“There are times in history when people who carry a common and crushing burden become so desperate that they seek each other out, band themselves together, enlist the aid of concerned friends, and begin to demand that attention be paid.”
— Cherrie Sevick, The Arc of San Diego’s first Executive Director
It was an unexpected encounter in 1951. Sharing a room in a maternity ward, Diane Stice of the Ocean Beach Junior Woman’s Club learned Dolly Clark had a young daughter Jenny with Down Syndrome. This chance meeting marked the beginning of momentous change to come.
By July the Ocean Beach Junior Woman’s Club was determined to “do something” for children with mental retardation and, in September, formed the Committee for Exceptional Children of San Diego. In the fall, an invitation was extended, through letters and outreach to local media, asking people with an interest to meet in the auditorium of the San Diego Gas & Electric Building in downtown. That Tuesday night, Oct. 23, 1951, Stice welcomed 120 interested families and friends.
On Oct. 31, the San Diego Society for Exceptional Children was voted into existence, and The Arc of San Diego, as we know it, was founded.
It was an incredible group of people — desperate parents, strangers to one another, gathering together because they knew an alternative had to exist for children who were committed to state institutions. These pioneers became advocates, public speakers, lobbyists, fund-raisers, writers and teachers — blazing trails in unchartered territory, overcoming obstacles willing to do whatever it took. No group ever started with less — there was no money, no meeting place, no guidelines, no knowledge.
The 1950s were a time of struggling to organize and establish policies. The rallying cry was, “Mandatory Pt. II,” public education for all children. In 1953, the San Diego Board of Education started the first experimental class in California for the “Trainable Mentally Retarded” at Riley Street School. Members of the Society assisted with case-finding, applications, transportation, aides and volunteers.
The next step was opening the Child Development Center in March 1955, a day training program at 505 West Camino Del Rio, Mission Valley in the old, vacant, burned-down Anthony Home for Delinquents. In September 1957, a new program, Youth Activities, began for teenagers and adults with curriculum that included bowling and subcontract work.
At this point, it became apparent the name was misleading so it was changed to a more realistic “San Diego Association for Retarded Children.” The word “County” was added when chapters began to spring up. It took much planning to arrive at a “chapter” system, which was created to unify the movement while encouraging local communities to set up programs.
• North County, sponsored by the Soroptimist Club of Oceanside, was the first chapter to open in November 1957 but, because of commuting distance, became an independent organization in 1965; later, it rejoined the Arc in 1988 as its fifth chapter.
• In March 1956, the Chula Vista Junior Womens’ Club provided the financial and volunteer help to start a “Teenage Recreational Program for the Mentally Handicapped.” In 1959 the group dissolved to become the South Bay Chapter.
• In March 1959, under the patronage of the El Cajon Junior Woman’s Club, Sunbeam Center was established in the small guesthouse of Mrs. Helen Beem. In 1960 the name Angels Unaware was adopted, and the center voted to become the East County Chapter.
• This left the mid-city section with the Child Development Center and Youth Activities programs, which the Association operated. In keeping with the chapter system, it was decided in January 1963, to make this the City Chapter.
• At the same time, a group of parents from the North City area, under the banner STRESS (Special Training Readiness for Educable Slow Students), developed a summer school program and, in June 1975, channeled their energies into forming the North Shores Chapter.
During the 1960s, the association began to change public attitudes, influence legislation and recruit professionals into the field.
In 1963, eight years after the battle for mandatory education began, Assemblyman Clair Burgener of San Diego secured passage of his very first bill without any dissenting votes: mandatory public-supported, appropriate education in California for the “trainable mentally retarded.”
In January 1966 the Child Development Center, renamed Development Center for Handicapped Minors, became part of the City Schools system.
The ’70s were inspired by legislative successes, including: The innovative Regional Centers; a statewide delivery of services system; Lanterman Mental Retardation Services Act; compulsory PKU testing; Master Plan for Special Education for children ages 3-21 followed by P.L. 94-142; Education for All Handicapped Children Act; Supplemental Security Income; and expansion of the Rehabilitation Act.
The ’80s were an era of mergers, program growth, expansion, improvements and a name-change: Association for Retarded Citizens. It was also a time when courage and conviction came into play, fearing a shortfall in funding. The Department of Developmental Services issued directives requiring Regional Centers to cut back services without regard to the Individual Program Plan. We won a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court upholding the right to services under the Lanterman Act.
The ’90s showed an agency in transition. A shift in thinking to empowerment of individuals with disabilities and changes in the nature of the delivery systems made it necessary to re-examine our mission and articulate a new direction. Amidst growing discussion, another name-change, The Arc of San Diego, took effect.
At The Arc, the challenge we face is reminding ourselves every day that our record of innovation, discovery, creativity, growth and consistent service has happened because of the culture and the values that guided us when we were a smaller agency.
Today, we are a much larger organization. We provide early intervention, vocational, recreational and residential services to more than 220 children and 1,500 adults with disabilities.
However, we must not lose the specialness of our past. Rather, we must bind ourselves together, reaffirm those historic values, and teach them so that as we learn to work as a team, we share the vision and achieve the promise for which our mission was created.