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Center of Hope forges ahead despite challenge of Covid-19

By Rod Lee

As an organization that is used to overcoming challenges going all the way back to a founding initiated by a young mother from Charlton in the 1950s, The Center of Hope Foundation in Southbridge gladly welcomes the latest of these: returning to fully functioning status, once the Covid-19 pandemic eases.

The Center of Hope, or COH (also known as The Association for Retarded Children in Southern Worcester County, or SWCARC—a chapter of The Arc), operates out of 100,000-square-foot main offices at 100 Foster St./1 North St. in Southbridge. It acquired the site in 2013. It still owns its original Walnut St. location, which hosts one of the facility’s five day-habilitation programs.

The Arc remains the largest organization in the U.S. serving individuals with intellectual and development disabilities.

The past several months have not been easy, CEO Cindy Howard, who succeeds her husband Jim in the position, said.

 “We have struggled some of late because most of our funding is attached to attendance,” Ms. Howard said on September 25th. “But, we’re set up for virtual, which allows us to be OK. We are reopening slowly, maintaining one hundred thirteen feet between people in our day programs (as required by the state), which is very limiting. So at most we can have two hundred of our six hundred people in place at any time.

“We had to lay off a large number of people and we didn’t have the bandwidth to do extra fundraising.”

That’s where John Rowley, a parent of two of The Center of Hope’s clients, his sons John Jr., 24, and Joshua, 22, comes in. An event organizer, Mr. Rowley put together Friends of the COH Benefit Golf Tournament, held September 29th at Heritage Country Club in Charlton.

“It’s going pretty well,” Mr. Rowley said the week before tee off. “I have done different golf tournaments for years. We’ve got at least eighteen teams registered.”

As it turns out, twenty-two teams showed up at Heritage on the morning of the 29th under partly cloudy skies with no immediate prospect of rain to dampen the proceedings in the forecast.

“Team Hoyt,” represented by Dick Hoyt and his office manager Kathy Boyer, and other team members, was among those present to support the cause. Mr. Hoyt of course is well known as the father of Rick Hoyt, a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy; together they ran the Boston Marathon from 1981 until 2015 when the late Bryan Lyons took over the honor of pushing Rick Hoyt. Together the Hoyts entered more than one thousand races as a father-son duo, including six Ironman triathlons.

Mr. Lyons, a dentist and dear friend of Dick and Rick Hoyt, passed away at the age of fifty earlier this year.

“We are long-time supporters of the Center of Hope,” Mr. Hoyt said as golfers arrived to sign in for the tournament. He gestured to a painting of himself and his son sat next to the raffle table and said “there’s Rick.”

“The Friends came forward with this tournament and they have a nice day for it,” Ms. Boyer said. 

Given the chance to contribute as organizer of the golf tournament, Mr. Rowley readily agreed. “God bless [The Center of Hope’s staff] for what they do,” he said.

As Jim Howard points out on The Center of Hope’s website, the organization has grown dramatically since Anita Anderson was encouraged to start a chapter of The Arc with a small group of other parents more than half a century ago. It now serves over seven hundred families in sixty-four towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The Center of Hope typifies the more enlightened approach to treating individuals with disabilities that started to take root in the 1960s: a direct outgrowth of Ms. Anderson and her group’s efforts to push treatment away from institutionalization.

A significant milestone was reached in the 1970s with passage of Chapter 766 in Massachusetts, enabling individuals with disabilities to be educated in the state’s public schools, and to obtain employment in sheltered workshops. In the 1980s, employers began buying in.

Anita Anderson’s research led to a school named Center of Hope, which was started in a former garage of the Wells family, donated by American Optical. In 1984, a small inheritance enabled the Board of Directors to revitalize the SWCARC and Jim Howard and Geri Filion (from the rehab center in Webster) to be brought in to reinvigorate the organization. This led to a new, much-needed Respite House.

When the Walnut St. building became insufficient, space was rented room by room in the American Optical complex, until all of it was occupied.

Its vocational services component is integral to what the Center of Hope does. More than a dozen small businesses have been launched, allowing the COH to become one of the top five employers in Southbridge.

“Our thrift shop (Hope’s Treasures) is open,” Ms. Howard said. “Noress Corp., our subcontractor, is open, they are assembling and packaging face shields and doing lots of other work for twenty different companies and they are looking for employees.”

“Vivid Print,” “Yards of Hope,” “Cleanout & Removal Services,” “Just the Details” and “Construction & Renovation Enterprise” are some of the other businesses operating under the COH banner.

For clients in these businesses, the satisfaction comes from “a growing and learning experience” and the chance to “get out and not be afraid to talk to people.” For John Cloutier, manager of Hope’s Treasures on Mechanic St. in Southbridge, the reward is in “training” clients so that they can be active and contributing members of the community.

Car detailing “is one of our customers’ favorites,” Ms. Howard said.

From a “first contract” to serve ten people with disabilities, the Center of Hope has grown to the point where it is now administering to the needs of over seven hundred clients.

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.


The COH’s registration table at Heritage Country Club.