Seven-year-old Dutch Hill resident Maria Brandt learned her first lesson about including others from a neighbor who insisted her daughter join kickball and other outdoor games played by neighborhood kids. I learned
Brandt gave advice to her neighbor “We sympathized that we must treat everyone the same. It turned out that the girl had legs.”
Brandt said the lessons of accepting others carry over to his work at Ark in Blair County, where he has spent the past 19 years advocating for people with intellectual, developmental, or cognitive disabilities.
As executive director of The Arc, Brandt said his aim is to learn from and help people with disabilities. “Live the best life they can.”
“We, in all societies and in all cultures, treat them as if there is something wrong, when in fact they have so many gifts to share with us. There is a tendency to treat “less than”. she said.
The Arc, a privately-funded nonprofit that receives no government funding, offers its services free of charge to all ages thanks to donations, fundraising and grants, she said. .
Altoona’s Arc member Christina Polito participates in ukulele, African drums and cooking classes.
“I like to try different things” Polito said.
She really enjoys all the programs, Polito said “I love cooking classes.”
During a friendly cooking competition, she was in charge of chopping for her group.
“It took me minutes to make appetizers, entrees and desserts from the ingredients in the bag.” she remembered. She and her partner prepared her cup of fruit, her egg omelet with cheese and peppers, and her dessert of layered chocolate.
Polito also enjoys woodworking classes where she has made bookshelves, tool caddies, chalk/memo boards, and other items.
“It’s challenging because we get to use the tools ourselves. But if you want someone to help you, they’re there. Do it yourself.” She added that she likes to use hammers, screwdrivers and especially saws.
Hands-on experiences like these are examples of how Blunt expands beyond the typical arts and crafts program.
“One of the big mantras here at The Ark is don’t do it for them. They can do it themselves.” Brandt said. “Our job is to help or be a coach if they need a little guidance from us.”
When Brandt first offered a craft class with shards of glass, there was some backlash because support personnel and parents feared injury.
“We tend to have no patience and do too much for them.” Brandt said.
“So in everything we do here, we remove obstacles.” she said. “Let me show you first. They have to ask for help.”
when someone says “I can’t do this” Brandt is back “Let’s see if we can do it.”
“I let them try it” she said.
The key is breaking down complex tasks into steps to build skills, confidence, and independence.
“We don’t push them into it. We build them to that level. They learn through experience.” she said.
look at the person
In addition to African drums, The Ark also has a chorus and ukulele club. All three can be done in communities.
“They are successful at it.” Brandt said. “They practice for a reason, so I want someone who has a program or a banquet… they’re willing to play for free.”
When he was hired to the board in 2005, Brandt said he admitted he did not come from a clinician background. “system” Despite his background, he had the business acumen necessary to lead a nonprofit.
Brandt said the board will: ‘I took a leap of faith’ by hiring her.
“I hadn’t worked with people with disabilities yet. I hadn’t gone through the ropes. But I had a business background and they needed it too.” she said.
Brandt said the program didn’t focus on the fact that it was aimed at people with disabilities.
“It’s not my focus” she said. “I say to everyone—I said it once, I said it a thousand times—remove the obstacles and meet the person. And give them a chance.”
Bruno DeGol, President of The Arc Board of Directors, said Brandt: “Irreplaceable”
“I don’t know if the Ark would have existed without Maria. She runs the place. It would be very difficult to replace her.” He said.
freedom to help
In the late 1960s, The Ark board members voted not to accept government funding. This gave us the freedom to fight for our members’ rights.
“We’re here to advocate. It’s hard to fight for[members’]rights when they’re sending you checks every month.” Degol said.
That freedom extends to the families of the 240 arc members.
Services provided by Ark are free of charge and advocacy activities are carried out on a micro and macro scale. For example, a team of adults he assists individuals in meetings or takes a bus to Harrisburg to educate lawmakers on their mission to give rights and dignity to all human beings, Brandt said. . .
advocacy is “The backbone of what Arc does. Most people are very surprised to discover that Arc in Blair County is not funded through the government (Medicaid Service Center or state). , this is liberating for many families because we don’t have all the paperwork and red tape that most agencies require.”
Membership is not required to receive services, but membership helps with communication, advocacy and educational efforts, she said.
By saying no to government funding, Brandt is free to do what he thinks is best without financial repercussions.
“She does what she thinks is best for the members.” Degol said. “She can give reasons and go against the policy.”
Her non-clinical background has proven to be her strength.
“I often say to them, ‘Why can’t we do it this way?’ and they say, ‘Because of regulations.’ It gives you the freedom to think outside the box and think outside the box.” Brandt said.
Brandt is Ark’s only full-time employee and has five part-time employees, including two with disabilities.
According to DeGaulle, she has become a valuable resource both inside and outside of Blair County, and is often contacted by other arks for assistance.
Over the years, Blunt has experimented with different products.
For example, she tried to host a support group for parents of Arc members, but found that it wasn’t really necessary.
“(Support) comes naturally.” She added that formally holding a support group can be negative at times.
“We wanted to make sure we brought people together and gave them hope and inspiration.” Brandt said.
Christina Polito’s mother, Betty Polito, described the arc as follows: “Like one big family” and commended Brandt for his leadership and understanding.
“Maria is phenomenal and top notch” Betty Polito said. “We parents have developed friendships through our children with disabilities. It’s a special bond.”
The Ark members motivate Blunt to devise new programming and fundraising efforts.
ARK is self-sustaining and one of the few in the state to host several large fundraising events throughout the year. We also accept in-kind donations, from pens to frying pans for cooking classes.
“I am neither ashamed nor embarrassed to ask questions” Brandt said. “That’s how we do it. We’re really money conscious.”
ARK has partnered with the Rotary Club of Altoona Sunrise on one of its largest fundraiser, the Becky Sheets Memorial Golf Tournament. This outing benefits both Ark and Special Olympics.
Other major events include the biennial art show and “Cash Bash”
“Ark members will create works and hold a reception where the works will be bid for.” Brant explained. Ark artists feel better when people buy art, she said. “They are doing a good job.”
Brandt said her favorite part of the job is being with the Ark members. “Keep my mindset fresh and keep me energized.”
“I have learned a lot about my work and life through the members of The Ark.” she said. “It feels so good to help other people. That’s what drives me.”
Name: Maria Brandt
Family: Husband, Joe.adult children, connor, marissa, jonah
Education: Altoona Regional High School
Employment: Ark of Blair County: 2005 to present
Community Service: Altoona Sunrise Rotary, former member of AMBUCS, former chairman of Blair County Chamber Non Profit Business
Awards and Honors: Women in Business 2021 Non Profit Leaders; 2019 Blair County Chamber of Commerce Athena Award. Wise Woman, 2016