By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL — There are two ways to consider what STARC has meant to our community for the past 40 years.
Since forming in 1973 at Bethany Lutheran Church, where two women provided a day-care facility for three mentally retarded children, STARC has provided a meaningful life for thousands of developmentally disabled individuals over the past four decades, both with loving care on a daily basis, and with real jobs that fit their talent and ability.
But the real praise for STARC over the past 40 years certainly must be for hundreds of area residents who have been the caretakers, the leaders and those providing love to so many disabled individuals, who otherwise would have a much less meaningful life.
Daisy Bumgarden, in her sixth year as a caretaker at Jacob’s Ladder daycare for severely disabled individuals, might have put it best when discussing the people who come to work every day at STARC.
“You have to be cut from a different piece of cloth to work here,” she said. “For me, if it has a challenge, then these are my people.”
Bumgarden is an example of dozens of men and women who come to work at STARC each day, now at facilities on the eastern and western side of St. Tammany Parish, where the organization has never stopped growing and finding new ways to serve the disabled community.
“If you ask me who has helped STARC get to where we are 40 years after beginning, I couldn’t begin to give you the entire list. So many have helped, and many have been hugely supportive,” Executive Director Dianne Baham said. “Everywhere you go in our parish, there is a person with a need, and our mission is to continue doing all we can to help as many of these people as possible.”
From its humble beginnings at Bethany Lutheran, where Baham and Esther Derrington operated the day class for children with mental retardation, the need for such services was quickly apparent. Their work followed the beginning of STARC by Laura DeLaup, who had a child with disabilities, and within a year, word got out that such a facility was available, and the program outgrew the single room they met in.
Seeking a larger facility, STARC was welcomed by the First United Methodist Church with an entire wing of the church building, where STARC continued to see increasing demand for its services.
Baham reached out to the community for help, and Pete Pravata donated land to STARC on West Hall Avenue, where the first building was constructed and still is utilized today. Since that time, STARC has never stopped growing, adding adult services, an infant program and then securing residential community homes, where several clients live.
They added a large piece of property in Mandeville in 2002, that now houses a day care, early intervention program, an adult work/training program and most recently, a residential home for women.
“Our goal with STARC was to always see our people have their lives enriched,” Baham said, who continues as the executive director since the beginning of STARC in 1973. “I never want to lose sight of the whole person we serve. No matter how limited a person is, we can see the Holy Spirit in them. That’s why we can never abandon these precious people, and we have to try to serve as many as possible.”
STARC currently serves 1,267 clients, with all but 250 having a job of some kind that the organization has developed.
Baham said it was in 1980 when her husband was working at their home, getting ready to pour a concrete slab. Baham thought she would bring a few of the STARC clients over to watch, and as soon as the work began, they wanted to help.
“We watched them mix concrete and do a number of jobs that we suddenly realized they were quite capable to do,” she said. “So we started a leaf raking business and they just loved getting to work every day. We found other jobs they could do, like picking up pine cones and making wreaths with them. It all just snowballed.”
Since then, STARC has developed various jobs for their clients, headed by the janitorial service and the laundry service, that has expanded to the point of starting a second shift.
STARC purchased a warehouse on Short Cut Highway in 1993 thanks to a grant secured by Sen. Gerry Hinton, and began the laundry service that now employs close to 30 workers each day, with that number about to grow with the second shift that will soon begin.
Besides the laundry service, STARC has a Mardi Gras bead recycling service, flatware service and janitorial service as their main areas to provide jobs to their clients.
“One thing about hiring STARC workers,” Baham said. “You won’t find more dependable employees. They love going to work each day and provide long-term employees. We had one girl who used to work at Mervyn’s and she had never missed one day of work in 10 years.”
Funding continues to be the challenge for STARC since she said there are hundreds more people in the parish who have applied for services, but cannot become a part of STARC since the organization is continually bursting at the seams in helping as many clients as they can afford.
From its first year in 1973 when they operated on a $25,000 budget, STARC grew to an $8.2 million budget last year, with 80 percent of that funding coming from Medicaid. However, state budget cuts have hit STARC hard and the organization has endured a $500,000 cut over the past 18 months, making it more difficult than ever to maintain the services they currently provide.
Baham now finds herself becoming a lobbyist of sorts in the Louisiana Legislature, trying to convince state lawmakers to realize who they are hurting with the cuts to STARC.
“The legislators see figures and we see the faces,” Baham said. “There is a 10 to 12 year waiting list for disabled services in the state, but through STARC, we are able to help many more of these folks here in our parish. But when a group like ours has $500,000 cut in 18 months, it has put a great strain on us to keep doing what we are doing.”
Baham makes it clear that their mission will never end, no matter what money gets cut. She said STARC’s board of directors is in the midst of developing a new capital campaign they hope will provide steady income, however, the organization is always seeking monthly partners to assist the group.
The clients for STARC have also been hurt by the recent news that Southeast Louisiana Mental Hospital will be closing due to budget cuts and Baham said many of their clients have received medical care there.
“We don’t even know what we will do about that, but you can be sure we will find an answer somewhere,” she said. “The reality is that we must keep doing what we are doing. The dreams for these people do not end because the state cuts money to our group. If we don’t provide these services, many of these people will end up in nursing homes and we can’t allow that.”