BN non-profit inspires paths to success through transition, workforce services

By Zach Dietmeier

In 1955, a school was established in Bloomington-Normal for five children with intellectual disabilities looking for support, both for the students and their families.

At the time, many of those children – who suffered from autism, cerebral palsy, and other physical and speech-related development delays – were excluded from participating in public school; by 1979, when a federal court mandated special education be provided by school districts, Marcfirst shifted its focus to providing adult living situations and developmental vocational training as an alternative to institutionalization.

Our focus is and always has been to help individuals with developmental disabilities develop natural supports in our community as part of a meaningful life,” Marcfirst CEO Laura Furlong said.

Today, the non-profit corporation provides a range of services and supports for around 800 children, adults and families; the options include residential, vocational development, employment, high school transition, and therapeutic supports for children.

“We continue to serve some of the same children – as senior adults – that were among those first participants,” Furlong said.

Nationally, employment rates for people with intellectual disabilities is around 10 percent; in Illinois, that number is about six percent. In McLean County, tracked employment is estimated between 55 and 60 percent. According to Furlong, Marcfirst is able to provide a unique approach to aid by hearing the desire of many families for a focus on employment.

“We really have done a good job in our community thanks to our local employers who open those doors and build those relationships,” she said. “It’s always better for people with disabilities to be out in the community; people are healthier, happier, and safer when they live in the community and are surrounded by family, co-workers, and neighbors, just like anyone.”

Success has snowballed.

58 employers in McLean County – ranging from retail and food service to daycare and hotel hospitality to computer and data entry with the likes of Afni and COUNTRY Financial – provide job opportunities to participants. The staff advocates believe the services they provide opens up diversity in the community in a way that isn’t traditionally “top-of-mind.”

“What we hear from employers is that it makes the whole department a better place,” Furlong said.  “One employer said, ‘How can I go in and say I had a bad day when I don’t have the same challenges?’ It makes for a much healthier workplace.

She added that employers understand that their employees work well because of the established network of support for families. Success in addressing speech and physical therapy delays early puts children way ahead once they get into schools, and the early start often means those children won’t need further special services – a major, proactive advantage.

With an overall mission of “a lifetime of meaningful supports,” the community collaboration doesn’t just end with workforce training. Marcfirct has developed a partnership for a specialized wellness program with Advocate BroMenn Health & Fitness Center, funded through the McLean County Health Department. Participants with developmental disabilities receive a full health assessment and ongoing support in nutrition, fitness, and medication – much of which many would not be able to afford otherwise.

“They live in their own apartments, so they can come and go and do what they want. Many are able to ride the Connect Transit system on their own.”

From a creative aspect, the organization has built good relationships for artists with disabilities. Illinois State University Galleries in Uptown Normal allows Marcfirst artists to work with local professional artists to learn different media for self-expression.

Marcfirst consults with other organizations in the state, including development of customized employment – making them one of just two organizations in Illinois currently offering the service.

In July, the organization was awarded the four-year Person-Centered Excellence Accreditation, the highest level of recognition from the Council on Quality Leadership (CQL). The designation makes Marcfirst one of a handful of developmental disability providers in Illinois that have accreditation.

We have a very strong workforce here [in McLean County]. Our community has embraced us.”