Monarch Club works past stereotypes and stigmas

By on July 25, 2011

If you are driving along U.S. 64/264 in Manteo, there is almost a 100 percent chance you will pass by the Monarch Beach Club. It is in an unassuming metal building, down a long driveway across the street from the Elizabethan Inn.

I first heard of the club through Rotary. The next time I had contact with the group was at a Dare County Board of Commissioner’s meeting. Participants and volunteers were there to thank commissioners for their past support.

I had come to the BOC to report on an anti-smoking ordinance. I left with a different story, and one far more important.

Back in 1958, a group of parents in Stanly County, N.C. banded together with one common purpose: They all had children with various forms of mental disabilities. As one might imagine, in that decade the public sector paid little heed to such individuals, and society in general not only appeared to ignore their special plights, but even appeared bent on hiding them from public view, castoffs with nothing to contribute.

Today, Monarch is a statewide organization. The organization works with individuals will all manner of intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illness and even substance abuse problems.

The local operations director for Monarch, Renate Macchirole, doesn’t like to use the word “disability.” In her worldview, Monarch’s clientele are just like you and me, with their own set of challenges to overcome. And with some attention and training, many of these former “castoffs” can become working, contributing members of society, renting their own living spaces, paying bills and holding down regular jobs.

Indeed, Macchirole is so determined to throw off the stereotypes and stigmas associated with Monarch’s mission that the local chapter took on the name “Monarch Beach Club” — a moniker than implies a regular, mainstream club composed of ordinary members.

July 1, 2011 was a special day for the Beach Club and I was privileged to be invited to take part in the activities. As most of us are aware, students with disability issues now receive significant support from the public school systems. But what happens to these students when they leave high school and enter the adult world?

As Macchirole told me, “With the Monarch Beach Club they now can graduate from high school and then graduate into our program.”

The group painted a picnic table based on an outline provided by a local artist.

Unless you possess the heart of a Grinch, one cannot visit the Beach Club and after a few minutes, fail to realize the members are indeed more like the rest of us than different. Once you leave, if your heart was Grinch-sized beforehand, it will transform to the Grinch we came to love at the end of the famous Christmas story.

On this day, two special events took place. Three Dare County high school students from Manteo and First Flight had just graduated from their alma maters. After a BBQ lunch (supplied by local volunteers), the three students; Mary Gore, Caroline Parks and William Marzano were accepted into the Monarch Beach Club.

Another special event was the inclusion of participants from the Dare County Youth Center. The goal, according to Dare native Timmy Charity, a NCCU college student who is interning with the Youth Center for the summer, is to include the Beach Club participants with youth from the center in such activities as bike riding, walking and other sports. “Mainstreaming and getting the two groups to know one another” is how Charity described the new program.

Macchirole makes sure to credit Caroline Norman, the director of Dare County’s Manteo Youth Center, with facilitating this new alliance.

Two of the graduates.

From appearances, the idea is working. The children freely mingled with the Monarch members, many of whom are adults, and as is typical with childhood innocence, the kids paid little attention to the “differences” between the two groups and focused on what they had in common — eating good food, dancing and playing games.

During lunch, Macchirole introduced me to a middle-aged member named Chuck. Chuck is an accomplished horseman, and is looking to enter the Special Olympics as the area’s first equestrian competitor. Chuck noticed my Masonic ring, and in the course of discussion, he revealed he was a Mason and used to work at the Plattsburgh (NY) Air Force base. Chuck and I will be meeting again.

Another individual I met was a volunteer who has cerebral palsy. Nessie Pruden is a college graduate, married and an excellent writer. She is ambulatory with the aid of a walker and apart from looking for a full time job, she aspires to write about life from her unique perspective. She is just getting started on her own blog, “Dispatches from the Corner”, located here: http://dispatchesfromthecorner.wordpress.com .

Once more, I hope to keep in touch with Nessie and work with her on developing her blog. We had a long conversation about potential topics and she has a lot to say.

The Beach Club also had its own intern this year, another Dare local who chose to help others on her summer break from N.C. State. Chelsea Kuykendall is majoring in genetic counseling/biology. Both Kuykendall and Charity’s desire to return to Dare County and help others provides more evidence that our area youth often engage in civic acts that are unheralded.

As Macchirole predicted, mingling with the Beach Club clients doesn’t spark pity, which is exactly her point in describing the goals of the Beach Club. Instead, it inspires hope and challenges one’s own preconceptions about students and adults with mental and intellectual disabilities.

During the graduation/acceptance celebration, the audience learned Parks was a medalist at the national Special Olympics (swimming) and plays a very competitive game of basketball. Marzano works at a local restaurant where he breads and deveins shrimp. He is also learning to weave. And look at the picnic table the group painted, after an outline was donated by a local artist. There is talent present, far superior to my own ability to draw or paint.

The club members contribute to the county in many other ways. Each Wednesday, Monarch Club members volunteer tending the arboretum at the Baum Center under the tutelage of the Master Gardeners. On Fridays you’ll find them at the Aquarium in Manteo, transplanting native seedlings.

Kathy Mitchell, the aquarium’s horticultural director, gives the “guys” some plants to take home and now they tend their own gardens. The group has adopted a road in Roanoke Island, helps with “Meals on Wheels” for Manteo and Wanchese residents, works at the SPCA and volunteers at the basketball camps sponsored by the Manteo and Kill Devil Hills Youth Centers.

Please watch both videos. You will learn much about these individuals.

As Billy sings “Welcome to My World,” in the second video, join with him and rejoice. And remember, Monarch is one of many organizations under threat of budget cuts. If you are a fiscal conservative like me, find a way to contribute your own time, talents or money to a very special, and needed program.

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