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Why race: Looking LARC in the face

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By Jenna McKenna

Paul Roesch used to work at McDonald's in Williston, but he struggled there. Going out to tidy up in the dining room, he wasn't sure when to stop wiping one table so he could move on to the next.

James O'Sullivan wants to work at Hitchcock's, bagging groceries and rounding up carts. So far, though, the only shift that's open is in the evening, and he and his mother prefer that he work during the day.

David Estep has a talent for folding clothes perfectly.

"When he folds something, it looks like it's been ironed," said Levy Association for Retarded Citizens (LARC) Executive Director Betty Walker. "He's that precise."

Estep would love to find work at a laundromat that has a wash-and-fold service, but so far, has had no luck. So he, like Roesch and O'Sullivan, spends most of his days working in the shop at LARC, cutting cleaning rags for the City of Chiefland or refinishing furniture.

This weekend's Wild Hog Canoe and Kayak Race, down the tiny, twisted Waccasassa, is the 31st annual running of this fun fundraiser to benefit LARC. Paul, James and David are three of 44 in-house clients at LARC, along with eight others who don't come to the center but receive supported living and supported employment training.

Walker says LARC staff are continually helping higher-functioning clients look for jobs, because it is so valuable to their health and well-being.

Most LARC clients are happier and better-behaved when they are doing some kind of meaningful work. The organization's teachers, trainers and coaches work with clients to determine what they do best, and help them practice on areas of weakness.

Clients start out in classes to learn reading and math and various life skills, like dressing, preparing food and handling money. From there, they might proceed to other skills like cleaning tables and bagging groceries to help them seek outside employment. The training center is staffed by a small cadre of patient, versatile, under-compensated professionals.

The center, which serves mentally handicapped adults from Levy, Gilrchrist and Dixie counties, operates on a shoestring budget, finishing just at break-even every year for salaries and insurance, but perpetually short on cash for utility bills and other necessities.

"Our payroll runs about $24,000 per month for 16 staff members (five are part time), including me," Walker says. "We have about $22,000 a year in liability insurance and $30,000 a year in health insurance." Add in $5,000 per year for annual audits and $6,000 per year for Workman's Compensation insurance, and you get an annual outflow of about $350,000, just for payroll and insurance.

Other constant expenses, such as utility bills and memberships to state and national ARCs add about $13,000 per year to the tab, and are paid almost entirely out of donations. Office supplies, capital improvments and funds to take clients on field trips are strictly extras, and are paid when donations permit.

Last year Walker put a roof on the main school building using funds from the Ride to Provide bike run and a contribution from Levy County.

"I don't think people know how much it costs to run a place like this," she mused. "I think they see how small it is and think it's just a drop in the bucket."

That drop keeps getting smaller, too. When Florida's Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD) budget was approved last May, among the cuts were reductions in hours for Supported Living Coaching (which helps the mentally disabled live on their own) and Personal Care Attendants (who help disabled people with many tasks fundamental to daily living).

In addition, although the number of disabled adults in the Levy/Gilchrist/Dixie area keeps growing, the waiting list for ARC services has been frozen for two years, even though some elderly clients are dying and reducing the number of people served by LARC.

Some LARC clients are also limited by receiving the "Small Waiver," which allows them only three days of services at LARC. These causes combined mean fewer clients can come to LARC these days, although the number of people in need is climbing.

"I hate to think of people sitting at home, doing nothing," Walker said. She thinks every person should have an opportunity to fulfill their potential, and do work that is meaningful.

"I believe if a person lives and breathes in this world, they can do something," she said. "It might not be what we want, but we've got to help them do what they can do."

David, Paul and James think so too. They accompanied Walker and other clients and LARC staff to Tallahassee last March to talk to lawmakers about APD's desperate budget problems.

"I went to talk to them about the situation with the money we've been losing," O'Sullivan said.

Did they listen?

"Oh, they always listen," Walker said. "But I don't think we really got anywhere."

Estep says he believes the Lord will provide for him and his fellow clients. He keeps coming to LARC to work on his goals, "working on reading and math."

Roesch focuses on "learning to finish jobs," and O'Sullivan is "working on staying on task." He also helps his mother with the cooking, and makes a mean chicken fricassee.

There's still time to enter the Wild Hog race, and meet LARC clients at the finish line. It's not every day you get a chance to see just where your money goes.

To enter the Wild Hog Canoe and Kayak Race, visit http://wildhog.wetpaint.com or register the morning of the race. Race registration and starting point is at the Waccasassa River bridge on State Road 24, just east of U.S. 19, near Otter Creek. Registration begins at 8 a.m. and racing will begin at or before 8:30.