By STEFAN MODRICH
After 42 consecutive years, The Arc of Fort Bend County is moving its “Best in the West” fundraiser online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event is scheduled to run from Nov. 13-21 and feature a variety of items for silent auction and live auction bidding to benefit the group, whose mission is, according to its website to “ensure opportunities for people with intellectual and related developmental disabilities to maximize their quality of life within our community.”
“We’re pushing it, it’s all new to us,” The Arc’s CEO Laura LaVigne said. “We’re used to doing one thing. We’ve never done a virtual (fundraising) event, but we’re trying our best.”
The coveted reserved parking space at First Colony Mall, tickets to the Indy 500, a week’s stay at a Galveston beach house and the ever-popular Kennedy Ranch hunt will all be on the auction block on Nov. 21. A barbecue smoker and trailer is up for grabs in the Best in the West raffle.
Tickets ($20 each or six for $100) are available from event volunteers and at www.bestinthewest.givesmart.com.
The Arc’s roots run deep in Fort Bend County. It was founded 52 years ago by parents looking for better opportunities for their children with special needs.
It has multiple advocacy arms, seeking to influence legislation that will benefit people with disabilities and also help them to find employment.
The pandemic has presented the parents of children with developmental disabilities with a daunting challenge, as much of the socialization and maturation that occurs with The Arc’s programming has come to a halt in its traditional in-person format.
Karri Axtell, a program director at The Arc and a licensed attorney, said one of her most important roles is to listen to parents who have been frustrated by virtual schooling that they felt didn’t meet their child’s educational needs in the spring and has set them further back behind in the fall. But the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) only mandates the education of people with special needs through high school graduation or age 22.
“The only thing you cannot get back for your clients is time,” Axtell said. “Nobody can get back the lost year or two years plus, but those years keep on ticking by.”
That hasn’t stopped LaVigne, Axtell and the rest of their team from trying to find stimulating and educational outlets for them, however. LaVigne said The Arc has planned a plethora of virtual events, including a virtual nature walk at the Brazos Bend Nature Center, which is part of the George Ranch Historical Park in Richmond.
She said Special Olympics Texas has also helped for special needs children and adults to stay active, coming up with safe, at-home play or outdoor activities that are based on the resources available at home, like playing basketball in a hoop in a driveway.
The group has over 500 members who live all across the county. Membership dues are $20 per year for individuals with a disability, $35 for other individuals, and $50 for families. LaVigne said if someone is experiencing financial hardship for any reason, she will waive their fee with no questions asked.
Ashley Bennett, is the mother of Andrew Bennett, a four-year-old with Autism. She turned to The Arc about a year ago after her son was diagnosed with Autism to help her make sense of this life-changing discovery.
“It was extremely helpful finding out what my rights were as a parent and what his rights were as a student,” Bennett said. “To find out where to go and where not to go, what was OK and what was not OK, the questions to ask, it was just kind of amazing. Really all I had to do was reach out and I had a wealth of information at my fingertips.”
She said she’s welcomed the virtual gatherings that would normally take place in-person as a source of excitement and social interaction for her son. It’s also an opportunity for her to engage with other parents in a more relaxed way, she said.
“It takes away that fear of meeting in person,” Bennett said. “You can get to know somebody a little bit and whenever they do open back up in person, I think that might be kind of nice, because it’s like, ‘oh, I’ve seen your face before.’”
Becky Geary, a retired teacher, is the mother of Chance Geary, a 35-year-old man with Down Syndrome. She said The Arc provided a training session for parents to help them understand their diagnosis and how to navigate school and a special education curriculum.
“Even though I knew what it was like as a teacher, and I knew what to expect, a parent, it was a different perspective,” Geary said.
She said she’s considered moving to a smaller town as the area around her in Pecan Grove has continued to grow, but The Arc’s resources have proved irreplaceable.
“If I go somewhere else, there’s nothing for him,” Geary said. “He’d be sitting at home doing absolutely nothing.”
Geary said the Special Olympics and The Arc communities have helped form lasting bonds and friendships between parents of special needs children. But now she can be a mentor and a sounding board for first-time parents as they begin their journey.
As a boy, Chance was a thrill-seeker, venturing out from home often, but always calmly getting to his intended destination through his keen sense of direction. While his athletic talent enabled a mischievous tendency to climb trees or roofs, he eventually matured to an impressive degree of self-sufficiency, regularly helping out his mother around the house.
“Now that Chance is older, I can talk to the younger parents and be like, ‘I never thought he would reach that independent stage where he could stay at home by himself for a little bit,” Geary said. “But we’re there. There is light at the end of the tunnel. And we can share what we went through.”
Chance is a big hugger, one thing he’s certainly missed during the pandemic. But Geary said her son is an eternal optimist.
“They don’t see the bad in people,” Geary said. “They just see good. And you look at life differently through them. I know some people who are stressed about having a child with special needs, and I’m like, ‘you know, one day you’re going to look back on this and realize this is the best thing that ever happened to you.’”