Nathan Wilson | Reporter
A few months ago, Alicia Pierce-Gonzalez attended an interview to be a one-on-one instructor at ARC, an organization serving the developmentally disabled. When the interview ended, she was on course to becoming the organization’s new director.
Pierce-Gonzalez described the interview process. “They came to me and said, ‘hey, you applied for the one-on-one, but how about the director’s spot?’” The distinction between the roles was that of being responsible for one of ARC’s clients and assuming responsibility for all of them along with the organization’s future.
“I don’t want it. I’m scared,” Pierce-Gonzalez recounted telling her suitors. She knew ARC’s staff, but was frightened by the prospect. “They all knew me, and they were like ‘you need to be the director’ because the other option was they could find a director, but ARC was within distance of closing. Most people didn’t want to take it on,” she explains.
Pierce-Gonzalez accepted the role when she realized she had the staff’s unanimous endorsement. She credits Stacey Welling, ARC’s secretary and bookkeeper, with persuading ARC to offer her the position and convincing her to accept it. “Before she even came to me with it, she went to the staff and said ‘Listen. Y’all know her, what do you think?’” she says.
Pierce-Gonzalez shouldn’t have been surprised. “She’s my best friend, and she loves this program,” she says of Welling. Their friendship formed over a decade in which she served Lorne Welling, Stacey’s Welling’s son, as a direct service worker (DSW). During home-care visits, Welling expressed an interest in her education. “When I have down-time I’ve got to be busy doing something, so Stacey would say, why don’t you use that time to study,” Pierce-Gonzalez says. “She allowed me, while I was working, to go to school online, and if I got stumped she was right there helping me.”
Welling explained how she knew Pierce-Gonzales was the one to lead ARC. “She’s excellent with my child. Lorne goes here,” she says. “He aged out of high school, he was 22, and he’s going to be 30 this year so he’s been here for a while.” Welling expressed unwavering support for Pierce-Gonzalez. “I’m behind her 100 percent, that’s the thing. She is making an enormous impact.”
Describing her work for ARC, Welling listed nearly every position on the payroll. “We used to have people from the public who would come in and iron if they needed help, and I came in that way, and (then) I became a driver and a janitorial supervisor. Then I became a one-on-one instructor. Then I became a regular full-time instructor, and then I started this in 2015,” she says.
Welling offered insight into the direction Pierce-Gonzalez is leading ARC. “Our hope is to get into a better building, to have more funding, and to have more clients. People have forgotten that we’re here.” She explained ARC’s desire for a new location. “We need to be in a more secure area,” she says. “We’ve been vandalized so often that it would feel really good not to have to worry about our vans. Our windows have been smashed in our building. Our windows have been smashed in our vans. Our tires have been stabbed.” She also hopes a new site will offer more outdoor space. “We could plant a community garden,” she adds.
Pierce-Gonzalez discussed the idea behind the community garden. “We need more green spaces,” she says. “We would love to have a food program where kids can come in during the summer time and eat, and not just kids, low income families,” she says. “It’s our civic duty to do things for anyone who needs help.”
“I would like to see this ARC become fully integrated into the community.” Pierce-Gonzalez says. Her sense of civic duty guides her vision. “I want to see the ARC become a hub for the community. If you need your loved ones to come here, you can. If you want to come here and do an art project with our clients, please do,” she says. “We’re writing for a grant right now to get what we’re calling community corners, a space where the community can come in, and they can do classes with our clients.”
Audra Edney is the community outreach advisor at ARC. She explained that without community support many of ARC’s plans won’t move forward. “If we don’t get the proper funding in sponsorships (or) donations to do so, it probably won’t happen.” she says. “I just started going to the different banks and businesses and saying, ‘hey, this is who we are. This is who we serve. We need you behind us.”
Edney offered a sense of why ARC needs its clients and why the clients need ARC. She explains that ARC’s funding is tied to the number of clients they help, so more clients will allow them to better serve everyone. “Our clients right now bring their own lunch. We want to be able to provide a hot meal for them every day without them having to worry about bringing their own food. (Now) we basically just warm their meals up,” she says. We want to be able to provide clothing. We want to set it up almost like a thrift store, and they can go in and get clothes, and it’ll be free to them.” She explains what ARC means to some of their clients. “Some of them don’t have caregivers during the day, so if they’re home alone, then they may not get a proper meal,” she says.
