Local mainstay the Guild for Exceptional Children has debuted a new effort to enhance its connections with the local community.
The goal of the GEC Ambassadors Society is to help the organization – whose mission is to aid people with developmental disabilities – raise its profile within the neighborhood, in hopes of raising necessary funding so the GEC can continue to care for those who need its services.
In large part, said GEC Executive Director Paul Cassone during the first meeting of the Ambassadors Society at the Bay Ridge Manor, 476 76th Street, on Thursday, September 15, the tightness of government funding (which has not kept pace with rising expenses for the Guild and other, similar organizations), as well as the evolving needs of the people it serves, many of whom are now senior citizens, set the group and its supporters to thinking of alternate means of raising money.
“This comes out of the reflection that the field is evolving, and the needs of people are changing,” Cassone told this paper. “We’re now serving senior citizens with developmental disabilities, and their needs are different.”
Therefore, he went on, the group took a page out of its founders’ book and decided to do more to network with those who had the potential to aid the group in fulfilling its mission.
“We have a nucleus of supporters who are knowledgeable, educated and able to influence other people,” Cassone explained. “We thought, a lot of people like us. If we invited them to participate as ambassadors of the GEC, maybe they would be able to influence the people we need to influence.”
Most of those invited to participate in the effort, said Arlene Rutuelo, president of the GEC board, “are already involved with the Guild.
“I look around this room,” she told the assembled group, “and see the hearts of our community.”
The Guild was established in the 1950s by a core group of parents who had children with developmental disabilities for whom few if any services existed. At that time, Cassone noted, what the organization’s founders developed to serve their children was “cutting edge,” and they, in fact, opened New York City’s first group home in 1970, before Willowbrook.
Fast-forward nearly 60 years and 72 percent of the Guild’s clients living in its group homes are 50 or older, with one Guild client 90 years old. This means that residences, in many cases, need to be adapted so they are accessible for those who live there. In addition, generally, aging facilities – whether residences or day program sites — need to be updated to continue to serve those who need them.
“Our founders succeeded because they discovered a way to be connected,” noted Cassone. “They tied in to the Bay Ridge community. Their connections developed a human rights movement, and now 136,000 people with developmental disabilities are served in New York State. Bay Ridge is a part of that.”
That said, the Guild, in many ways, remains “a well-kept secret,” noted First Vice President Anthony Cetta, who stressed that in this “difficult time,” the Guild has been striving to find ways to “continue to fulfill our mission.”
Nonetheless, Cassone assured the group that the organization – which has a $29 million budget, with 90 cents out of every dollar dedicated to direct services to its clients – “is not teetering on the brink. We’re healthy, because we’re vigilant, but it’s difficult,” the more so because, as Rutuelo said, “We choose to take care of our people [when necessary] before the money is there.”