By MeLinda Schnyder - Photography courtesy of The Arc of Sedgwick County
In 2009, Kathy Huschka was retiring from a career as a special education teacher and came up with an idea to share her passion for gardening with adults and youth with intellectual or developmental disabilities. She knew gardening brought general enjoyment to many people and could also offer therapeutic benefits.
She proposed a community garden to The Arc of Sedgwick County, a nonprofit organization that started in 1953 and is one of 650 nationwide chapters of The Arc of the United States. The Arc’s leadership was unsure of the level of commitment, especially during Kansas’ hot summer days, but decided to try three small raised beds behind their bus barn. Today, Rows of Sharin’ Community Garden is one of the most popular activities of The Arc’s self advocates, adults working to establish independence.
“Each year the garden has grown a bit more and each year the self advocates, under Kathy’s direction, decide on new things to grow,” said Kevin Fish, executive director of The Arc. “Our self advocates love the social aspect of working the garden together. They have enjoyed developing the skills to maintain the garden and harvesting the fruits of their labor. They have learned to cook and prepare vegetables from the garden and even how to prepare items for the winter. They also love being able to share with others and have donated to the nearby retirement community and various food banks.”
Rows of Sharin’ can always use community volunteers to help with watering or making improvements to the gardens, and donations of hand tools and garden gloves allow more folks to work in the garden at the same time.
Fish, who started with The Arc 21 years ago, said that even though his organization has been active in Wichita for 64 years, there are still families and individuals who are not aware of the programs and services they offer to increase self-confidence and independence. For example, children with down syndrome learn social skills and become more involved in school by being involved with The Arc’s Circle of Friends mentoring group. Adults with autism gain independence by going out to dinner or a concert through The Arc’s Special Projects programs.
VIP: How did your organization start in Wichita?
KF: The Arc of Sedgwick County was created in 1953 by a group of parents who wanted more opportunities for their children with intellectual disabilities and to provide support for other families as well. One founding member, Wilma Martin, presented information about what was known as the Association for Retarded Children, which had just been created nationally. She was elected as the first board president, leading what was then an all-volunteer organization.
VIP: Who do you serve?
KF: The Arc serves those with intellectual and or developmental disabilities including autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Annually, we serve nearly 4,000 individuals with developmental disabilities primarily in the Sedgwick County area, but will routinely draw from surrounding counties and at times from across the state.
VIP: How do you serve them?
KF: The Arc’s mission is to improve the quality of life for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families by providing educational and social opportunities to enhance the development of individual potential while advocating for supports and services within the community. Through a multitude of programs, activities and special events, The Arc is able to touch countless lives and achieve our mission.
VIP: Tell us about your programs.
KF: We work closely with other agencies and surrounding school districts to provide a variety of programs and activities. Our five major program areas include: targeted case management; information and education; mentoring programs; the summer YESS socialization program; and special projects that offer year-round social and recreational activities, such as travel programs, camps, dances and pageants. Circle of Friends, a mentoring program active in over 45 area schools, has over 2,300 students participating. Youth Education and Summer Socialization (YESS) is one of the most unique programs of its kind and is nationally recognized for its quality programming.
VIP: What is the size of The Arc?
KF: The Arc’s day-to-day staff is approximately 30, with an additional 50 seasonal staff who assist with summer and school break programming. The Arc’s governing board is made up of 15 community volunteers. The Arc relies on 25,000+ hours donated by volunteers annually, including hundreds of hours through community, employee, church and school groups. The rest are from our passionate long-term volunteers who assist with the hundreds of events offered throughout the year. This group includes many self advocates who grew up in The Arc’s programs and love to give back and help others.
VIP: How is your organization funded?
KF: Funding partners like the United Way of the Plains and Sedgwick County Developmental Disability Organization provide grant support to help us keep programs free or affordable for families. Most of those within our case management services have Medicaid funding to support this valuable service. Some of our programs have a fee associated to participate, but our donors help us keep these as low as possible so that all interested can hopefully participate and benefit. Community support through fundraising events, contributions and in-kind donations is our most important funding source to support programs and those we serve.
VIP: How can readers support your organization?
KF: Please share our story with others who may need our services, or who may want to become involved. Invite The Arc to present to your civic, employee or church group. We could not provide these valuable programs without the community’s wonderful support. If you have a few hours a month, you can volunteer to take a group of adults to a concert, help in the garden, become a mentor for an adult or assist kids in our monthly programs. Donations are appreciated all year round, and they help us provide unique quality programs at no or low-cost. You can learn more about us or donate directly on our website,