ACCEL reaches 40 years of helping people with developmental disabilities

Posted 8/24/20

ACCEL — the Arizona Centers for Comprehensive Education and Life Skills — is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The private nonprofit serves children and adults who live with developmental disabilities.

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ACCEL reaches 40 years of helping people with developmental disabilities


Christopher Allen knows the ins and outs of ACCEL like he is running the place. Don’t tell him he’s not, though.

And yet, the 28-year-old is one of multiple success stories coming out of ACCEL during its 40-year run.

ACCEL — the Arizona Centers for Comprehensive Education and Life Skills — is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The private nonprofit serves children and adults who live with developmental disabilities.

“It’s been incredible, especially the last four months,” CEO Raymond Damm said about the 40 years in a July interview with Daily Independent. He has been with ACCEL for four years. “It’s reminding us that organizations face a tremendous amount of struggle and obstacles, even on a yearly basis. ACCEL has been able to not just weather so many different things over the last four years, but we’ve managed to grow and impact more and more students and adults and people every single year. It’s really phenomenal to get a little taste of what that resilience has been over the last 40 years.”

While early celebrations have had to be minimal for social distancing purposes, ACCEL plans to celebrate with the community once safe to do so.

ACCEL was founded in 1980 as a small school for 49 students with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, cognitive disabilities and behavioral disorders. ACCEL’s programs include a private day school, adult services program and early intervention services.

Private school services are available to individuals 5-22 at its Metro Campus in Phoenix, East Campus in Tempe and satellite campus in Buckeye. The Adult Services program serves those 18 and older. Another division of ACCEL, The BISTA Center in Mesa, serves children as young as 18 months with applied behavior analysis therapy and early intervention services.

ACCEL has grown to serve around 500 individuals with 325 employees in Arizona. In 2019, ACCEL launched the first special education center in Saudi Arabia at the Ajyal Center, which serves around 100 students with 80 employees.

And Marge Cook has been around for all of it. Yes, Ms. Cook has grown with ACCEL — originally the LATCH School — since its inception. 

“It’s just been an incredible experience,” Ms. Cook said about her tenure. “I started working there before the agency was incorporated, before we actually existed. I was one of the people that worked on the building, getting the papers ready and getting the building ready to open. I was one of the original teachers when the program opened as the LATCH School. I was very involved in building the program and all along the way from where it started to what it’s become. I’ve been happy to have been part of it.”

Ms. Cook started out as a special education teacher, when there were only around seven of them. She progressed to program coordinator, which became the fourth position to not be directly involved in classroom instruction — the others being executive director, receptionist/secretary and the nurse.

“It’s gone fast,” Ms. Cook said. “It’s always been new and interesting because every year I had a different classroom, different kids in my classroom and so forth. My latest switch has been moving into managing the grants program. That’s how I will finish my career. But it’s always been something new and challenging.”

For Mr. Allen, he joined ACCEL’s adult services program in 2011, just after the organization turned 30. He works out of ACCEL’s campus cafe, serving up dishes and drinks to staff, students and visitors.

The COVID-19 pandemic kept the cafe’s operations minimal, but as the months have gone on, Mr. Allen said staff has returned little by little. On-campus operations resumed Aug. 17.

“Part of my inspiration in keep coming back week after week is that I have this motivation that when those excellent days are not done and just on hold,” Mr. Allen said. “I’m certain those great days will return. It’s hard to say when but those days will return.”

For Sarah Joswick, she has been a team member of the Adult Services Program since it started 18 years ago.

“The changes have been huge as far as growth. And it’s been exciting to be a part of it,” she said. “We started essentially with zero and now we are up over 100 members and two campuses. Having our members out in the community has been really exciting. And working with our members such as Christopher. I’ve worked with him since day one and seeing him progress and move on.”

Both she and Ms. Cook think highly of Mr. Allen, attesting to his improvement since he joined ACCEL to where he is now.

“Christopher’s a delight,” Ms. Cook said. “Whenever I give a tour of Metro Campus or anywhere, I always stop at the coffee shop and if Christopher has a moment, he will tell the person I’m touring a little bit about his experience with ACCEL. He has worked out a short, medium and more detailed long presentation that he provides when I ask him to. And he’ll ask me which presentation I have time for. Sometimes if he’s very busy, he’ll say ‘Okay, I only have time for the short version.’”

