By Kim Meyer-Webb | Photography by Dero Sanford
The story of Arkansas Enterprises for the Developmentally Disabled is one of empowerment. Since 1971, the organization’s programs and resources have helped individuals gain independence to improve quality of life. This unwavering commitment comes from one family’s tragedy as the organization provides hope + happiness for families across Arkansas.
Sam Sanders established AEDD after his daughter’s life was impacted by a congenital birth defect. Inspired by Sammie Gail, Sam became determined to help other with developmental disabilities surmount the confines of these perceived disadvantages. After nearly a half century, AEDD has evolved to meet the needs of more than 450 individuals in 15 Arkansas counties. CEO & Executive Director Georganna Huddleston continues this legacy of service.
Georganna was initially introduced to AEDD through Sam, whose grandson played on a t-ball team with Georganna’s son. “In 1990, I joined AEDD,” she remembers. “We had less than 40 clients and were on a very tight budget. Our small office had no air-conditioning and the décor was simply one black and white photograph of Sam and two clients. That same picture hangs in our Lacy Landers Adults Skills Training Center.” She worked alongside Sam for more than a decade before he retired in 2002. “During that time, we opened several residential facilities that house people with disabilities or low-income senior citizens.”
The values and vision of the organization remain steadfast and the results are measurable. In Pulaski County, AEDD coordinates a workforce of 350 individuals across a variety of industry sectors. “We uphold our mission by meeting the needs of children and adults through programs and partnerships focused on education and employment,” Georganna explains. The Jobs 4 You Program matches the adults of AEDD with prospective employers. “The Jobs 4 You Program provides the training and tools necessary to work in a meaningful job,” Georganna continues. “We see people take pride in their jobs and enjoy the independence of earning a salary. Working improves social and cognitive abilities as well as better mental health and self-esteem. It follows our mission of providing the best quality of life.”
In addition to the initial employment opportunities, the Lacy Landers Adults Skills Training Center offers career development preparatory activities that include resume building resources as well as effective interview preparation and proper workplace etiquette. Arkansas Enterprises for the Developmentally Disabled also assigns a state-certified job coach who continues to supervise and monitor progress. “We have had great success with this program,” adds Arkansas Enterprises for the Developmentally Disabled Director of Development Debbie Grooms. “It’s really a win-win… Many of the companies have found that by employing persons with disabilities, they have been better able to understand and relate to their customers with disabilities. This allows businesses to develop greater flexibility, build a stronger reputation and reach a sizable market.” Georganna considers AEDD as instrumental in cultivating more inclusive communities, creating partnerships and removing obstacles for Arkansans. “We are fortunate; our board of directors is forward-thinking and supportive. We are considerate of our past and have a direct vision for the future of how to implement new ideas that make our programs the best they can be,” explains Georganna.
Sam’s grandson Clay Sanders continues the family’s rich history with the organization as a member of the AEDD Auxiliary. Clay notes, “It’s personal for our family, but to me this is all about legacy. An idea that started with my grandfather has grown to mean so many different things to so many people. We have a sense of pride when thinking about the work throughout the years.” With heartfelt gratitude for the Sanders and AEDD Georganna reflects, “We advocate for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, just like Sam and his daughter who inspired it all. We believe that everyone, regardless of ability, has the right to the same opportunities. We provide the necessary support for everyone to participate in life and make it the best it can be.”