Talk to Laura LaVigne, CEO of The Arc of Fort Bend County, and one can sense immediately that she understands families and volunteers, knowing they are both a key part of the success of the agency.
This year, The Arc is celebrating its 50th anniversary serving Fort Bend County, by helping families who have children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and improving their quality of life. Along with volunteers and parents, the small staff of six at The Arc work continually as advocates for their clients, finding new ways of helping the community.
Retiring after 29 years as a special education teacher and administrator in Fort Bend ISD, LaVigne started her second career at The Arc in 2006. She already knew many of the students and their families personally, so her choice of a career after retirement was a good fit. Along with the many challenges of her new job, she wanted to see changes for the Special Olympics program.
“We concentrated on our Special Olympics delegation program by enlarging it and including more people,” she said. “Earlier there were only four or five sports. We now have nine, so we have increased the size and also the quality of our Special Olympics program.”
She’s also worked to increase providers in Fort Bend County.
“We’ve increased the number of providers who serve parents and their children. Companies like Unified Care Group, All the Little Things Count, and the Texana Center, are serving families. And, we support them by leasing homes in Fort Bend County at below market rates. The providers then operate them as group homes for our clients,” LaVigne said.
The Arc stays focused on the families, which they serve from infant to adults. Advocacy plays a strong role in the education system, where everyone works together with the school to determine what services are needed for the student.
“During the school year, we offer a lot of education advocacy and parent training, and introduce parents to one another for support. We have a full-time educational advocate, Karri Axtell, who teaches parents how to navigate the special education system. Karri gets to know the child through the parents, and advocates for the services and supports what the child needs at school.
“The child might need extra time and/or modifications to his lessons. They may need speech therapy, or occupational therapy to teach self-help skills, physical therapy to better negotiate the classroom, or special exercises to strengthen their mobility. It all depends on the disability of the child. Some need none. Others may need a lot of support,” LaVigne said.
LaVigne pointed out that improving the quality of life for clients and families is ongoing.
“Once the child leaves high school they often feel isolated. So we provide programs and services that provide our clients with social and recreational activities. Nancy Dobert, Director of Adult Programs, chooses from the vast array of events offered throughout the greater Houston area, arranges transportation and supervision, and our clients enjoy the fun and excitement,” she said.
Parents who work with LaVigne’s staff find the programs helpful to their busy everyday lives, mainly by offering solutions. Grace Kong said she feels a sense of gratefulness about The Arc staff, who have “been there” for her 14 year old son, Bryan.
“I can’t even imagine what would happen if The Arc closed tomorrow. The programs helped me so much. They helped my son get a proper placement at school so that my entire family benefitted,” Kong said.
Hal Marshall, along with his wife Desi, know firsthand of the care and compassion The Arc has brought to their lives, especially with opportunities to network and communicate with other families who are dealing with family members with disabilities.
“My son Michael, now 31 years old, has been an active member of The Arc for 10 years,” Marshall said. “The main program is Special Olympics. They have involved so many people and their families. Michael competes in 4 or 5 sports. The Arc allows us to be active and participate in these sports.”
Marshall pointed out that certified job coach and Special Olympics coordinator Margo Pasko has helped his family find employment for their son, and coordinating appropriate instruction for the new job.
“When kids get out of high school, there are no programs, no jobs,” said Michael’s mother, Desi. “There is no environment for social activity. But The Arc is a touchstone for all of those things. I can’t even measure what we would do if we didn’t have their support. We know we can call and ask any question about issues we are struggling with, and if they don’t know the answer, they will find someone who does have the answer.”
LaVigne continues to look ahead for The Arc with a few new projects, including her current ones: an evening Teen/Tween Respite program developed through a collaboration with Texana Center and Hope for Three. She is also running a campaign for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) Prevention Awareness. The Arc has partnered with Oak Bend Medical Center, with the hospital training all of their employees to address the issue with their patients, if needed.
“CEO Joe Freudenberger is really proud of this program,” she said. “OBMC is the only hospital in the United States who has partnered with a chapter of The Arc to offer this program about the dangers of drinking alcohol when pregnant.”
For more information, visit www.arcoffordbend.org.