When you’re a kid, there are few joys more precious than a playground. It’s a refuge, a safe place to rove and wander and just be a kid. But for children and caregivers who navigate life with a disability, a playground can feel like a burden. SOAR365 is a Richmond nonprofit that is looking to create more inclusive spaces and communities through access, education and – you guessed it – playgrounds.
SOAR365 has been serving individuals in the Richmond region for almost 70 years. Rebranded from its former name Greater Richmond ARC, SOAR365’s mission is to create life-fulfilling opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
Its services span multiple locations thanks to 275 part-time, seasonal and full-time staff and an additional 645 volunteers who help keep programming up and running year-round. The organization offers services for a fee to community members, and its human services also are supported by revenue from its business services operations.
We spoke to two of SOAR365’s leaders to learn more about how both human services and business services work together to achieve the organization’s mission.
Supporting individuals through structured and intentional programming
For Emily Lehmann, assistant vice president of day and respite services, SOAR365 isn’t just her job, it’s a passion that has been part of her life since she was a volunteer in high school. Lehmann oversees most of the human services offered through SOAR365, with the exception of its therapy offerings. She leads the adult day services, year-round respite support and summer camps.
“It’s important to us to seek out what families need, and we adapt our services and programming to meet that need,” she said. “We provide more social interactions and leisure-style programs.”
For example, adults in day-support programs come weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., for a day of activities and skill-building. This could be centered on math and money skills, independent living and cooking practice oreven extracurricular activities like art and music therapy.
“Our activities mean different things to each individual – everything is individualized to meet their goals, and what they need to be healthy, safe and to feel accomplished,” Lehmann added.
Another service provided by SOAR365 is respite care, which is designed for individuals who have a disability and live at home with parents or a caretaker. While respite programs provide a break for 24/7 caregivers, Lehmann says SOAR365’s offering is much more than that. It’s an active experience and not one where individuals are just sitting together for a weekend.
“Our respite service focuses on the individual in our care and provides an amazing opportunity for that person to socially engage with others and create relationships with other people,” Lehmann said. “It’s like the same kind of experience you had with sleepovers growing up. They create friendships and want to come at the same time as their friends.”
When it comes to children and youth, the individual and skills-based approach from adult programming holds steady (with some age-appropriate adjustments, of course). Programs are typically held after school hours during the academic year and all day during the summer and include homework support and transitional skills building for the older students who will soon graduate.
And when you think they couldn’t possibly offer any more support, there is a 10-week overnight camp at SOAR365’s Camp Baker location for both youth and adults.
“With our camp, it’s like any other outdoor recreation camp – but we just make sure it’s accessible to everyone who comes. From horseback riding and paddle boating – to arts, crafts and swimming,” Lehmann said.
But with many of SOAR365’s programming, the organization is facing the same business challenges that many employers are currently facing: There aren’t enough staff resources to fulfill the demand.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Lehmann said. “The barrier right now is hiring staff and bringing enough people back to help run our programs.”
The irony here is that SOAR365’s business solutions group provides services to businesses and organizations that may not be able to hire in-house.
Bridging a workforce gap while serving individual workers
Some of the Greater Richmond Region’s biggest employers – like ChildFund, City of Richmond, Dominion Energy and Plow & Hearth – work with SOAR365’s business solutions team. From janitorial and custodial services to assembly and logistics and administrative services, SOAR365 employees provide essential labor and services to businesses in need.
Jim Quigg is a longtime businessman, and when SOAR365 hired him just before the pandemic to lead the business solutions division, he jumped at the opportunity to work for a mission – not just for profit.
“I have the privilege of working with people that believe in this mission, that care about our individual employees, like no place I’ve ever been,” Quigg said. “It’s all about the people and aligning the right people with the right roles. In the for-profit world, people have a job, you support and coach them so they can meet expectations for a role. But our job here is to help them be the best they can be and more than they thought they could be.”
Just like any other organization competing for business, Quigg’s team submits responses to RFPs by highlighting its services, benefits and costs. SOAR365 may not be the least expensive option, but the value proposition is mission driven.
“People think we’re different, but we’re not,” he said. “The only difference is the majority of my workforce has a disability. By hiring us for work, you’re helping in a bigger way – you’re helping someone with a disability develop skills and get career and life fulfillment that they may not have had access to otherwise.”
Some of the additional costs of a SOAR365 work team goes back to infrastructure and support. The business solutions team works on adapting career tasks to meet the abilities of the crew, not just on-site but leading up to a site.
For example, an individual with autism may need additional step-by-step instructions for a given site. Or an individual with a physical impairment may need transportation support to get on-site, a service SOAR365 accommodates.
“We’re unique because of how our business operations are structured,” Quigg added. “We have viability, we have customers and contracts. Other nonprofits rely purely on donations, but what we have creates an opportunity for us to plan longer term for our community and the organization as a whole. We’re stable and here for the long haul.”
In addition to providing the direct-to-business services, Quigg’s team also helps individuals upskill and find other employment opportunities outside of SOAR365.
Final words on SOAR365
Individualized support and access to opportunities is a big leap for providing equity in our community for individuals with disabilities, and the work SOAR365 had done in our community shows just how impactful that equity and access is.
If you’re looking to support the organization, consider participating in its SummerFest event at PARK365. This year’s event will be on June 9. Later in the year, on October 22, SOAR365 will host its second annual Ladybug Fund Winetasting and Silent Auction, also at the park.