It is hard to believe, but only a few decades ago, many individuals with disabilities lived in institutions or hidden away in their homes. Socialization was minimal and an education or earning a pay check was an unheard activity. People with disabilities were destined to live isolated and dependent. It was into this environment, three people, Peggy & Tony Mannella and Arlene Bair, who had hearts to challenge the status quo, and possessed a firm belief that life could look so much brighter for those people society considered unfortunate. Tony Manella was born into a family where his brother was intellectually disabled. He grew up knowing firsthand how little society accepted those that were different from everyone else. Even in his large family, his brother Richard was isolated from society. Tony’s passion to help others like his brother grew. He went to school and received a degree in Special Education and later a career in Business and Information Technology. Peggy and Arlene also graduated with a degree in Special Education. Peggy began her career working as a Special Education teacher within the State of Pennsylvania’s institutions. It was in these forgotten places that she learned the need to provide a level of care that would restore dignity to her clients and give them as much independence as possible. She was met with stiff resistance. Her approach required additional work from the staff and a paradigm shift of how individuals with disabilities were valued. As the landscaped changed from institutionalization to smaller community group homes, Community College of Allegheny County’s Community Services Department, under the direction of Tom Forester, allowed for Peggy and Arlene’s innovative programs. It was here that Arlene and Peggy met. The task of these programs that the two of them developed was to train group home staff how to provide care and service to the people within the homes. 

We listen to the unique voices of our participants, families and caregivers and then provide programs that meet their needs and choices. Our guiding principles are integrity, inclusion, dignity and self determination

—Peggy Mannella

Together, they began holding classes in churches and other community facilities. Not only did group home participants come, but individuals who were home-bound began attending. Peggy and Arlene began to dream even more for the persons they served and loved so much. They saw the need to provide higher quality programs and events and diversify settings, allowing for those with disabilities to participate in the community like everyone else. With a $20,000 personal loan from Arlene, 1 desk, 1 computer, in a spare bedroom, with an ironing board used to collate flyers that served as an office PACC was formed. A few other brave individuals were willing to work without pay, and formed the vision of PA Connecting Communities (PACC). The organization launched in 2004 as a 501(c)3 grassroots, non-profit organization. Within 30 days Peggy and Arlene were proudly able to pay their staff. By the end of the year, they had a budget of $250,000, and Arlene was subsequently reimbursed for her generous loan. Following the first year, Penny Bayer joined the organization. With her artistic and creative style, she assisted Arlene in developing the North Hills programs. Because of the staff’s dedicated efforts PACC now offers many more day, evening and weekend programs to serve the disability community. As we head into the 15th year of operation, PACC has grown to reach over 3,000 individuals with 1000 programs, events, classes and services throughout the year. Currently, we provide services to the intellectually disabled, those with autism, and those with a variety of developmental disabilities, as well as returning vets with special needs. PACC currently serves a five county region including Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties. PACC has grown to offer employment programs, behavioral services, occupational therapy, home and community services along with transitional programs for youth.

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