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Improving Lives with The Arc Nature Coast

By Diane Bedard Posted on August 7, 2019

In 1973, a small group of Hernando County residents sought a better way to care for the Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled citizens of the area. Many of these families had children or relatives who had been labelled “retarded” and were living in dark institutions away from their loved ones.

These families created a local chapter of The Arc, a national organization that advocates for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) to receive the same basic legal, civil, and human rights as other citizens.

“Most of our first clients were previously kept in institutions, given basic medical care and a roof over their heads, but little more,” Mark W. Barry, Executive Director, tells me on a recent tour of their Neff Lake Campus.

Mark graduated from Saint Leo University and worked for The Arc of Pasco County for 18 years before coming to The Arc Nature Coast. Now the two organizations are merging to better serve the population.

“I went to an institution in 1980 and the population was on feeding tubes in stainless steel beds. I was convicted,” he shared with me. “There has been a silent civil rights movement for this population.”

Institutional life was pretty much all that was available for Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled citizens in early Florida. Image from of The Florida Farm Colony courtesy of Florida Memory.

The Florida Farm Colony began in 1915 with the establishment of a legislative commission to study the needs of persons who were “feeble-minded” and epileptic. This resulted in November 1921 with the opening of the Florida Farm Colony for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic in Gainesville, Florida on a 3000-acre tract. This was the first state-funded program for residents with developmental challenges. It began with three buildings and 240 residents.[1]

What is Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled?

We are walking through a very old building that was once a chicken coop. Inside this 501c(3) nonprofit organization, clients are enjoying painting, drawing, making puzzles, reading the news, and learning how to be safe around lightning.

Nicole Tyrell teaches The Arc Nature Coast clients important life skills.

While their outer features may not be the ones we admire in magazines, their joyful spirits create an energy of happiness throughout the renovated class, rest, and resource rooms.

Caring for Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled people is quite different from mental health care, but the two are commonly confused. (A strong NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) chapter in Hernando County works to provide help to those with psychiatric disorders.)

“Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled people tend to be steady and stable,” Mark explains, “They have intellectual instead of psychiatric challenges.”

Wade Graves, an expert equestrian and artists, works at Publix. Today, he is painting flowers at The Arc of the Nature Coast Neff Lake Campus.

The Arc’s Neff Lake Campus is Beautiful… and Aged

The Neff Lake campus of The Arc Nature Coast is approximately 30-acres of heavily wooded, rolling countryside. It is a beautiful, peaceful place with paths, a playground, and plenty of history.

“The owner of the property, a chicken farm from the 1950s, gave the entirety to The Arc Nature Coast nearly 50 years ago for the purpose of providing a stable location for local citizens with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to come for day care,” Nancy Stubbs, Development Director of the organization explains. “We want to provide a quality of life for our clients that allows them to contribute to society and feel valued, moving toward independence, as well as take care of their physical needs.”

The Arc Nature Coast’s current Learning & Enrichment Center was originally a farm building

Nancy continues, “These buildings were renovated by prison laborers in the 1970s.”

It is obvious that the former chicken coop and farm buildings are reaching the end of their useful life, and she explains that there is a fundraising campaign underway to redesign this amazing piece of property to meet the area’s growing need for The Arc’s services.

A dedicated team works tirelessly to improve life for their clients, which include over 200 daycare and full-time residents in more than 12 locations throughout Pasco and Hernando Counties. It is headed up by Mark, who is one of only two Executive Directors of the organization since its inception and has been with The Arc for 39 years.

Mark Barry, Executive Director, and Nancy Stubbs, Development Director at The Arc Nature Coast’s Neff Lake Campus.

Nancy has a brother, Gary, who is a client of the program. “Gary is the nicest, happiest person I know,” Nancy shares with me, “He enriches my life, as do all of our clients.”

Modern Buildings Ease Client Care

In 2014, new group residential homes were added to the Neff Lake Campus. These 100% accessible buildings provide a much-improved environment for The Arc’s residential clients. A portico is part of the design, providing shelter for wheelchairs exiting vehicles during rainstorms. There are no steps.

The wide-open floor plan provides a communal living, dining and kitchen area where caregivers can interact with residents and counters are set at wheelchair height, allowing residents to help in the kitchen.

Modern residential homes make care management better for residents and their caregivers.

Each modern residential home has six individual bedrooms, a laundry room, a nursing/supervisor station and a guest room (in case someone needs to stay at the last-minute), besides modern restrooms with roll-in showers and many accessibility features that ease the strain of care.

Nikki Kostjukoff is a Home Manager for The Arc. She is seen here talking with Nancy in one of the group residential homes.

“These features may not look like a big deal to most people, but when a resident needs help with bathing and toileting, these features make their lives better and their caregiver’s job much more manageable,” Mark explains, showing me the features of these custom designed homes by Palmwood Builders.

