A Message from Steven Cook, Executive Director

February 2020

Steve Testifies Before New Jersey Senate to Advocate for Transportation Equality

Steven Cook (left) preparing to testify before the State Senate Committee on Transportation with Floyd Nessee (right).

Steven Cook (left) preparing to testify before the State Senate Committee on Transportation with Floyd Nessee (right).

On January 16th, Steve testified before the New Jersey State Senate Select Committee on NJ Transit. Following him, was a supportive entourage of consumers and staff. It is easy to say that of all of the organizations present at the trial, The Arc Mercer was certainly the most represented. Before the testimony, consumers helped Steve and his team put together materials to be given to the Senate committee and their staff. Many people from various organizations and of political interest came by to greet Steve and send he and The Arc their well wishes.

The purpose of this testimony was to advocate for the accessibility of transportation for persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD). Organizations from all around the state such as Rutgers University, The Arc of New Jersey, The Arc Monmouth, ACCESS NJ, and of course, The Arc Mercer sent representatives to urge the Senate committee to allocate more transportation funding to the development of new programs and technologies to transform the New Jersey transportation system into a system that is accessible to all persons regardless of their level of ability.
Though everyone who spoke had varying perspectives, the commonality between each testimony was the list of issues with the current systems in place to provide differently abled individuals with access to transportation. 

The first issue is a lack of reliability. Current providers such as Access Link NJ do not consistently arrive to consumers in a punctual manner, nor do they update the family or caregivers of consumers of arrival delays. Consumers are currently expected to provide transportation agencies thirty minute window of time between transportation request and arrival time. And though the expectation is that they would receive their requested transportation within that window, consumers are having to wait up to two hours to be picked up.

A second issue presented was the need for greater transportation expansion into more rural areas of the state. Currently, most consumers who live in lesser populated counties throughout the state are excluded from being able to utilize any form of transportation specifically for persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Third, there is a great need for communication. Each organization used Uber as a framework for a type of ride sharing application that makes communication between drivers and riders seamless and accessible.  An application such as this, but geared for consumer use and needs, paired with fully accessible vehicles and specially trained drivers would ensure consumer safety, and create a more convenient mode of communication and accountability. 

Though each organization had a list of complaints, each organization said that funding needed to be given to this project, each organization said that applications and technologies need to be created; none of the organizations had and concrete plans or strategies to present to the Senate committee. That is, none, except The Arc Mercer.

Steve joined Floyd Nessee of ACCESS NJ, a non-profit organization that provides leadership and support to members who advocate for and serve persons with disabilities in the state of New Jersey and one of The Arc’s strategic partners.  Together, they were able to not only highlight the issues presented in the current transportation systems for persons with IDD, but come up with concrete solutions, many of which are already being implemented at The Arc Mercer and have been wildly successful.

Steve shared the improvements that have taken place to transform our transportation capabilities over the last five years. The first being and overall improvement in quality of life for our consumers. Through the development of our own transportation application developed in collaboration with a professor and Princeton University, we have seen a seventy one percent reduction in the average time of trips for consumers from two hours to only thirty five minutes. This is because our application allows drivers to communicate ride status with passengers while allowing potential passengers to communicate their need for transportation with drivers. This allows our drivers to update tip routes with near real-time accuracy ensuring that everyone has accurate transportation information. So, consumers are no longer waiting on rides that show up inexcusably late, if they show up at all.

We at The Arc Mercer have also been successful in the implementation of a driver training program that ensures that any staff member who transports a consumer is able to understand and handle their needs. This revision of an outdated training system also emboldened us to acquire an entire fleet of over seventy vehicles, all fully equipped to transport consumers who require equipment such as wheelchairs. Because of this training and the vehicles, we have seen an improvement in safety; there has been a ninety percent reduction in the amount of yearly accidents reported and a fifty percent reduction in average vehicle claim loss. We have seen great reduction in the cost per passenger mile, previously it cost us three dollars compared to the one dollar and sixty two cents we pay currently per mile. 

The Senate was clearly impressed with Steve’s testimony and his ability to simultaneously critique while providing dynamic solutions to this dire disparity. He hopes that, moving forward, we will be able to partner with the State of New Jersey and acquire funds that will allow for the perfection of our current transportation system and eventually, share these resources with differently abled individuals located outside of county lines.

Kathy Rhead, Assistant Executive Director (left) with consumer Cryshaun Rives (right) at the New Jersey State House

Kathy Rhead, Assistant Executive Director (left) with consumer Cryshaun Rives (right) at the New Jersey State House.

The Arc Mercer Team

The Arc Mercer Team.

The Arc Mercer Team

The Arc Mercer Team.

