Free Enterprise Staff  | February 26, 2015

A New Leash on Life for Greensboro’s Developmentally Disabled Adults

When Sarah Ray graduated from college, she had a very particular idea about what she wanted her life to be and, more importantly, where she wanted it to take place: New York City. Yet even after her dream started to become a reality, she quickly realized that achieving those goals didn’t necessarily guarantee her happiness.

That set Ray off on a few years of soul-searching that ultimately led her to North Carolina. It was there that she fell into the career that has brought more meaning to her life than she ever imagined. “I started coaching a Special Olympics team, and I just absolutely loved that experience,” Ray says.

“But I realized that for some of my athletes, the only chance to even get out of the house was this practice we held on Tuesday nights for one hour. I wanted every night to be like Tuesday night.”

Ray continued juggling her volunteer work at the Special Olympics with a corporate job. But when she was let go from her full-time position, Ray began devoting more and more time to adults with special needs. About a year after she lost her job, she found herself at the right place at the right time when she was offered a position at a fledgling organization called arcBARKS.

Founded in 2011 and now a thriving nonprofit, arcBARKS provides a singular service to the surrounding Greensboro community—vocational training to adults who are developmentally disabled. Through the program—in which 18 people are currently enrolled—participants are taught a host of practical and social skills, says Ray, who is now serves as its director.

Those skills are largely centered around the arcBARKS bakery, which sells the dog treats that its students are responsible for conceptualizing and baking. Because arcBARKS is a self-funded nonprofit, it charges tuition to each of its members, who pay roughly $20 per day. Yet they’re also able to make money while at arcBARKS, Ray points out, because they’re paid to work in the retail bakery, where roughly 12 chefs work at any given time. “Our main goal is to train our members in competitive employment skills,” she explains.

“A lot of people don’t realize that, after high school, there is really nothing available for people in this community, and that’s a terrible shame. We’re teaching culinary skills, of course, but it’s more than that. So, aside from learning how to make the treats, you’re learning how to operate in a workplace environment. For a lot of these people, they’re babied, so when they come to us, we’re not doing them any favors by treating them like they’re incapable. We take our mission very, very seriously.”

For Ray and the program’s other full-time employees—a group that includes an assistant director and a bakery manager—it’s just as important to help the adults who enroll in arcBARKS improve how they communicate and operate in a professional environment. Because arcBARKS accepts adults who are not high functioning, it takes care to teach lessons that might seem rote or mundane.

“They’re learning things as simple as shaking hands instead of hugging someone at work,” Ray says. “We’re teaching them social cues, too. We want to make sure these people get jobs and then keep them. That might be something as simple as helping them learn how to lock and unlock a door themselves, how to make lunch schedules, or how to use the cash register. We also pull our chefs out one by one, and we train them in money management and behavioral norms—it’s a truly broad range.”

In addition to selling their preservative-free dog treats through their e-commerce site and storefront bakery, arcBARKS has also partnered with dozens of local specialty stores and regional supermarket chains like Lowe’s Foods, The Fresh Markets, and Bestway Grocery. By aligning arcBARKS with well-known brands, the organization has been able to vastly enhance its own awareness, Ray stresses.

Thanks to its presence in the community, arcBARKS has done more than just provide job training to the adults who participate in its programs, Ray points out. “Because we have our retail bakery where we showcase our chefs’ talent, we’ve helped people become more comfortable being around this community,” she says. “A lot of our customers, in fact, have become volunteers and advocates—something that most likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

For Ray, working with the population she does has been, in many ways, life-changing. Watching peoples’ lives turn around, she says, is a feeling unlike she’s ever experienced. What’s more, while the local community’s response has reinforced her commitment, it didn’t necessarily surprise her. “You don’t need a sad Sarah McLachlan song in the background to get you to support what we’re trying to do,” she says.

“They’re not to be pitied—you’re missing out on the party! The best party in town is to have people in your life who are different and who can teach you things you never knew you needed to learn. We are using arcBARKS in a Civil Rights movement that is 50 years behind the times. These people have so few opportunities, and as a community it is our responsibility to fix that. They’re part of this community, and we need to make a place at the table for them.”