Rebuilding Arc will host anniversary open house

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Want to meet those legendary call ladies?

The Arc of Southwest Washington may be best known to this community for those sweet-as-sugar volunteers who phone residents politely asking after clothing donations. The donations "are our bread and butter," said Michael Piper, the executive director of the Arc, a homegrown agency that caters to people with disabilities of all sorts.

Now, you can meet the people who butter that bread. The call ladies will be on hand -- along with staff, friends and clients -- for the Arc's 77th anniversary celebration and open house, set for 5-7 p.m. July 1 at 6511 N.E. 18th St. The event is free and open to the public; there will be barbecue, tours, program descriptions -- and heartfelt invitations for volunteers to get involved.

Greenway tour

Before all that, you can work up some appetite by touring Burnt Bridge Creek with the Arc and the Vancouver Watersheds Alliance, which have teamed up to launch weekly explorations of the greenway from a trailhead right behind the Arc's 18th Street home. Those tours always get under way at 4 p.m. Monday. Plenty of parking is available at the Arc and the adjacent trailhead.

"It's been a great marriage between folks with disabilities and our environmental community, who teach us how to take care of the watershed. There's been quite a lot of turnout for that," Piper said.

Then return to the Arc for food and celebration. "We want everyone to meet our staff and the people we serve, and help us celebrate," Piper said.

Loss and rebuilding

Piper, who started as the Arc's executive director early this year, said it's worth celebrating the fact that the Arc continues to exist at all. In the Great Recession, the nonprofit lost state contracts for services and became so saddled with debt that "any other organization would have just thrown in the towel," he said.

But the Arc's board -- led by former president and interim director Justin Myers -- took the painful steps necessary to pay off most of the outstanding bills, Piper said. That involved layoffs and mergers with sister agencies in Cowlitz and Skamania counties, and a name change from the classic Arc of Clark County to the new Arc of Southwest Washington -- although Cowlitz County has since re-formed its own Arc, leaving our local agency serving Clark and Skamania counties.

The staff of the Arc of Southwest Washington, which once topped out at 57 people, has hovered at 30 for the last few years.

The Arc's chief loss was its therapeutic PRIDE for Kids program, a fully staffed physical and vocational therapy clinic. That won't be coming back, Piper said. A rebuilt PRIDE program will be largely peer-to-peer support in groups, focused on the overall experience of families with special-needs kids -- not individual appointments with therapeutic professionals. "Other vendors provide that service now," he said. The new situation will be a sort of "enhanced preschool," Piper said.

Meanwhile, he said, the Arc staff is eager to turn its attention toward advocacy, legislation and community education. "You are going to see how the Arc is getting a lot more involved in the community," he said.

Million-pound summer

Again this summer, the Arc will try to collect 1 million pounds of donated clothing and household items. Some donations will be put to use by Arc clients, but the vast majority will go to Value Village, a thrift store chain that pays the Arc -- and other nonprofits -- by weight for donations. All money generated by donations to the Arc stays here in Southwest Washington, Piper said.

Don't wait to hear from the call ladies. Drop off your donations at the Arc from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Or, call the ladies at 360-546-3158 for a pickup. Clothing of all styles and sizes; scarves, purses and belts; bed, bath and kitchen linens; shoes and boots; small area rugs; kitchenware and decorative items; and toys are all gratefully accepted.

"I have learned a lot about how competitive this used-clothing business is," Piper said. "We are trying to get a larger market share of an existing market. The competition is really fierce."


Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://facebook.com/reporterhewitt; http://twitter.com/col_nonprofits; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.