Team Strength Through Team Diversity

Left to right: Amanda Karbah - DSP, Nonyerem Ofu - DSP, Casey Carty – Manager of DSP Experience, Temp Staff, Courtney Silakoski – Recreation Specialist

Left to right: Amanda Karbah - DSP, Nonyerem Ofu - DSP, Casey Carty – Manager of DSP Experience, Temp Staff, Courtney Silakoski – Recreation Specialist

As we continue to grow as a company, the faces of The Arc Mercer, our valued staff, have become more diverse and robust. In recognizing the cultural shifts within our community, we must also understand that our resources, standards, and means of communication needs to be tailored to support these changes. Steven Cook, Executive Director, Casey Carty, Manager of DSP Experience, and Justin Yarngo, Residential Administrator have come together to create a new initiative to inspire open communication between The Arc and the various communities it serves.

This initiative is creating support groups for the various cultures that make up our staff in order to better listen to and understand that differing needs in these communities that previously have been overlooked. Through creating a mutual understanding, we hope to be a pillar of community support and be able to grow our team through measures of inclusivity.

Recently, Casey met with community leaders to assess the differing needs of the various cultural communities at The Arc Mercer. They came to recognize some very key disparities that this initiative is working to rectify. First being our drivers licensing policy; our previous policy stated that anyone working for The Arc Mercer was required to have been licensed in the United States to legally drive for at least three years.  We previously implemented this policy even though we separately test drivers’ capability through our own training and assessment program. This was exclusionary to any recent immigrant and made obtaining and securing employment here more difficult to some. So with great collaboration, the Multicultural Support Group has changed this policy and replaced it with a policy that is unprejudiced. Our new policy allows for qualified applicant with minimal driving histories to still be considered as candidates for employment. Applicants found having sufficient qualifications in all other required fields can be considered exempt from the necessary background requirements. 

Also, we have recognized a need for extended leave. Many staff members with families in other countries require a lengthy amount of time to be able to visit and support their relatives abroad. Casey reports that these members have often been sent to the United States in order to create a “blueprint” for life here with their families who still reside in other countries and hope to eventually bring them here as well. However, they found it quite difficult to obtain the necessary time off in order to ensure that their familial affairs are adequately taken care of.

Recently, it was brought to Casey’s attention that some of our staff have experienced financial difficulties specifically in regards to housing. She was able to work with one individual who found themselves to be without a home and assisted them in obtaining the proper resources and supports necessary to secure housing. We are also working to be able to provide our staff with support in the areas of child care as well as assisting with acquiring reliable transportation.

Casey says, “The goal is for [our multicultural staff] to know that we support them. We have heard them, we are aware of their concerns, and we are working to change the policies so that we can align it with their needs.” Our hope here at The Arc Mercer in creating this initiative is to strengthen our team through cultural understanding and to ultimately create opportunities for individuals to feel that there is a place on our team for them where they will feel embraced, understood, and supported.

Left to right: Sharese Hobbs – Group Home Manager, Tamia Mckenzie – Residential Director, Casey Carty, Amanda Karbah, Nonyrem Ofu, Temp Staff, Gloriton Williams – Shift Manager, Jimmy Zodwa – DSP

Left to right: Sharese Hobbs – Group Home Manager, Tamia Mckenzie – Residential Director, Casey Carty, Amanda Karbah, Nonyrem Ofu, Temp Staff, Gloriton Williams – Shift Manager, Jimmy Zodwa – DSP

Health Care Center Expansion

Health Care Center expansion

We at The Arc Mercer are proud to share our recent expansion of services offered at our health care center. Our multi-specialty group offers consumers a plethora of healthcare services including general health, gynecological care, preventative care, psychiatric services, and behavioral supports. Though this list is already lengthy, we are both proud and excited add podiatry to the list! We are introducing Dr. Josh Ottenheimer, DPM and Dr. Sachin Patel, DPM from Princeton Ankle and Foot as well as Dr. David Erman, DPM, who comes from his own private practice in East Windsor.

Our health care center is a pillar here at The Arc Mercer because of the truly unique quality of service we are able to offer our consumers. Our practice only serves those in our community with intellectual or developmental disabilities which means our staff are not only capable in their field but, comfortable with our consumers’ behavior and need for specialized treatment and interactions. Our consumers can visit the center without fear or worry that they might be excluded or denied benefits based on their differing abilities.

Adding podiatry to our list of services puts more weight behind the notion that our health care center is a “one stop shop” for all our consumers’ healthcare needs. Many of our consumers have complex medical concerns which would traditionally mean that they would have to go to multiple doctors in multiple locations in order to be supported. However, we recognize that the process of taking consumers to multiple locations not only takes away time that they could spend doing other things and participating in various programs but  is also extremely stressful for consumers and staff. While podiatry is not a need for all of our consumers, it is our wish to make these processes as minimally stressful for all of our consumers and staff. 

This addition to our health care center brings us one step closer to our mission here at The Arc Mercer of providing necessary resources and opportunities  to communities with differing abilities and providing spaces in the community that foster  cultures of inclusion. The Arc Mercer will continue to work with other agencies to provide leadership in the field of developmental disabilities and develop the necessary resources to attain these goals.