Some of the best supports for people with disabilities in the country start as a dream from visionaries who are able to see something that doesn’t exist yet and realize the difference it could make.
The Learning Community is an example of a company that began as an idea, but later became an industry-changing reality.
During the 1990’s, Michael Smull regularly consulted with organizations in Blair County on how they could better support people by adopting Person Centered practices. Blair County has long been committed to developing “best practices” within the county services, and rising expectations regarding the quality of those services. Work from existing service providers was making a difference, but an organization offering Michael’s best practice services could make improvements more rapidly.
Michael played a large role in starting and consulting for several best practice agencies. Among them was Mid-Tenn Supported Living in Nashville, TN. Mid-Tenn is an agency that uses a “companion” model of support. The companion model of support is based on the idea that the people who use the services should select the person who provides their support. That person selected would then live with them and share their life.
Together with Mary Lou Bourne and Helen Terza, Michael felt that an organization based on these principles would not only help people in Blair County have the life that they wanted, but these principles would also significantly contribute to the changes that the entire county was needing.
It was agreed that the local agency would be started under the auspices of The Learning Community for Person Centered Practices, a not for profit organization with international membership and that Andrea Eckenrod would be the local executive director.
In October 2004, the Learning Community for Essential Lifestyle Planning opened their doors in Blair County Pennsylvania. That first office was a place to behold by the new staff excited with the prospect of providing new services to their community. Although the staff was greatly appreciative of the office furniture that was donated for the original home office for The Learning Community, they’re pretty glad that the the fuzzy 1970 style wallpaper, velvet drapes and glow-in-the-dark yellow bathroom is now a fond memory.
Additional staff members were recruited from the dedicated professionals who worked throughout the area, and who had been providing services within the current system for as long as 20 years. They joined our small band of visionaries, bringing their own revolutionary ideas and desires to be a part of this organization that embraced this new way to do “business”.
In our first office with our new staff, every necessary document was developed to run this organization. Company policy, mission, budgets, contracts, account development, insurances, time sheets, orientation procedures, and implementation guidelines were all created during those early years. Long hours, sleepless nights and good old fashioned sweat evolved into an organization dedicated to the mission of Person Centered services.
Although we are getting more sleep now, the passion to recognize and implement a better way is still a strong motivation for our support professionals at all levels. The Learning Community’s support professionals, families, people who receive services, and the community who assist in providing happy, safe, and positive options for all people is our foundation, our purpose, and our motivation.
On a corporate level, the plan was for the organization to temporarily operate under the umbrella of the International Board of Directors. Once the Blair County efforts were firmly established, The Learning Community of Pennsylvania would be spun off as an independent organization. The organization did indeed re-incorporate in July 2007, only three years from the date of its inception. The Learning Community of Pennsylvania was then established with a local Board of Directors.
The grass root efforts and the beginning concepts have evolved, but the original mission, values, and philosophy have remained the same. The Learning Community continues to interact with the National organization as well as similar Provider Service groups across the country and around the world to keep the vision alive and growing in our community.
In Memory of Andrea Eckenrod
June 16, 1973 – Dec. 12, 2010
Andrea was a member of The Arc of Blair County and served as founding director of The Learning Community, an agency serving people who have developmental disabilities with a Person Centered Thinking approach.
Andrea was passionate about working towards giving every individual the life they dream of, whether they had a disability or not. She embodied people first language and saw every individual as just that, an individual. Andrea was one of the facilitators of a training module for Person Centered Thinking which has become a practice of the county and throughout the adult provider agencies.
Andrea continued the leadership and journey paved by others before her. She did not sit idly by content with progress already made. Andrea encouraged everyone around her to not just say you are person centered but to live it. She ignited in us a passion to make change happen.
Andrea helped to support many in our community and will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with her young family during this very difficult time.
A special thanks to The Arc of Blair County for this write up.