On November 15th, The Arc of NY family came together to celebrate our 70th Anniversary as an organization. This statewide organization was just getting started in 1949, branching out from the New York City Chapter. Over the course of the next 20 years, local chapters like the Arc of Rensselaer County were formed. Henrietta, Ernie Messier, and their daughter Cherie were crusaders of this time, fighting for the rights of people with disabilities. Parents, like the Messiers and others, took a stand. Although this unpaved road had many bumps parents, professionals, and community members teamed together and starting the wheels of progress to turn. Working tirelessly, those who intuitively knew there was a better way, worked slowly but steadily to chip away at prejudices and ignorance, to learn as they went and then educate others. So much was unknown, yet there was one common thread throughout. Growing up with your family and being a valued member of your community was how it should be
Cherie Messier was born with Downs Syndrome in 1949. Before the 1950s, there were no organizations in the Capital Region to turn to for help. Cherie's parents, Henrietta and Ernie, refused the offer to put her in an institution. During an interview in 2010 with Henrietta she explained that these things happened right here in our home town. Doctors couldn’t imagine that you would want to keep your child at home and had no idea of how to fix what they considered to be broken. Living in Green Island at the time Cherie was born, Henrietta talked about their pediatrician, Dr. Schweble. He told the Messier's he didn't know much about helping their daughter but was willing to learn what he could. Henrietta said he was a kind and caring person and always made himself available. Henrietta said as a mom; she knew what her daughter wanted and needed, Henrietta stated, "I can read her child better than anyone."
During that interview, Henrietta shared some powerful stories that shed light on real struggles of the time, things we take for granted today. She told a story of how back in the 1960's Census workers came door to door to complete the survey. When they arrived at the Messier house the worker refused to count Cherie even though she was school-aged. She would only count the Messier’s other school-aged children at the time. It was part of their training the woman explained. Henrietta would not have it. She told the worker that her daughter wanted to go to school, but they would not let her. The woman told Henrietta that she didn’t have the authority to count Cherie. Henrietta kept advocating that her daughter mattered, and she was going to count her. Henrietta told her she was not getting out of her house unless she counted Cherie. “I really mean it. I am locking the door until you call someone and get her name counted on the list. You are not leaving this house until you recognize that this is my daughter and that she would be in school if someone would open the doors for her." The woman didn’t get on the phone, but she did put Cherie’s name down. Henrietta told her that she was going to check to make sure she didn’t remove her name when she left. When the census came out Cherie’s name was on it!
Another struggled Henrietta talked about was obtaining Life Insurance. The salesman was invited to the Messier home to enroll the children in life insurance. The salesman arrived and told the Messiers they could add their other two children, but Cherie poised a risk because she was not controllable and could run out in front of a car. As you can imagine, Henrietta was not happy and said, "I will take care of my child." Henrietta asked the salesperson to change his view because Cherie was going to have a policy, and if she needed to go to the regional office she would. In the end they received the policy, but not without a fight.
I had the pleasure of meeting Henrietta when I started at the Arc in 1995 as a Staff Accountant. We had a few small chats and collaborated during the agency strategic planning sessions at the old Best Western in Troy. I also had a few car rides home as she was on the Vanderheyden Board of Directors during the year and 1/2 that I was the Director of Finance. In August 1999 I returned, and Henrietta was one of the 12 people who were part of the Director of Finance interview. I remember her questions all centered around financial controls because, as much as she loved to advocate, she also wanted to be as fiscally responsible as possible. My on the job training continued as Henrietta and a fellow Board Member, Jim Stewart, grilling me with questions every month. They then would apologize for taking up my time, but they didn't realize how I loved it because it forced me to hone my skills.
Among the things that amazed me about Henrietta was that she went from place to place, sharing her knowledge and advocacy. She never seemed to stop. Meetings could sometimes take four hours (yes, we went into the most in-depth conversations and strategy). I remember Henrietta would have a cup of coffee and maybe a candy bar, yet she kept going. Three hours later when the Board met for a different meeting she was as energetic as ever. It was her passion, not a volunteer task. It was her life, and she walked the talk. If you used slots, beds, or any word like that you would instantly see her shift in her seat. She never lost her cool, but if she did not like what you said or your phrase she let you know in the nicest way. She told me once the phrasing of words is important because if you say it you do it. I used that lesson learned to preempt many salespeople since when they ask what we call our clients. "We call them people because that is what they are, not clients but people.
It was these clusters of families that banded together to lead the Arc of NY into the organization it is today that supports 60,000 people working toward a person’s productive life. Seeking assistance from the state to continue to build toward achieving these goals, the Arc of Rensselaer County was formed in 1950. We were initially part of the Capital Region Chapter partnering with Albany and Schenectady Counties. In 1965, the three chapters decided to head in separate directions to best meet the needs of their community members. As Arc chapters like ours began to form they were not considered organizations at the time. They were run by local parents and family members working together to support their children with a disability, support each other, and pave a road for recognition and education of these children. There were no textbooks, no medical knowledge, and no specialized departments of Education or state agency to provide guidance.
The drive for the Arc of NY, then known as NYSARC was these parents and family members finding each other throughout the state of NY and working together. They started with nothing in terms of programs or funds. They were often taking money out of their pockets to provide for their children or siblings. There are many to credit for helping to make great strides to do amazing things for the rights of people with disabilities. Those who went first are the pioneers. They were the leaders because if they did not step first perhaps the course of society would be different. Of course we must give credit to the individuals themselves who were equally pioneers. They were the ambassadors, walking into the community with dignity and earning respect. They faced the changes head-on making a difference to change people’s perspective.
Thank you to the Messiers and the other change-makers that we have had the good fortune of having in our corner, helping to make the world a better place for all. Even today I know when I face a hard decision or unsure of my next step I think "WWHD - What would Henrietta do"? I listen quietly knowing she is still guiding me
Donald J. Mullin, CEO