Edney plans to increase their enrollment by working with the counseling staff at the high school. “I plan on going to Natchitoches Central to speak with Ms. (Twana) Harris after the Easter Holiday because we want to put together some portfolios for the students who are graduating out.” She explains ARC takes over when the school’s services end. “You can go to school at Central until you’re 22,” she says. “Well this is a place that they can come.” She’s also planning an information session. “Almost like an open house, (where) your child is going to a new school and the parent doesn’t know anything about the school. We want the instructors to be able to walk the parents through with the client.” She summed up the problem. “They don’t know who we are or where we are, because when I say I work at Natchitoches ARC they say, ‘Oh where is that? Oh I thought that was part of the Co-op,’” she says.
Pierce-Gonzalez acknowledged ARC isn’t the only organization to serve its clients. “There are services out there that are similar to us,” she says. “If you have in-home care, that means they’re only ever seeing the inside of their house.” She insists ARC offers their clients more. “We give them socialization. They get to come here and interact.” She points toward a room where the clients and staff are singing together. “You see that they’re doing karaoke.”
Pamela Walker, an instructor, is singing. Pierce-Gonzalez explains she normally stays out of the public eye. “She doesn’t like pictures. She doesn’t like accolades. She believes the Lord is going to pay her back for all of her good deeds, and that’s an amazing way to be,” she says. “Ms. Pam, she was here for 20 years. She has no retirement, but she doesn’t intend to retire.” She explains Walker’s importance to ARC. “She’s like the mother of all of us. If I come in and I’m like, ‘I’ve got a lot of work to do today Pam. I don’t want to talk to anyone.’ (She says) ‘Come on out and you talk to all those clients. They expect it, and you know you’ll feel better once you do.”
Welling approaches Pierce-Gonzalez to let her know the staff planned to work Good Friday. Pierce-Gonzalez thanks her. “I told everyone they were off, Good Friday and Monday. I can’t pay them holiday pay. It’s just not feasible. We don’t have the money for it.” She says. “They all know they can’t get paid for that, so they’re choosing to work for free.” She explained even though their clients would be home with family, there would still be work to do. “We won’t have clients in-house, but we’ll be able to get paper work done, and try to meet the requirements for the state and for our transition,” she says.
Pierce-Gonzalez describes the sacrifices her staff makes for the organization. “These women, they took pay cuts, they did everything they had to keep this ARC afloat for these clients,” she says. “Like the karaoke machine. That’s not a real expense, that’s not something that I can say okay let’s go buy that, because we don’t have the funds for it, but Audra and them, they chipped together and they bought it, and they sing,” she says. “I have an amazing staff. They all work really, really hard.”
With ARC facing financial difficulty, Pierce-Gonzalez has joined her staff in doing with less. “I don’t feel comfortable taking the amount of pay I could take as the director,” she says. “They all struggle, you struggle with them.” While she describes ARC as an extension of her family, she has more family on the way. “I have a daughter,” she says. “She’s pregnant and she’s going to have to rely on me for support.” To make things work, Pierce-Gonzalez kept her previous job too. “I work here at the ARC and at night I work for Southern Ingenuity. I’m a DSW.“
Pierce-Gonzalez shares a few final thoughts about her role at ARC. “I have an amazing board, an amazing staff and what I call the perfect job. A job that demands me to do stuff and challenges me, and I get to meet some amazing clients. They are family to me,” she says. “I wouldn’t work at any other ARC anywhere else except for Natchitoches.”
ARC provides a community for clients to receive day habilitation, pre-vocational and supported employment services outside their home environment. Located at 127 Airport Road in Natchitoches, ARC serves clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities to promote their participation in society and provides transportation as needed. Contact Natchitoches ARC at (318) 352-5176 for more information or to volunteer or donate.
Nathan Wilson | Reporter