Parents, teachers, human service professionals and local government officials gathered Thursday at SRU Elementary School in East Smithfield to learn how they could better advocate for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The program's guest speaker, Maureen Cronin, executive director of the ARC of PA, led a discussion on how to improve services and support systems for families in Bradford, Sullivan, Tioga and Lycoming counties. About 40 people attended Thursday's event, including a parent panel made up of mothers from each county.

Parents were encouraged to share their experiences and suggestions on the community's needs. Participants identified the resources in the area that already exist for children with special needs, then discussed ways to fill in the gaps where children are being underserved.

None of the state's 34 ARC chapters serve the four-county area, something parents said they would like to change.

The ARC, now a nationwide organization, started in 1949 in Pennsylvania with "two moms in a kitchen," Cronin said. The mothers, who did not want their children placed in an institution, chose to advocate for their integration with the community.

While the organization has made great strides, more still needs to be done, Cronin said. The ARC of PA continues to work to close institutions, which continue to admit about 12 people per year, she said. Five institutions remain open in the state, housing about 1,100 people.

The ARC also continues to work to integrate those with intellectual and developmental disabilities into the community and to make special education fair for parents.

In addition, the group works to reduce a waiting list for emergency care and other services. About 4,200 people are on the state's emergency waiting list, she said.

Conditions are improving, she said, even in the wake of budget cuts to services. Last year, the waiting list initiative went unfunded in the preliminary budget. ARC officials took action, resulting in $20 million being budgeted for the initiative in the final budget, Cronin said.

This year, the state budget address in February discussed disability funding, Cronin said. The waiting list initiative is currently slated to maintain its funding in the coming fiscal year, she said.

"The way to make real change is to be a strong advocate as a group," Cronin said.

Thursday's event was put on by the Bradford/Sullivan/Tioga Early Childhood Coalition, Positive Practices, the Bradford County YMCA and the Bradford County Regional Arts Council. The YMCA provided on-site childcare.

A weekend of family-oriented programming continues today with the 14th annual Learning Early Conference, to be held at the Sayre Theatre and on Guthrie's Sayre campus. During the conference, early childhood experts will present on a variety of topics exploring learning and the arts, according to a release from the Bradford County Regional Arts Council.

On Saturday, the Bradford County YMCA will hold its annual Healthy Kids Day, hosting play and educational activities and informational booths from 9 a.m. to noon at its headquarters in Towanda.

Amanda Renko can be reached at (570) 888-9652; or email: arenko@thedailyreview.com.