Gannon University Special Education professor Dr. Jill Merritt is often known for her passion for helping people with disabilities. She is the faculty adviser for GUSEC (Gannon University’s Society for Exceptional Children), a student organization where GU students interact with adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Erie Community through the Arc of Erie County.
Founded by Dr. Gertrude A. Barber in 1952, The Arc of Erie County was an organization which advocated for rights and services for people with disabilities who were denied an education. Today, the Arc of Erie County still assists children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and Merritt is Vice President of that organization.
“Several of my students in GUSEC began to volunteer at some of the Arc events and so I began to tag along. After a short period of time I was asked to join their board and was then nominated to be Vice President,” said Merritt. “I have been a heavily involved member ever since. It’s something that I feel very strongly about– those with disabilities being involved and respected members of society.” As vice president, Merritt is responsible for the social club and several fundraisers as well as working with families when needed.
The Arc is part of a national organization, and its primary goal is to improve supports and services available for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In regards to this, Merritt says, “That’s our responsibility. Locally we see ourselves as much more! Together, we are a “family” of individuals working together to improve the quality of life for those in Erie County facing special challenges. Siblings, parents, friends, teachers, physicians, employers and social workers – we see everyone as a valuable member of our community.”
As a passionate advocate, Merritt has made countless contributions to this organization. She said “There are too many to list. I volunteer as an advocate for families that need someone to attend IEP and school meetings with them if they are not sure of their rights or are nervous about going alone.”
GUSEC is heavily involved in many Arc social events, and Gannon students have the opportunity to provide social opportunities for adults with disabilities. Merritt said, “Along with GUSEC, we organize monthly social club activities. Social club meets and provides social opportunities for adults with intellectual disabilities alongside their typically developing peers, which are my Gannon students. We might go to an Otters game, the Playhouse, or just have a game night on campus. Much of my work with the Arc involves fundraising to make us a more recognized group in the Erie area so that we can reach more people.” The Arc has a myriad of social opportunities to better the lives of people with disabilities.
Merritt finds the Arc of Erie County to be an incredibly rewarding experience. She said, “I love helping and serving those with disabilities and their families. It has also been very rewarding to see the organization progress over the past five years that I have been involved. We are slowly increasing our recognition and the amount of people we reach.”