Story by Courtney Murray, Photos provided by The Arc of the Emerald Coast
The Emerald Coast is a truly special place. It is home to some of the world’s most beautiful pure white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. You can see dolphins playing as you walk along the shores in the mornings and can view breathtaking sunsets every night. However, our home has so much more to offer than natural beauty, the people that make up our community are exceptional. These people are giving, they are selfless and they make up incredible organizations like The Arc of the Emerald Coast; a non-profit organization serving men, women and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa Counties. They offer programs to over 450 people including Adult Day Training, five group homes with 24/7 care, assisted living, job training, placement and transportation, a Children’s Center and more. Their supportive, caring staff and amazing Board of Directors make the seemingly impossible become a reality. Their Children’s Center serves over 120 local children, both with and without disabilities, providing day care, after school care, and Pre-K. They provide their adult clients with Supported Employment, making it possible for them to work are out in the community on a daily basis. Additionally, their community involvement is extensive with production of and involvement in many events each year, including Burning Up The Beaches, the Murder Mystery Dinner, the Blueberry Bash, The Emerald Coast Foundation Poker Run each August, Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation and United Way. Their community development department is out and about all the time, actively participating in all three area chambers and making sure the public knows all about The Arc and the amazing work they do.
The Arc of the Emerald Coast is constantly growing and evolving, and recently broke ground on the Impact 100 Aquatic Center and Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation Early Intervention and Education Center. “This is the realization of a vision we have long had. It will be the only pool built exclusively for the use of people with disabilities in the entire region. The Early Intervention/Education Center will be a unique, safe and comfortable facility to provide year round therapeutic exercise and socialization, along with educating families on the best methods of dealing early on with their disabled children. Truly exciting stuff for the entire community!” described John Roper, CEO. The Arc of the Emerald Coast touches countless individuals each and every day and is near and dear to Roper’s heart. As a parent of a child with disabilities, Roper describes, “I not only want to ensure she gets all the opportunities available, but all individuals with disabilities. There is no greater feeling at the end of the day than knowing you made a difference to someone along the way.” From being a law enforcement officer to having served as ED of a counseling agency, to being a parent-advocate to a daughter with disabilities, it has always been a life long passion of his to serve others and he is living out this dream at The Arc of the Emerald Coast.
Interview with John Roper, CEO
VIP Destin Magazine: Describe a situation working with the organization that really stood out and touched you.
John Roper: There are so many. B but one that happened recently really stands out, that happened recently. We were very fortunate to have a few of our clients be able to take scuba diving lessons from a local diver, at the pool at the Emerald Grande. Then two were able to do it again on our summer trip to Rish Park. At the ground breaking of our Aquatic Center, one of our clients, Ashley, in her wheel chair, was crying during the ceremony. A reporter from the NWF Daily News asked her why she was crying, and she said, “ I am just so happy. We are going to have a pool, I can scuba dive and swim whenever I want to now!” And that is why we do what we do.
VIP Destin Magazine: What are some ways that community members can contribute, help and get involved?
John Roper: There are so many ways. First of all, of course, is with monetary donations. It is always hard to make ends meet. You can volunteer to work at one of our events, or during the annual Day of Caring. Sponsor an event, or donate an auction item. You can like our Facebook page and share our posts with your friends, purchase tickets to our events, sign up on Amazon Smile, choosing Horizons of Okaloosa County (our tax name, DBA The Arc of the Emerald Coast) that way each time you make a purchase on Amazon, The Arc will get a donation. Any of these ways will help!
VIP Destin Magazine: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
John Roper: Another one that’s difficult to choose just one! We have a receptionist here at the Arc, just the most cheerful person you would will ever meet. Her son, in his 20’s, has severe Cerebral Palsy. She will tell you about the years they were on the waiting list for Med Waiver funding; about that moment they found out they would receive it. About how, the load it took off of them when their son started coming to our Adult Day Training Center, the load it took off of them; about how the first time he went on our client’s weekend trip to Rish Park, they had not had a night to themselves, as a couple, for over 15 years. When you realize that the work going on here at The Arc of the Emerald Coast does not just affect the client, but the entire family, it’s extremely rewarding to say the least.
VIP Destin Magazine: Does The Arc of the Emerald Coast have any upcoming events?
John Roper: Yes we do! We are the beneficiary of funds from the annual Parrothead Chili Cookoff, being held on February 4th at HarborWalk Village. In April, we are a recipient charity of funds from the annual Destin Charity Wine Auction. Folks can purchase patron tickets to this great weekend at www.dcwaf.org. The first weekend of May brings Burning Up The Beaches. This is our classic car weekend, bringing in hundreds of classic cars from all over the US. The big show that’s free to the public will be on Saturday, May 6,th at Destin Commons. And then there is our Blueberry Bash in June, and the Emerald Coast Foundation’s “Big One” Poker Run in August. We are busy!
VIP Destin Magazine: What have been some obstacles you’ve faced and some of your triumphs so far?
John Roper: Funding is always the biggest obstacle. We want so much for from our clients, but it all takes money. Triumphs of course include the opening of the Aqua/Education Center, the new group home, and winning grants. The greatest triumphs in this business are small things, smiles on faces, when a client reaches a new plateau, or learns a new skill, gets a job. Whatever it is, however small it may be, putting life in their terms, even if just for a moment, that’s the good stuff.
VIP Destin Magazine: Describe a typical day at The Arc of the Emerald Coast.
John Roper: Well, there is just no such thing. This is a dynamic, interactive environment working with such diversity; it takes problem solving to the extreme. Between client issues, family issues, project management, small business, and government issues, no day is like the last. All of us here at the Arc wear different hats all the time.
VIP Destin Magazine: What plans does The Arc of the Emerald Coast have for the future?
John Roper: We are constantly seeking to improve the lives of our clients. We have just started building a new group home through a grant with the Florida Department of Housing. We hope to build another in Crestview, once we secure a lot. We want to expand our services in Santa Rosa County. Our fleet of handicapped vans is badly in need of replacement. All of this takes money, so we will be seeking out grants, donations, new fundraisers, whatever it takes. Again, we are constantly looking for ways to make the lives of these people we serve better.
VIP Destin Magazine: What is the one thing you want VIP Destin Magazine readers to know about you and The Arc of the Emerald Coast that they might not know otherwise?
John Roper: That the passion and drive within The Arc family are second to none. Our own needs are never before those of the people we serve, and that goes for each and every staff member. Our mission is sacred to us, “To provide a path from disability to capability” and therefore, the goal is and always will be to provide the best services possible to these wonderful, deserving, meek people who cannot always fight for themselves. We put the world in their terms for them, we strive for inclusion for them, we advocate for them, and we are their biggest fans.