FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — For almost 60 years, the Elizabeth Richardson Center has supported kids and adults with developmental challenges in Northwest Arkansas.

But now, its executive director, Kim Aaron, says rising inflation and lagging financial support is making it impossible for the center to continue its mission the way it did in the past.

Vicki’s story

The non-profit has supported many differently-abled children through adulthood, including Vicki Rhyne, who has down syndrome.

“We were young parents,” said Vicki’s mother, Joanne Rhyne, remembering the moment she found out. “We were in the age group that you might be not looking for such a condition.”

So Joanne turned to the E.R.C. for support. Vicki grew up in the program, receiving specialized schoolwork and therapies.

“They cheer her on and they’re patient with her on days when she’s not having such a good day,” says Joanne. “So they’re a second family.”

And despite her condition, which limits her vocabulary, Vicki graduated school and began a paid position at the E.R.C., alongside many of the E.R.C.’s other adult graduates.

Funding concerns

Aaron says the E.R.C. is able to provide less people like Vicki with the same level of opportunity. “There’s just no resources for people who need help. The way the population we serve needs help.”

Aaron points out that a vast majority of the E.R.C.’s funding comes from Medicaid, and those payments aren’t keeping pace with current inflation. She says this left the non-profit’s board to approve an annual operating budget that’s running a deficit of $73,000, even after significant spending reductions.

She says this doesn’t include capital budget items, which, if added, would leave the center with a deficit of around $250,000.

“We have eight buildings,” Aaron starts. “Which means a lot of maintenance, and a lot of deferred maintenance, which we’re really struggling with right now.”

Even on the same day of the interview, Aaron told KNWA she discovered a new issue, a leak in the roof of the men’s bathroom at their “life skills” building, which staff had been addressing with a bucket.

With these piling expenses, Aaron says they’re having to turn a lot of people away.

“As the days pass along, that’s more and more people that,” Aaron pauses before continuing, “you start to wonder what happened to the person that we said no to two weeks ago.”

For Vicki, that could’ve meant no job, no specialized support, and less opportunities to make friends that understand her.

When we asked her mom Joanne where Vicki would be without the E.R.C., Joanne replied: “It’s hard to think about that.”

Moving forward

As Northwest Arkansas continues to grow, Aaron says the E.R.C. needs to find new sources of funding as they tap further into their “rainy day” funds.

“There are more and more people with developmental disabilities abilities that have needs,” Aaron points out, “and there’s no more dollars to serve them than there were three or four years ago. So there’s a sense of urgency and that more needs to be done and it needs to be done today.

Aaron is hoping to grow the E.R.C.’s philanthropic outreach, encouraging potential partners large and small to reach out to their office.

If you’d like to contribute your time, offer a service, or provide a donation, you can reach out to the E.R.C. through its website.