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AUBURN — Two central New York nonprofit organizations that provide services for people with disabilities have merged.

Auburn-based Freedom Recreational Services for Youth with Disabilities has become a part of ARISE, an Independent Living Center serving people in Cayuga, Madison, Onondaga, Oswego and Seneca counties. The merger happened in November last year, but the programs Freedom Rec has offered — the horseback riding camp Freedom Riders, the summer Freedom Camp at Casey Park and the group programming for siblings — will remain the same. 

MaryEllen Perry, former executive director of Freedom Rec, said the overhead expenses were getting to be too much for the agency, and over the last year-and-a-half, she looked to partner with other groups.

"ARISE came to the table, and the blend was almost instantaneous," she said. "We felt that it was a good place to hang our hats, if they wanted us, and to continue our programs."

Perry and former Freedom Rec Board Director Donna Clark, sat in ARISE's new Cayuga County offices on Lincoln Street in Auburn Monday, detailing the history of their program and discussing its future with ARISE staff. One thing that particularly excites them about the merger, is that once program participants age out of Freedom Rec at 21, ARISE has the ability to continue services. 

"There's a continuity that can occur now that a small organization just can't manage," said Betty DeFazio, chief development officer at ARISE. 

ARISE Chief Operating Officer Kristen Morey added that there will be continuity of staffing, too. Many Freedom Recreation employees have agreed to stay on, with more still going through the confirmation process. Summer programs are expected to start in July, and Camp Director Cait Bartman said nothing will change. 

"We want to continue that programming, help make it happen, and keep that fun going for everyone," Bartman said. "It's the experience that all these kids deserve, but they may not get elsewhere because of a possible disability, so it's what we always fight for, and keep that mission going."

Perry fondly recalled some of the experiences she and staff have provided children over the years. Started in 1979 as an Easterseals program called Freedom Camp, it evolved into its own nonprofit with Perry one of the first full-time hires in 1990. There had been 20 or so children then, Perry said, with about four staff members. Last summer 35 staff served about 80 kids. 

Each summer camp has a theme, and last year's was Harry Potter. Perry said a snowy owl that looked like Potter's Hedwig made an appearance.

"If you don't think everybody went 'goo-goo,' let me tell you," she said, laughing. "My philosophy was always try to do something that they may not do. ... A gentleman had a non-air-worthy hot air balloon, and put it down, and we even have pictures of the kids playing soccer in there. So it's those things. I figure if I haven't done it, they haven't either."

Partnerships with local school districts, the city of Auburn, the SCAT Van and others are expected to continue. The riding program, too, will still be accepting applications, as will the program for siblings of children with disabilities. 

ARISE Regional Director Kate Budlong said applications for this summer will be available online Tuesday. More information on the merger and programming can be found at ariseinc.org/recreation-art/freedom-rec/

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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County Government Reporter