Donna Fassett has been changing the game for Pensacolians with developmental disabilities for 33 years. And she’s not slowing down, even as she defends her cause against the budget assaults of the State and fights a personal battle against lymphoma.
Fassett is executive director of ARC Gateway—a non-profit that has been providing support and services to Pensacola’s disabled for nearly 60 years.
If you ask her what makes her so relentlessly committed, she will offer to show you.
Fassett walks into the ARC Gateway office on Fairfield Avenue and slips through a side door. She signs her name on a clipboard and hangs a nametag around her neck. “This is a secure area,” she explains.
Music pumps from a stereo in the back of the room as Fassett threads through the crowd, besieged by hugs and a choir of happy voices.
The large room is filled with low desks. At them, a couple dozen people sit before stacks of paper, methodically removing staples and other foreign objects. They are preparing them to be shredded.
This enterprise is one of the programs that ARC runs, and the workers are Fassett’s clients. Each of them faces some sort of disability. However, Fassett isn’t focused on that.
“Our whole goal is to maximize their abilities,” she said. “We don’t see disabilities. We see abilities.”
The workers earn a wage and a sense of self-esteem and purpose. The enterprise also creates revenue to support ARC’s other programs.
These include early intervention, workforce training, job placement, transportation, assisted living and group homes.
The array of services is extensive, even after last year’s painful program cuts. However, Fassett wants to offer more.
“Our folks are getting older,” she said. “We need to look more toward services for seniors. I would love to see that we had a college program. There’s no reason why some of them can’t go to college.”
She said access to public transportation, which is essential for many of ARC’s clients, could also be improved.
“I think Pensacola is moving in a really good direction,” she said. “I love seeing downtown be alive.”
She said she is pleased with the ongoing revitalization of downtown and encouraged by the growing number of young people who have chosen to stay in Pensacola.
Fassett is involved in a wide variety of causes outside the office, as well. Her past or present involvements include the Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival, Fiesta of Five Flags, the American
Cancer Society, Appetite for Life, the Pensacola Museum of Art and Five Flags Rotary.
Back at the Fairfield office, Fassett walks through a back door, into the plant nursery—another of ARC’s programs. She pauses to talk to some clients loading plants into a delivery truck.
She walks on, past rows of potted crepe myrtles and shrubs.
“When I get tired of fighting the budget wars, I come out here and walk around,” she said.
“It reminds me what I’m fighting for.”