Community Inclusion: The Arc of Southwest Alabama Meets Rural Needs in a Special Way
Almost to the Chatom city line on Highway 56, behind the official town sign, is the home of an organization that touches all of Washington County: The Arc of Southwest Alabama (TASA).
TASA currently serves 34 adults in the Washington County Area. Some adults live on-site in the group home, while others live in the community and are picked up on a bus route to participate in the day program.
The Washington County group is one chapter in a network that serves all ages with more than 100 different diagnoses including Autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and various other developmental disabilities, according to the organization’s website, arcofsouthwestal.org.
Jessica Odom, the Director of The Arc of Southwest Alabama (TASA), describes the Arc as a network of chapters all over the nation that serves people with disabilities.
She said she believes “being a part of the Arc is really powerful and it gives you a louder voice in the state and the country to advocate for people with disabilities.”
Before joining The Arc network, the group was known as the Educational Center for Independence (ECI). In 2016, the organization changed its name from ECI to The Arc of Southwest Alabama.
The mission of The Arc is to provide a sense of freedom and independence to citizens who have intellectual disabilities. Before the 1991 Olmstead Act passed, these adults were mostly placed in a mental health institution for the duration of their lives. This Act revolutionized opportunities for adults with disabilities.
In Washington County, the institution serving this area was Searcy Hospital. This hospital, known as just ‘Searcy’ to Washington County natives, was a state-owned psychiatric hospital. The Olmstead Act allowed these adults to have the freedom to live alongside the community with aid from organizations such as The Arc.
Today, The Arc of Southwest Alabama’s vision is to see people make independent choices about where they live, work, and recreate. Odom says that these individuals “are still living as independently as possible but safely and effectively with a support staff.”
Services for clients include both day and residential treatment, positive behavior supports, specialized medical treatments and transportation.
Chatom and Washington County are the perfect homes for TASA, Odom said.
She explained that one of the blessings of living in a rural community is that locals know who the constituents of TASA are, what they do, and their needs. With a tight-knit community, the individuals TASA serves are well known, and Odom said she is proud that “people know our people.”
One example of community support this spring came in March when citizens banded together to raise money for TASA’s Special Olympics. The Washington County Calcutta, a competitive hunting event, raised over $30,000 for the adults competing in the games this year and into the future.
Odom said she believes the Special Olympics “really highlights the abilities of people with disabilities.” Odom’s face lit up as she talked about how much the individuals she serves love to attend the state Special Olympics. The games held in Troy, Alabama, provide a sense of community for the athletes. In Troy, they have a chance to see their friends and meet people just like them.
Odom shares that one way the community can serve TASA is to be inclusive to people with disabilities. Members of The Arc and community who get to see Odom’s impact say that she wholeheartedly embodies the vision of TASA by working to create opportunities for people with disabilities.
Jessica Ross, director of Washington County Public Library, said, “Jessica Odom is more than just a fierce champion who works tirelessly for the rights and well-being of adult citizens with special needs. She is a dedicated community volunteer and advocate for so many organizations in our county.”
Ross added, “ From United Way, to the Public Library, to Sunday school classrooms at church, you will find her working hard to make a positive difference in the lives of people across our community of all ages. We are fortunate to have her leadership at the TASA, and I feel personally blessed beyond measure to call her my friend.”
Odom summed up her role with TASA saying, “They all have my heart, and they're each individually special in their own way, but they are just like you and me. They have the same dreams, and they want to go to the beach, and they want to go to New York City, and they want to work, and they save money to be able to buy gifts for their family, and they desire the same rights as everybody else. They desire to be treated the same as everybody else, and they will absolutely steal your heart.”