An interview with Jess Butrica, Executive Director of The Autauga/Western Elmore Arc (AWE Arc), a membership organization which advocates for and supports persons with intellectual disabilities. AWE Arc operates four programs in the River Region: The Louise M. Smith Developmental Center (Smith Center) which is for day habilitation, a Supported Employment Program, The Doris Jean Grant Residential Program and the Early Infant Education Intervention Opportunities Program (E.I.E.I.O.).
The Smith Center became an Easter Seals Dogs on Call (DOC) venue in March 2015. We visit on the 1st and 3rd Fridays of each month and the Venue Leader is Alex Mahnesmith, a DOC member with two certified dogs, Gucci and Muffin.
Tell us a little about the Smith Center.
We have 65 people who attend the Smith Center Day Program. Everyone enrolled in the Smith Center has some level of intellectual disability. They receive a Medicaid Waiver, which pays for their day habilitation services year-round. Many people we serve also have additional diagnoses. Their limitations may cause them to have physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral differences.
Of those 65 people, 16 are residents of our program. They live in AWE Arc group homes throughout the community. Additionally, about 25 others reside in group homes with other providers in the area. Sadly, many of the people who attend our day program do not have active relationships with their families. Some have no family at all and have either been placed in the homes by family who can no longer care for them or they’ve been court appointed to a residential program. Coming to the Smith Center Monday-Friday is a big part of their life. It is here that they get to socialize with their friends and have community integration experiences, such as the Dogs on Call visits.
And what about Jess Butrica?
I’ve been at Autauga/ Western Elmore Arc for 8 years. I’ve been Executive Director for nearly 2 years. I am a dog lover. I have three dogs: Porkchop, Sweetpea, and my newest puppy, Moonshine. I grew up around dogs and I guess it just stuck. I am a single mother of my 4-year old daughter, Addison. Addison has special needs and receives various therapies to help with her delays. She does well around animals too! I hope to raise Moonshine as her buddy and hope to train him to be a therapy dog so he can be of service to others. Other than being a working mommy, I enjoy camping in my free time; I also enjoy sports and body art!
How did this partnership with DOC come about?
As I mentioned, I am a dog lover. So I know that there is a sort of calming and comfort effect to being around a dog. When I was approached with the idea of having these dogs come in to our agency, I couldn’t contact DOC fast enough. I catch myself wondering why we never thought of this before? When you think about the people we serve and their limitations, it just makes sense. We are so thankful to have established this partnership with Dogs on Call! Everyone has been so kind through the whole thing. It wasn’t something we could just jump right into. First a trust needed to be established between the dogs and the people here at the Smith Center, and vice versa. The dogs and handlers have a unique level of patience that we appreciate so much.
What has been the response to the visits from everyone at the Smith Center?
The overall reaction to the Dogs on Call therapy dogs is remarkable. So many of our folks have not been around dogs all of their life and to see them react to them is very heartwarming. They take so well to the dogs. Then the select few that may have grown up with pets in the home and no longer have them; they get so excited to have them visit. It helps that the dogs are very calm and approachable.
Can you think of a specific incident that has stood out to you personally?
One notable moment that I will never forget is when one of our guys, Marquis, first saw the dogs. Marquis was new to our program and we really didn’t know a lot about him. We did know that he didn’t talk much, if at all. He even had some behavior concerns that we were trying to work through. When Marquis first saw one of the dogs (Roxie), a light came upon his face. He grabbed her and loved on her. He was all smiles and he even spoke to the dog. This may not seem like much to the average person. But if you’ve been around people with disabilities, it is this type of situation that can be a major breakthrough for us. We are constantly trying to figure out what works and doesn’t work for the people we support. This works for Marquis! He now looks forward to seeing Roxie and her pals every two weeks!