ATCO, a provider of services to people with disabilities in Athens County for nearly 50 years, will dissolve by 2018 to comply with a mandated order from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The order bans county disability boards, which normally provide Medicaid disability services for clients through the boards' adjunct "providers," such as ATCO, from having "conflicts of interest." To eliminate conflicts of interest from the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities, ATCO must close, and the places ATCO manages, such as Passion Works art studio and store, must find a new provider soon.
For almost 20 years, Passion Works, 20 E. State St., has employed artists with and without disabilities to create original works for sale in the studio’s store. ATCO is a department of Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities and a nonprofit corporation that trains and helps employ persons with developmental disabilities, and it also is a provider for Passion Works.
According to the order passed June 23, 2015, the board's clients can be recommended to providers outside of the board, but the clients cannot receive services through the board’s departments.
The enactment of the law means ATCO will dissolve in December 2018. Passion Works, which serves 135 adults with developmental disabilities, would have to find a new provider by April 2017, a transition that began fall 2015.
The transition wracks some artists’ nerves at the studio and has “for years,” staff artist Chris Biester said.
“We are always under the threat of not existing,” Biester, who has been with the studio for about 10 years, said. “It’s always been looming, but now it’s getting down to the nitty-gritty.”
For many artists, Passion Works is a rare outlet for self-expression, Biester said.
“(Passion Works makes it so) I’m not stuck around in the house, for starters,” artist Troy Goins, 27, said. “I’m doing something for the community as well as myself.”
Goins has used the studio to make art depicting “whatever he wants,” including sci-fi and landscape scenes, since he was about 19.
About 50 artists are employed through the studio by ATCO. Some artists hope the studio’s sense of community through fine art is not lost with a new provider, staff artist Mallory Valentour said.
“Right now, community support is the biggest thing we can do,” Valentour, who has worked at Passion Works for about four years, said.
Valentour wants those involved with Passion Works to focus on “sticking together” and making sure the studio and its artists “get out on top.”
Kevin Davis, superintendent of the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities, hopes Passion Works will “find a home” with a provider committed to offering services to persons with and without disabilities.
“(The board's) hope is clear and simple: that Passion Works continues to exist,” Davis said. “And not only exist but to thrive in the future.”
As of press time, about eight candidates have submitted proposals to ATCO, Autumn Brown, transition manager for ATCO and Passion Works, said. In their proposals, candidates described their visions for Passion Works and the company’s values regarding persons with disabilities. The proposals will be reviewed by a team of board administrators and employees, Brown said.
“There is a chance that we wouldn’t find a successful candidate through this process,” Brown said. “But it looks like we have quite a few really good options that would be able to support Passion Works in the future.”
In the meantime, ATCO supports its workers’ search for other employment in addition to volunteering and other activities they may enjoy “like any other citizen,” she said.
Biester, who has worked with some of the same Passion Works artists since his start 10 years ago, believes it is important for the client artists to “have a voice in the community,” he said, and “to change perceptions in the community of what people with disabilities are capable of.”
Biester believes the artists at Passion Works are capable of “creating objects of beauty,” and he wants them to be able to continue to that.