was instant. The office closed because of the pandemic only six days after Jordan began service.

“All the reasons that they hired me — public speaking, community outreach — all of a sudden, in a pandemic, I couldn’t do any of those things,” Jordan said. “So I had to get creative. How do we keep The Arc in people’s minds and hearts, how do we help the community?”

The answer has been to begin new initiatives and to show the agency’s flexibility in the variety of things it does to provide support, resources and education for the people of Indiana County. Teamwork and technology are some of the hallmarks of The Arc’s record of achievement in 2020. Early on, The Arc joined with locked-down partners by offering a virtual platform via Zoom for the workgroups and support programs, learning to adapt along the way.

In August, The Arc addressed the food disparities within the disabled population and partnered with ICCAP to provide a small-scale produce distribution to individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families. The Arc serves 40 to 45 families weekly (on the first, second, fourth and last Wednesdays of each month) with a produce box that promotes healthy eating habits for our individuals.

The Arc of Indiana County developed new support programs, coalitions and support groups during 2020. The Arc, in collaboration with PA Links, CILSCPA and PeerStar LLC colleagues, developed Indiana Voices for Equality (IVE). This coalition was created to address racism, discrimination, bias and inequality within the Indiana community and beyond by providing a safe forum to have difficult discussions and collaborate on initiatives that educate and bring about awareness and systemic change. The community is invited to join this coalition with Indiana University of Pennsylvania educators, area businesses, service providers, legislators and law enforcement. IVE meets the first Thursday of the month at 10 a.m.

“I’ve had people say, ‘you’re very brave to do these things and make it work,’” Jordan said. “I thought, what else is The Arc doing and how can The Arc help the Indiana community? But you have to fill voids where the voids are. If you’re doing something that duplicates what everyone else is doing, I don’t know how successful that can be.

“So we are collaborating with Dr. (Carolyn) Princes, president of the NAACP of Indiana County, to further both missions and complement their programs.”

The mission of Jordan and The Arc continued: doing what The Arc has always done, do it well and fill unmet needs as they are found.

Over the years, many parents have attended The Arc’s Parent Transitions Group, which has been updated with the Parents with Purpose Workgroup (PPW) held in September. This new workgroup meets the third Thursday of each month, with alternating 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. start times. This workgroup invites parents with school-aged students to attend with school administrators and service providers. PPW has partnered with the Armstrong-Indiana Intermediate Unit No. 28 to address Secondary Transition with Adrienne Stiteler, of ARIN; Special Education with Kim Rode, of ARIN; and Advocacy with Michelle Jordan, of The Arc. The workgroup has speakers, training and a forum for parents to discuss their children’s current experienced and provide resources and problem-solving support.

The Arc advocacy services are free of charge to families of Indiana and Armstrong Counties. The Arc focuses on helping families with children maneuver the special education process to ensure a positive, quality education guiding parents through the IEP process, attending meetings with the school to ensure their child’s IEP is being adhered to and the school is making a good faith effort to assist the student to achieve their defined goals.

The Arc continues the Community Disability Awareness Workgroup that brings community members, leaders, service providers and school administrators together to address disability issues in our community and provide a platform for community updates on programs, training and events.

This year, the agency plans to introduce new emergency preparedness training in partnership with area first responders, law enforcement and medical staff and ending with a commemorative brunch on Sept. 11 to honor our front-line heroes and those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001.

“We soon will begin to recognize the group homes staff with certificates once a week over the next few months, with the group homes letting us know who really has gone above and beyond in their service,” Jordan said.

A recognition program is in the works, Jordan said, to honor group home people “for all that they’ve done to protect our individuals in group homes and to keep them safe during the pandemic.

“People are forgetting that group home staffs have been risking their lives, keeping those individuals safe, to the point of sleeping at the homes and not going home to their families in order to avoid deaths or hospitalizations,” Jordan said. “The Arc can do their part with some recognition for them in Indiana County and Armstrong County.”

The Arc is looking to partner with PA Links Disability and Aging Services Inc. to offer cooking classes to combat social isolation for individuals they serve, virtually and in-person, eventually partnering with area restaurants, fire companies and chefs.

The agency is looking to hold its annual fundraising garage sale this year at the end of June. After skipping it in 2020 due to the pandemic, the sale will again help raise needed support for Arc programming. And The Arc will introduce “Bark for The Arc,” a new fundraiser planned for late July. In dog show fashion, Bark for The Arc may involve an agility course, dress-up dog show, talents for treats, dog walk/run, canine product vendors and an adoption tent.

The Arc website, www.arcindiana.org, has been updated with a calendar of 2021 events, legislative updates, program information dates and times, and updated contact information. The Arc website offers supporters an easy way to help by following the “donate” and “join us” tabs to make online contributions or become members and pay fees to The Arc of Indiana County.

The Arc looks forward to supporting and serving Indiana County and surrounding counties through 2021 and many years to come.

“I am so honored to follow in Barb’s shoes and to be able to look back on and continue all the initiatives she started with The Arc,” Jordan said.

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.