Our Roots are Strong, and our Future is Bright..

“We are seeking funds to raze the farm buildings and build a new Life Enrichment Center,” Mark shares with me. There is a beautiful mural on the side of the current building, but the building itself is showing its age.

The Giving Tree is part of The Arc’s current Capital Campaign.

The Arc Nature Coast started a Capital Campaign to build an Enrichment and Training Center to replace the old farm buildings and renovated chicken coop. There is a long-term goal to renovate the entire property, which can be found here.

Serving all Levels of Need – for Life

At The Arc, each of their clients is served for life. “We take clients from age 21, and we will continue to care for them throughout their entire life. One of our challenges is when a client outlives his or her family. Disabilities run in families of all income brackets and socio-economic groups,” Nancy explains.

Some clients have been with The Arc for 40+ years. Each client has an individual plan which is evaluated and revised regularly. The need is great.

Some clients have been with The Arc for 40+ years. Each client has an individual plan which is evaluated and revised regularly. The need is great.

“Florida has a huge backlog of Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled citizens in need of care. There was 24,000 on the backlist last time I looked,” Nancy continues.

“Funding is our greatest challenge,” Mark agrees, “whether from the legislature, private donors, or grants.”

Life Enrichment for Arc Clients looks like FUN

In July 2019, they were treated to a “Gone with the Wind” Prom 2019 and it was wonderful.

As you may guess, most of the clients at The Arc Nature Coast did not attend a Senior Prom.  In July, they were treated to “Gone with the Wind” Prom 2019 sponsored by The Kiwanis Club of Spring Hill and The Arc Nature Coast Aktion Club, and it was wonderful! Cosmetology students from Bene’s Career Academy came out and gave the girls hairstyle up-dos and makeup, as well as manicures.

Cosmetology students from Bene’s Career Academy came out and gave the girls’ hairstyle up-dos and makeup, as well as manicures.

Members of the Hernando County Sheriff’s Department were at the prom and escorted some of the those in attendance. Limousine transportation was provided by Spring Hill Limo and the prom guests were dressed up with their dancing shoes on. PJ the DJ Services spun the tunes and the Spring Hill Enrichment Center was turned into an event venue for all.

Limousine transportation was provided by Spring Hill Limo and the prom guests were dressed up with their dancing shoes on.

It took a village, but the memories made for these Nature Coasters makes it all worthwhile.

The Arc Nature Coast hosts five dances per year. They are open to the public and held at the Education Center in Spring Hill.  

The cost is $5.00 per person. All dances are from 7:00 PM – 10:00 PM. Three are left in the 2019 schedule, including Summer Sizzler Dance August 23, Halloween Costume Dance October 25, and the Christmas Dance-with Santa December 20.

The Arc Clients Love to Give Back

The goal of The Arc is to help their clients achieve independence through comprehensive services, including personal and social skills development. They are also supported in their household management, budgeting, and community interaction skills.  

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Arc clients go out on community outings and volunteer. In fact, Arc clients have volunteered over 2,500 hours in the community.

Those clients who are able like to work. Publix is one of the local employers who utilizes The Arc clients.

Those who are able, like to work. Small groups of 5-10 workers go out to six different locations on a daily basis. The Arc Nature Coast enjoys an excellent working relationship with local business in our area (including Publix, Wal-Mart, Accuform, Micro-Matic, Alumi-Guard, Carrabba’s and more) while their clients enjoy their jobs.

You can Help

Financially, there is a huge need. The annual operating budget is $3.3 million.

Then there’s the Capital Campaign. The Life Skills Development Center is really needed, as the 1950s buildings are pretty worn out.

I learned a lot during my tour of The Arc Nature Coast and even received a beautifully colored card from one of their clients.

Call and take a tour. Meet the clients, teachers, nurses and staff that make this place so very special. Maybe attend a dance. You are sure to be glad you did.

When you see funding bills for these types of organizations, take a minute to contact your legislators and tell them that you support these services and hope they will. How else are we going to take care of the need?

If you want to donate today, click here.

And make sure you look any intellectually or developmentally disabled person in the eye and give them a smile next time you see them in public. Take a minute to say Hi and enjoy their unencumbered friendliness. We all have value, lots of value, so take the time to see it in yourself and others.

[1] Image and text from, an online reference tool for the Florida State Archives.


Jzandecki says

Excellent story and summary of all that The Arc Nature Coast does for the local community!


Florida's Original NatureCoaster™ says

Thank you so much, Jason! We are grateful to have such a wonderful organization in the area.


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Rkr says

Great, extensive story and photographs.


Florida's Original NatureCoaster™ says

Thank you, Richard.


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