ARC on the Gulf started with a boarding house for men with cognitive disabilities in 1976. It was the first of its kind in the area, offering services that had previously been unavailable in the area.
Now, decades later, ARC operates a colorful facility off of Industrial Road — the headquarters of a multi-faceted organization serving those with cognitive disabilities, who they say society can be quick to overlook and underestimate.
“We try to take the clients out and about, just to make sure they get as much normal as possible,” said Sandra Sims from her bright purple office. “And it’s good for the public to see them out and about too, because sometimes people are scared, and it’s important to remind them that there’s nothing to be scared about.”
Sims works with the organization’s home-based clients, offering support while allowing clients to exercise their independence as they navigate day-to-day tasks.
“It’s about helping them build confidence to help them reach their goals and live as normal a life as possible,” she said. “You know, we find sometimes that people are scared of them, but really, they’re more scared of getting rejected.”
Just down the hall, Donna Harrison explains that independence is a value that has always been a central mission of ARC.
She’s been working for the organizations since the ‘80s, when she came on as a secretary. At one point she served as ARC’s director, but she has since stepped down from the role, passing the torch to Eric Langston.
“In 1976 Chester Gant and Maxine Gant got several guys from Sunland in Marianna to come and move in with them, and they started a group home,” Harrison said. “There were five of those guys, if I’m not mistaken…”
“In 1977, they found that they needed a place to kind of occupy the time for the guys during the day because there was nothing for them to do. So, they started Gulf County ARC, which became ARC on the Gulf. It was just a very small place on Martin Luther King Boulevard.”
ARC still operates a group home, and Harrison said that two of the house’s residents have been with the organization since it was first started in the ‘70s. But ARC has expanded its reach, taking on a vocational program that places clients in jobs around the community, a transportation program servicing those who are transportation disadvantaged in Gulf and Franklin Counties, and, most recently, an activity program for those who are no longer capable of working long periods due to age or other limitations.
In a bright yellow office near the front door sits Tony Gaines, the newest employee in the building, who handles a multitude of responsibilities for the organization. But his true passion at the center, he said, lies in determining the daily activities available to clients in said activity program.
He proudly displayed a calendar of events for the month of October — arts and crafts, dancing, a Halloween program.
Switching it up, he said, is important.
“We want it to be different, and we come up with new ideas every month. That keeps it from getting boring and repetitive,” Gaines said.
Participation in the activities program is entirely voluntary, and clients can select whether they would like to stay in the center for the daily activities or participate in the organization’s vocational program, which places clients in one of three types of jobs around the community.
The participants are paid wages for the work, Langston said. And the center often helps them with budgeting and banking.
The center also provides transportation to not only its clients, but other transportation disadvantaged individuals in the community, which can be booked up to 48 hours in advance by calling the center or visiting their website.
“Transportation disadvantaged” is a term with a broad definition, and the center encourages individuals who struggle to secure regular transportation to apply through the ARC website to see if they qualify.
The transportation program’s buses and vans take up more than a dozen spots in the center’s expansive parking lot, which sits next to a covered pavilion, where clients eat and hang out in each other’s company.
On October 12, about two dozen of the facility’s clients had gathered there to read, catch up with friends and listen to music.
The center is a comfortable space for these clients, explained Langston, and though the organization offers a wide array of services, she considered this one to be perhaps the most important.
“Often, once (people like our clients) leave high school or they aren’t in a controlled environment, we forget about them, and we just leave them out there to fend for themselves. And that’s where I think it’s important for us to come in,” he said.
“This gives them a place where not only can we assist them with being active members of the community, but where they can feel comfortable interacting with others who go through similar things.”
For more information about ARC on the Gulf, visit the organization’s website at https://arconthegulf.com/.