The Arc recognizes local advocates of individuals with disabilities

From preschoolers to adults, Lisa Whitson has made a positive impact on individuals with special needs as a teacher or direct service provider.

Blake Hackman includes special education students in his agriculture classes at Brownstown Central High School.

The Lewis family and their miniature therapy horse, Flash, offer free appearances at events and make people smile in the process.

Cracker Barrel in Seymour continues to hire people with special needs and give them an opportunity to earn a paycheck.

On Thursday night, The Arc of Jackson County presented four awards to recognize these people in the community who have furthered the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization’s mission in Jackson County.

Normally, awards are part of the nonprofit’s annual banquet. With The Arc and Mental Health America of Jackson County moving into a new office at 320 Dupont Drive, Suite A, Seymour, the staff and board of directors decided to include the awards in Thursday’s open house event.

The awards were handed out after an introduction from Planning Coordinator Melanie O’Neal and a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Jackson County Chamber of Commerce Director Dan Robison, Seymour Mayor Matt Nicholson, The Arc staff members O’Neal and Donna Persinger and The Arc board members.

O’Neal said The Arc of Jackson County is a Jackson County United Way partner that advocates for people with disabilities, provides referrals to families seeking services, such as Medicaid waiver and The Arc Master Trust, and sponsors social events for clients. The organization also collaborates with other groups, businesses and individuals to provide more outreach to the community.

“We are 100% funded by dollars that come from Jackson County, so there’s no state funding or federal funding,” O’Neal said. “It all comes from grants, donations, memberships. It all comes from right here. I think that’s pretty remarkable that we can be here — two staff members here now — to do the work that we’re doing.”

Speaking of remarkable, the first award handed out, Teacher of the Year Award, went to Hackman.

That recognizes a teacher who works in the educational area and demonstrates excellence in teaching, assisting students with special needs, positively influencing the attitude and thinking of other professionals and the general public and fostering inclusion with students with disabilities.

“I personally have worked with Mr. Hackman for almost 20 years now, and when I was a special needs teacher, he always welcomed my special needs students into his program, and he always made it a special, positive situation for them no matter what ability that they had,” said Deb Schwartz, president of The Arc board and retired Brownstown teacher.

Whitson received the Anne Baxter Award for Service.

Named in memory of the former Arc president who was a very passionate advocate and devoted her life’s work to the needs and quality of life for people with disabilities, the award recognizes a direct service provider who has demonstrated excellence in their work, gone above and beyond in providing direct support for people with disabilities and treated them with dignity and respect.

Whitson worked in special education for Jennings County School Corp. before becoming a direct support provider for Help at Home eight years ago.

“Lisa absolutely loves, loves, loves what she does. She’s passionate about it,” O’Neal said. “She just joined our Arc board of directors, so we are very blessed to have her.”

Whitson said since her daughter with special needs, Kourtni, died at 2 years old, she has devoted her life’s work to that population.

“Her memory is why I do what I do. She changed my life,” she said. “It would be 30 years in December I lost her, and every child that I work with or an adult that I work with is honoring her. Her purpose in life was to open my eyes and heart to disabilities. Most people don’t know their purpose their whole life, but my 2-year-old had one, and that in turn gave me one. My purpose is my life surrounded by special individuals.”

Whitson now works with three clients. One of them, Alex Hayes, attended Thursday’s event with her. Another client, Claire Carlson, was there with her parents. Whitson’s other client is Lori Miller from Jennings County.

She said it’s great to see them achieve in life.

“Alex, she answers my questions now. Before, she didn’t do that, so that’s a huge thing for her,” Whitson said.

She also likes giving them new experiences.

“(Miller) celebrated Christmas with us,” Whitson said, referring to herself and her husband. “We had her Christmas Eve and all night Christmas Eve night, and she celebrated Christmas Day with my family. We gave her Christmas that she wouldn’t typically get, so for us to see that joy is what it’s all about. They say if you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life, and I love what I do.”

Cracker Barrel was presented the Employer of the Year Award, which recognizes a place that hires people with disabilities and provides them meaningful employment opportunities.

Tim Ashburn, one of The Arc’s clients who works at Cracker Barrel, accepted the award on the restaurant’s behalf.

“We want to thank Cracker Barrel for working with people with disabilities in our community, giving them the opportunity to be employed and providing an atmosphere where they can be involved and included,” Schwartz said.

Finally, Kristye Lewis accepted the Community Service Award, which recognizes community organizations and people that advocate and provide support for people with disabilities.

Lewis and her family operate Little King Ranch Miniature Therapy Horses, which includes Flash. He has gone everywhere from Louisville, Kentucky, to Greensburg and pretty much anywhere in between. He has visited with as many as 600 children and has been on more than 50 visits. His busiest year was 2019 with 27 visits, and he already has six planned this year.

“The Lewis family has never charged to have Flash attend any place in public, so thank you, Kristye, for donating that to our community,” O’Neal said. “I know Flash has attended events of ours in the past. Our clients love Flash. He even has some really cute costumes that she dresses him in.”

O’Neal also noted Lewis’ husband, Rob, and daughter, Kirstyn, often accompany her on these visits.

“It truly is a family affair,” O’Neal said. “Kristye became a board member a year ago in March. Thank you, Kristye, for your service.”

Lewis said seeing Flash make people smile is big for her.

“Maybe they weren’t having a good day and you walked up with that horse and they just smile, that’s payment right there,” she said.

It has even gotten to the point that Flash is more popular than her.

“I’m Flash’s mom,” Lewis said, laughing. “I just enjoy getting to take him out and letting other people enjoy our enjoyment.”

At a glance 

The Arc of Jackson County is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The office is at 320 Dupont Drive, Suite A, Seymour. For information, stop by the office, call 812-271-2200, email [email protected], visit or find the organization on Facebook.

Annual memberships are available for $5 (self-advocate), $10 (individual), $100 (Century Club) or $250 (President’s Circle).

There are 43 chapters and more than 30,000 members in Indiana. For information about The Arc of Indiana, call 800-382-9100 or visit

Nationwide, there are more than 700 chapters and 140,000 members. For information about The Arc of the United States, call 800-433-5255 or visit