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The Arc both serves and advocates

Sima Thorpe is executive director of The Arc of Spokane.

Advocacy is at the heart of Sima Thorpe’s role as executive director of The Arc of Spokane. 

After spending many of the 21 years she worked at Gonzaga University as director and volunteer service coordinator at the Center for Community Action and Service Learning (CCASL), she chose to come to The Arc because it ties direct service and social action.

Sima believes it’s important to know the people for whom one advocates.

At The Arc, Sima fits her thirst for justice, civil rights and advocacy with her work to build respect for and integrate people with intellectual and developmental disabilities into the community.

That often means influencing public policies, so during a legislative session, she will call offices of legislators.

Advocacy is also integral to her everyday effort of building awareness of and respect for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Arc helps clients gain access to and be integrated into the community so they can live full lives, she said.

Advocacy is part of coordinating 250 employees running 12 supportive living homes with 24/7 care, a community center, a thrift store and 12 programs that include financial management, individual and group employment, family support and community access.

The Arc of Spokane is Washington’s largest Arc agency and one of 730 agencies known as The Arc in the United States.  It serves about 3,000 people a year in Eastern Washington.

Sima, who began in 2015, is just the third executive director of The Arc of Spokane in its 40 years.

The Arc works with civic leaders locally, statewide and nationally to develop public policy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

It works collaboratively on a task force to make public education available for children with developmental disabilities, to help adults succeed in the workplace and to establish community living as an alternative to institutionalization.

She spends time in Olympia working to prevent cuts to programs for people with special needs. Prior to the last legislative session, she took a bus with constituents and families to Olympia to meet with legislators.

Sima also joins The Arc’s national efforts to resist cuts to Medicaid that would make it harder for people with developmental disabilities to access services.

“Access is better under the Affordable Care Act, which planned Medicaid expansion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who rely on Medicaid and the social services safety net,” she said.

While Sima supports the state’s increase in the minimum wage to pay people what they deserve, it makes the cost of operating nonprofits higher. Unless legislatively mandated, there are no increases in state funding to mitigate the impact, and few nonprofits can increase fees.

“It’s a heavy responsibility for our workers to care for people with disabilities so they can live in the community,” she said. “It’s hard to find people who will work for $11.40/hour to do that work.”

The Arc’s supported-living residential workers cook meals, clean homes, take care of intimate needs, provide transportation and offer other support services.  They need training to work effectively to help clients with autism or other disabilities manage their behavior. 

“Fortunately, advocacy efforts by The Arc and others paid off, with an increase in funding for supported living programs approved by the state’s legislature in July,” she said.

Before working at Gonzaga, Sima started as a paralegal advocate for the Northwest Justice Project. In service learning at Gonzaga, she interacted with people at more than 100 nonprofits, including The Arc of Spokane. 

She founded CCASL and other programs to support students’ parents, LGBT students, veterans and non-traditional students, and students studying abroad in Zambia.

“Appreciating the Jesuit mission, I was involved with social justice and diversity initiatives at Gonzaga, so I bring that perspective to The Arc, as well as my connections with higher education,” she said.

“The Arc is not a faith-based organization, but I bring a faith-based approach,” added Sima, who grew up Lutheran and now attends congregations of different faiths.  Her father was a non-practicing Muslim.

“I grew up with a dual faith awareness of Christianity and Islam, so I feel comfortable with different traditions,” she said.

Being of Iranian descent, she experienced the Persian culture in her home in Oregon and was brought up to respect diversity, equity and inclusion.  Her father immigrated from the Middle East. Her mother was Scotch-Irish.

Sima earned a bachelor’s degree in 1985 in English and education at the University of Oregon, where her father taught math.  She also has a master’s in organizational leadership from Gonzaga and teaches in its undergraduate leadership program, helping students understand how philosophy integrates into daily work.

After she participated in a protest with Students for a Nuclear Free Future at the University of Oregon, the university ordered her to do community service in a food bank.

“There I saw the value of direct service, as well as social action, and learned that we need to see the faces of people for whom we advocate,” Sima said.

She also encourages that connection in a 12-student Gonzaga class she teaches Thursdays at the House of Charity.  That class and work-study/intern program reflect her belief in integrating students into the community.

Students bring hotboxes with food from GU’s campus kitchen program to serve to about 200 people from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the House of Charity. Then the class discusses leadership and community involvement. Activist, military, nonprofit, philanthropic and other leaders speak to expose students to different community service approaches.

“I see ‘aha’ moments for students at the end of the month when House of Charity patrons have fewer resources and food stamps run out,” she said. 

In September 2016, Sima started a project at The Arc for unpaid college interns or paid work-study students help high school students with disabilities succeed in school, learn about jobs and gain skills to live independently. 

In the program’s Explorers Project, students learn about The Arc’s goal for individuals to be included and be able to choose what they want to do in life, Sima said.

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