Don Thibodeau and Carroll Foren knew that there were better options for their children other than Pineland Institute. They decided that the local community is where persons with mental retardation (a term acceptable at the time of formation) and developmental disabilities really belonged, so they literally started knocking on doors. They knew of other parents who had children with mental retardation or developmental disabilities, so in 1959 they put a small ad in the Star Herald and the Aroostook Republican which stated that any parent who would like to form an association for persons with mental retardation and developmental disabilities to please meet at St. Luke’s Parish Hall in Caribou. Shortly after this meeting took place, 12 incorporators walked into Judge Julian Turner’s office and formed the Aroostook Association for Retarded Children, which was then affiliated with the national organization.
In the beginning years, programs took place in the basement of St. Luke’s Parish Hall. There was no transportation, so parents car-pooled individuals to the program. The word spread about this program and it continued to grow. At this point, it’s probably good to mention that all the instructors were volunteers and that the budget was a few hundred dollars. As the Association grew, so did the need for additional space and the Association moved to the Knight Building, which was part of the Northern Maine Sanatorium that had recently closed. Other organizations in Aroostook County had sprung up, the Association changed its name to the Central Aroostook Association for Retarded Children. Parents and students were happy in the Knight building until they received a letter from the State of Maine stating that they would have to vacate the building since they were closing it down. Don Thibodeau, Carroll Foren and Carolyn DeGrass jumped into a vehicle, drove to Augusta and walked into the Governor’s office. As they were greeted by his secretary, they simply said, “We’re here to see the Governor.” The secretary pleasantly asked them if they had an appointment. They responded that they hadn’t, but that they had driven down from Aroostook County and needed to see him. Four hours later they were in the Governor’s office pleading their case. By the end of the day, all was well, and the Association continued to stay in the Knight Building.
In 1967, Carolyn DeGrass heard of state monies for special education that were being returned to the federal government because they had been unused. She and several other parents worked diligently with the state department to obtain the funds so that the Association could build from the ground up the first school building for students with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. In September of 1967 the Opportunity Training Center opened its doors for the first time. What a proud moment it was for the Association, Aroostook County, and the State of Maine. It didn’t take long for the building to reach capacity.
During this time the Association had the foresight to hire Thomas C. Pooler as its Executive Director. Prior to coming to Aroostook County, Mr. Pooler had been a teacher/administrator at Pineland Institute. Since the school had become a certified special purpose private school, special education teachers and teacher aides were hired. A speech therapist was brought aboard, as well as a social worker. Things went very well at the Opportunity Training Center until some of the students aged out of the program and needed adult programming.
In 1972, after much debate and discussion with the state legislature, the Association was awarded monies to construct a building, the Work Activity Center, for adults with mental retardation and developmental disabilities so that they might attend day programming. Again, shortly after it opened, not only did the building reach capacity, but it became apparent that these adults needed two types of programming. Some needed fundamental practical life skills and the others needed an opportunity to work. Within a year and a half, the Association rented a building at Skyway Industrial Park so that it could start a work program. A staff person by the name of Irene Dafonte who had been hired prior to working at the Work Activity Center, transferred to the adult work program where she remained for 40 years serving individuals supported by the Association. In the beginning stages of the work program, the Work Opportunity Center became known as one of the best furniture refinishing businesses in Aroostook County. Many valuable pieces of furniture were hand-stripped by the individuals who worked there. During this time the Association went through another name change due to a change at the national level, and it became known as Central Aroostook Association for Retarded Citizens.
In 1976, it was determined through an assessment tool that central Aroostook needed a preschool developmental program. A grant was submitted to the State Developmental Disabilities office to fund such a program. Funding was approved, and the little log cabin across from city hall became the home of the Child Development Center. Transportation continued to be an issue for the Association, so they, along with several other social service providers, formed the Aroostook Regional Transportation System, which continues to provide services to us.
We might also mention that in 1972, the Association was very instrumental in promoting the construction of the Aroostook Residential Center, a facility that provided residential support to individuals in Aroostook County. Although the Association did not operate this program, it provided services to the individuals who lived at this Center. When the Aroostook Residential Center closed its doors in 2004, the Association decided to get into the residential business. It now operates six residential waiver homes and oversees 20 shared living facilities. as well as personal supports for children and adults in the community. The Association supports over 200 individuals in case management for adults and youth. Adults and children are also supported by Direct Support Professionals in their homes and community. Once again, the Association went through a name change and was known as the Central Aroostook ARC, in 2013 it became known as Central Aroostook Association.
As it developed its adult programs, the Association realized that it had the opportunity to establish several businesses to provide work opportunities for the individuals served by our programs. Two businesses were soon developed: Aroostook Shredding, a confidential shredding business and County Box & Pallet, which builds and refurbishes wooden pallets. Aroostook Shredding was sold in September of 2013, County Box & Pallet employed over 20 individuals with development disabilities and closed in 2019.
The Association has had only three Executive Directors: Thomas Pooler, Paul Cormier for a short tenure, and Stephen Richard. The Association is very proud that it has been able to support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities for over sixty years. It continues to look to the future to see what other additional resources might help individuals and their families.