The Arc of Sedgwick County in Kansas has something many chapters do: a self-advocacy program. And their program is wildly successful, in part because of its focus on volunteerism. Members don’t just learn how to advocate for themselves effectively—they take an active role in constantly giving back to their community. As a result, they have built lasting relationships and helped the programming of the entire chapter grow stronger. Read more from their Executive Director Kevin Fish about how Sedgwick’s “Shooting Stars” are changing their community for the better.
Tell us about the self-advocacy programs you run at The Arc of Sedgwick County.
The “Shooting Stars” self-advocates started as the Young Employable Adults (YEAs) back in 1972. The focus was to help them develop self-confidence and independence and reach their fullest potential. Early efforts were to encourage and promote community employment. Over time it was expanded as we explored what it meant to advocate for yourself.
The “Shooting Stars” focus heavily on volunteerism and giving back to the community. What types of activities do they do and what are some of the positive results you’ve seen of this approach?
Our self-advocates will help with our Youth Activity Days for our Circle of Friends program. They run games and other activities and help prepare lunch for 1100 students attending our annual wildlife park day.
They sponsor and run a free Halloween trick or treat event for neighborhood kids. They sponsor photos with Santa and help with preparations for The Arc’s Lights drive-through Christmas display. They host and help run an Easter egg hunt for children with I/DD and their siblings. They assist with almost every special event The Arc does each year.
The community’s appreciation for the work they do helps them gain confidence and feel connected. They enjoy the happiness they give others and how kids look up to them. Many self-advocates have gone to advocate at the state capitol and presented to the City Council and the County Commission. Members have served on The Arc’s board, presented monthly reports to the Board, and served on various committees, boosting their pride in themselves.
What is the involvement level of your staff in supporting the efforts of your self-advocates? How does the group decide what types of activities they do and how they structure their events?
Our staff help lead monthly discussion forums and help organize monthly potlucks and quarterly appreciation events for our self-advocates. During our forums and potlucks, we will discuss upcoming events and activities and what they want to do. Many of the activities have become a tradition! They are invested and feel a sense of ownership and pride in what they are doing. For the forums, staff will also prepare some interactive educational components on topics like finance, work expectations, relationships, and daily living.
It’s hard not to mention the current health crisis affecting us all and the importance that supporting each other has taken on in the last few weeks. Does the group have any plans to volunteer in your community the coming days, and if so, what? Has the self-advocacy programmatic structure you’ve set up helped provide any stability, socially or otherwise?
For a group that is so active, not only with The Arc, but within our community, the current pandemic has made life a challenge. Most all of them are no longer working with the state-wide stay at home order. Most every event and activity at The Arc has been cancelled or postponed for the next month. Many of the entertainment facilities and churches are all closed, eliminating places they like to go or volunteer after work. This change in routine is difficult. What they see and hear is creating anxiety in many. The isolation is creating loneliness. Within our self-advocate group, we have been trying to encourage them to call a friend, send a note an email, or reach out through social media. Especially for those who live alone, we want to make sure people are connecting regularly.
What should other chapters know who are interested in starting and growing a self-determined self-advocacy program?
Helping your self-advocates find their voice, take charge of their lives, and advocate for themselves and those around them is part of our mission. A passionate and active self-advocate group can make a big difference in not only your organization, but also your community and state. The development of our self-advocate group to help them reach their fullest potential truly became a way for our chapter to work towards reaching its fullest potential. Countless programs and events were created or evolved based on what our self-advocates wanted, needed, or wished they had. They provide more than manpower. They are invested, passionate, and inspired and help us continue to feel the same way too.