ARC Bridges Students and Community Members with Disabilities

As the ball soared into the net, echoing cheers and laughter erupted as ARC participants and volunteers played in the Case Memorial Cage last Tuesday evening.
ARC, a community engagement program, aims to provide a space for community members with mental and physical disabilities to spend time with a student buddy from Andover.

“My favorite part of ARC is the first day…when everyone sees their buddy again for the first time and just seeing the way peoples’ faces light up. You can see how much [this program] affects people,” said Maddie Comer ’16, a student coordinator of ARC.

ARC is not an acronym. The word “ARC” represents the bridging relationships between community members and students that are developed through spending time at this program together.

“From the office standpoint, behind the scenes and organizing to get this program ready is so great. Every week we have buddies calling the office saying that they’re so excited to show up. I think the dedication from both the students and the buddies from the community that participate is just amazing…It’s a great way to spend your Tuesday night and great to see the relationships evolve,” said Julia Howard, a faculty advisor for the program.

In ARC, community members can be found playing volleyball, dancing to music playing on the radio, walking around the track or simply talking to their student buddies.

The program is led by Howard, Fellow in the Office of Community Engagement, Monique Cueto-Potts, Director of Community Engagement and student coordinators Maddie Comer ’16, Connor Haugh ’17 and Laura Bilal ’17. As one of the longest running community engagement programs at Andover, ARC allows students to step out of their comfort zone, encouraging them to work with and get to know a community member with a disability.

“I just wanted to try something new and I [told myself] ‘get out of your comfort zone.’ [ARC] did push me, I’m not going to lie, the first few weeks were tough…You get an appreciation for everything we have. Anything makes them happy…they light up when they see you. That was something that made me keep coming back and made me want to do it again and become more involved,” said Bilal.

Originally established as a children’s program, ARC has evolved into a program based on adults with mental disabilities.

Darian Bhathena ’16, a student participant in ARC, said, “I think what’s most special about [ARC] is how happy [my buddy and I] make each other. [My buddy] always gets really happy when she turns around and sees me standing there. It’s a real thrill to see her every week because she makes everything a little bit brighter.”

With ARC community members ranging from those who are unable to speak and wheelchair bound, to those who are fully functional and employed, Andover students are paired with their buddies according to experience and comfortability in working with these conditions.

“I think it’s important to understand that you’re not only doing [ARC] for yourself, [your buddies] rely on you. It is definitely humbling in the sense that you’re helping them, but they’re also helping you understand and be compassionate and just take a step back from Andover and realize we are a small portion of this world. There is a big, broader community out there,” said Bilal.

Laura Bilal ’17 is a Sports Associate, and Connor Haugh ’17 is a Business Associate for The Phillipian, Vol. CXXXVIII.