The Arc Nature Coast's new education center and hurricane shelter in Spring Hill celebrates its opening

Beth O’Brien, 47, left, and her mom, Pat, right, look over the Founders Square Monument for their names as donors after it was unveiled Friday at the Arc Nature Coast’s Education Center and Regional Evacuation Shelter in Spring Hill.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Beth O’Brien, 47, left, and her mom, Pat, right, look over the Founders Square Monument for their names as donors after it was unveiled Friday at the Arc Nature Coast’s Education Center and Regional Evacuation Shelter in Spring Hill.

Standing among a dozen or so developmentally disabled clients served by Arc Nature Coast, Beth O'Brien shouted to her mother across the courtyard.

"Mom, I'm with my friends!" O'Brien yelled, her flowered dress billowing in a light breeze.

The 47-year-old, herself an Arc client and volunteer, didn't want her mom, Pat, to lose track of her among the 200 people gathered Friday to celebrate Arc's new home on Partridge Street, just off Mariner Boulevard.

The crowd included political notables, but the focus was on O'Brien, her friends and the four-year collaborative effort that made the $1.9 million education center and special-needs hurricane shelter a reality.

"Our one goal was to do this project right, for our customers and for the community, but it took people to do that, and I believe we've achieved success," executive director Mark Barry said before helping unwrap the centerpiece of the Founders Courtyard — a massive, cube-shaped granite monument engraved with the names of people who donated at least $1,000.

A few minutes earlier, Barry squeezed his eyes shut and tilted his face toward the sky when Kathleen Lonergan, the president of Arc's board of directors, made a surprise announcement that was news even to him: The board had voted to name the facility the Mark W. Barry Education Center and Regional Evacuation Shelter.

The 8,500-square-foot center is designed for Arc's mission to help clients blossom into well-rounded, contributing members of society. That means help with etiquette, job skills, health, culture and technology. The higher-functioning clients eventually find jobs in the community.

Off the cavernous main hall are a media center, an art studio and a fully equipped fitness room. A commercial kitchen offers an amenity-laden place for cooking classes.

But when a hurricane threatens, the center will be a refuge for disabled evacuees and their caregivers from Hernando, Pasco, Citrus and Sumter counties. While Hernando County has shelter space for the medically needy, this center is designed to serve mentally disabled residents.

The capacity is 300 people, and there is enough food, water and diesel fuel for the generator on site to run for three days. The building can withstand winds of more than 150 mph.

Arc was founded in 1972 by a small group of people concerned about the lack of services for disabled people in the area. For years, it operated out of its original home, a rural but aging oasis on Neff Lake Road east of Brooksville. Arc later leased space in a storefront on U.S. 19 in Spring Hill.

The storefront has been closed, but the Brooksville site will remain open for offices and to provide recreational services for clients. Arc also has merged with Artists Gardens & Stable in Masaryktown, where clients ride horseback and help run the farm.

State Sen. Mike Fasano visited Arc's facilities in 2007. The next year, the Legislature approved $1.14 million for the project. The County Commission chipped in the roughly 6-acre site a mile south of State Road 50.

Local contractor Greg Jarque donated his services for the project. Jarque became the source of controversy recently after he was hired without a bid to oversee the county's Hernando Beach dredge project and then fired after questions arose about his criminal background. On Friday, the crowd gave Jarque a round of applause when Barry mentioned him as one of the key people who helped bring the project to fruition.

Arc is working to finish off a $400,000 capital campaign to help pay off the center. Donors can buy engraved pavers in the courtyard or, for a larger gift, have their name etched on other parts of the building.

Donations also will help keep the center running. Arc receives no state or federal dollars to bolster its $3 million operating budget.

A lover of technology, Beth O'Brien spent much of Friday's celebration in the media center. She started receiving Arc services about 15 years ago and now helps as a volunteer. She credits the organization for connecting her with friends and getting her closer to her dream.

"My goal is being on my own someday," she said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

On the Web

To find out more about Arc Nature Coast, visit thearc-naturecoast.org.

The Arc Nature Coast's new education center and hurricane shelter in Spring Hill celebrates its opening 05/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 13, 2011 8:43pm]

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