ARC Director OP-Ting Out

Chewning Retiring After Seven Years In Top Post

Posted: February 26, 2013

Mary Ellen Chewning, executive director of The Arc, jokes with a client on Monday morning. She is retiring after serving seven years in the post and a total of 41 with the organization. (Photo by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
HARRISONBURG — Mary Ellen Chewning moved seamlessly through the Op Shop on Monday, simultaneously complimenting someone on a finished word search, absorbing some good-natured ribbing and finding humor in a talking cat program on an iPad.

There’s never a dull moment at The Arc of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County’s Op Shop, located in the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center.

And for the last several years, Chewning has almost always played a role in those moments.

But Chewning, 71, is retiring as The Arc’s executive director at the end of March. She spent about seven years in the post and has been involved with the area’s largest community-based organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities since 1972.

“This is a good time,” Chewning said. “The Arc is a wonderful organization. It taught me a lot in raising my son. …  It’s very fulfilling to be able to help parents.”

The Arc advocates for people with disabilities and provides a number of support services for them and their families and other caregivers. In 1983, the local chapter launched the Op Shop, its signature program, which teaches life and social skills, takes clients on field trips and gives them an opportunity to make crafts that they can sell.

“They’re so true. They don’t pretend,” Chewning said. “They say it like it is. They’ll tease you and then they’ll tell you, ‘I like teasing you.’”

Her involvement with The Arc dates to shortly after her son, Russell, was born with Down syndrome more than 40 years ago. Russell Chewning, 43, died from congenital heart failure in January.

Chewning is a past state president of The Arc — formerly an acronym for its one-time name, the Association for Retarded Citizens — and served on the national board of directors in the 1980s. She and her husband, Brad, moved their family to Harrisonburg from Warren County in 1972.

Immediately, Chewning became an active volunteer for the local Arc while working as a reading and math specialist for elementary school children in Augusta County.

About the time Chewning retired from teaching in 2005, she stepped in as The Arc’s executive director. Then-director Dan Suggs Jr. died that year.

“She’s been the backbone of The Arc and held it together when some of us parents didn’t have the time,” said Patricia Knicely, a member of the local chapter’s board who has a son with an intellectual disability.

The Arc employs 10 people — eight of them in the Op Shop. No more than 24 clients a day participate in that program, which runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. All of the shop clients are at least 18 years old.

More than 40 people have applied to take Chewning’s position, which should be filled by April 1, Knicely said.

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or

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