By Linda Harmon
If you know a person with special needs or have ever wondered what a day can hold for them, you can get a glimpse by visiting the Ojai Arc Enrichment Center, 210 Cañada St.
The center, a nonprofit which serves an average of 50 to 60 adults a day, greets its members with an upbeat campus covering a city block. The center’s work does not stop with what happens between its gates, but they also place people at local businesses and offer services.
“Integration in the community is one of our largest goals,” said Linda Caldwell, Arc spokesperson and staff member. “We are modeling relationships and we’re always looking for ways to get our people seen as individuals.”
The center is part of Arc, the world’s largest community-based organization of and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The center’s clients come mostly from referrals.
“Chances are our people are already working with tri-county regional social workers,” said Caldwell, “but we do have families that come in and we help them through the funding programs.”
Over 780 state and local chapters across the nation serve individuals and their families, regardless of the level of disability, to promote self-determination, provide support and empower people.
“Ojai is one small island. This Center is a day program for adults over 22 who are no longer eligible for school programs,” said Caldwell, who has been with the Center for over nine years and is now its art coordinator. She is part of a staff of 22 who oversee the program from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day. Each staff member works with a group of three to five people.
Caldwell, who has a teaching credential and is a potter herself, almost didn’t get the job she loves.
“When I originally applied the director at the time thought I was overqualified and wouldn’t stay,” said Caldwell. “I told her that this is what I wanted to do now. I love this population and it’s very rewarding.”
The campus includes an activity room, computer room, music room lined with drums and a piano, art room, and a brightly lit gallery to show artists’ work. The grounds also offer an exercise area and outdoor eating area.
A large part of the program is right up Caldwell’s alley as a former teacher and gallery owner.
“This was started as an art program and I have people that spend four or five days a week with me,” said Caldwell. “People do art on a lot of different levels.”
Moving to the gallery we see the work of several of her students, including Sheila Mahon.
“One of her favorite subjects is drums and drummers,” said Caldwell, stopping to point to one of Mahon’s brightly colored images of drumming circles. “She started out with free hand drawings. We had copies made for her and she hand-colored each of these.”
There are hanging banners, ceramics, collage, found-art sculptures, and colorful paper flowers with bark stems done by a number of students.
“This artist just loves to get the feel of the paper,” said Caldwell, pointing to drawing of rhythmic cross-hatching in sunset colors. “If someone comes along and shows her a different area to work on we get these beautiful images.”
The walls of the gallery reflect creativity and productivity.
“Each person seems to have developed their own style for working,” said Caldwell, while surveying the art room filled with half-finished creations and supplies.
Caldwell says in this economy the center is “tightening our belt, but we’re not in a desperate situation right now.”
Caldwell does see a need for more employment opportunities for her people.
The center has placed people with Janis’s Art Workshop, Jim & Rob’s Fresh Grill, Mountain Meadows Nursery, the Ojai Library and Rainbow Bridge, to name a few, but she has more people in need of work. The center’s clients cover graffiti, clean litter on the bike trails and at Lake Casitas, and distribute and display posters for local events all for a small donation.
“We are always looking for community service opportunities,’ said Caldwell. “The people we serve can do far more than people imagine.”
If you have such an opportunity, stop by the Enrichment Center or call 646-5186. And don’t forget to visit the gallery, open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by appointment.