Mr. Damm reflected on the progress people have made in addressing the needs of those living with disabilities and acknowledged that the individuals ACCEL serves are some of the most underserved in the country.

“Many times, their voices aren’t heard. And communities, school districts included, are left to provide a tremendous amount of intensive resources with very little support,” Mr. Damm said. “It’s quite a challenge. What we have seen is a lot more integration in the community and focus on vocational training, job preparation, preparing to continue their learning efforts. Even in the state Arizona, they’re starting to look at their special ed funding for the first time I think in about a decade. As the instances of autism, for example, has increased as of late, I do think that the community is paying more attention because it’s real. It’s touching quite a few families and it’s becoming a way of life. We have to meet those students where they are and help them on their journey to reach their fullest potential.”

Back when ACCEL first opened, Ms. Cook remembers the challenges they faced when it came to ensuring enrolled students were in the right place. She said special education services for students with severe disabilities was fairly new. Some district had very well-developed special education programs while others did not, she said.”

“When we opened, we served students who had never been in school before. We saw a lot of our students who had been misdiagnosed,” Ms. Cook said. “I had a young lady in my class that had no cognitive disability at all. She just could not communicate at all. They had no idea that she was capable of all of the things that she could do. Her mother had no idea. Being involved in those kinds of situations was very exciting.”

One of the things that keeps ACCEL afloat, Mr. Damm said, is its commitment to serving the individual needs of students.

“Whenever that is your sole focus and priority, that’s where you pour your resources, that’s where your pour your time,” Mr. Damm said. “As long as that remains your focus, which it has for us, for 40 years, everything else seems to fall in place. And even whenever we go through times like we have for the last four months, having that focus and that vision of helping the individual reach their fullest potential helps guide your decisions, helps guide your operating. It really builds an organizational culture that’s extraordinarily positive and as I’ve said before, resilient.”

Ms. Cook had similar thoughts on ACCEL’s focus on the individual.

“ACCEL always stood out,” she said. “Parents would immediately feel the difference when they came to see our program because it was such a positive environment. Parents would indicate to us that that was unique and that they hadn’t experienced that in other places. They were used to being told that their child didn’t fit this program, or ‘We really can’t help your child,’ and ‘Your child is disrupting my classroom,’ and all of the negative things. And so, to this day, parents, when they’re new to ACCEL, they’re just amazed that we don’t call them to pick up their child because they misbehaved. They come to us because they have behavioral issues and we work on those skills with the kids. The parents really appreciate that.”

Another thing Ms. Cook would often hear from parents about other places is that, “Your child doesn’t fit our program.” At ACCEL, it’s almost the same thing. However, Ms. Cook said while a student might not fit the program, ACCEL still designs an individual program to meet the needs of the child.

“So they don’t have to fit our program, we fit a program to them specifically,” she said. “That’s the difference. The dedication to whatever it takes to help a student, using the most effective methodology, using intensive one-on-one instruction, individualizing everything to the needs of each child, intensive therapy support, admin support to make sure that our staff has everything they need to do their job. All of those things are what have made ACCEL what it is today.”

Looking towards the future, ACCEL is reopening its renovated facility near 35th and Peoria avenues. The venture had started in February as part of a multi-month celebration of ACCEL’s anniversary. But with COVID-19 taking over, plans have had to be delayed. Soon enough, ACCEL will be able to double the capacity of its adult based services program at the updated center.

“ACCEL’s in a really interesting place in our history,” Mr. Damm said. “We know we have a model that works. We know our policies and philosophies and curriculum and instruction methods have a tremendous amount of integrity. Where the fun really starts is continuing to pursue the central point in our vision which is to continuously raise the standard of care in the industry.

“The other central points of our vision are quite simple. And that is to make sure that there’s access for as many people as possible for these services. There’s still a lot of individuals who don’t have access. Whether it’s in our own backyard, in some of the more rural areas, or even in the middle east or other countries where infrastructures don’t exist in a lot of places. Those are questions, challenges that I’m sure we’ll be working alongside others to answer for much more than another 10 years.”