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The accomplishments of people with disabilities were highlighted when The Resource Center held its 33rd annual Ability Awareness Awards Celebration.
Click here to watch the video from the celebration.
The event took place at the Chautauqua Harbor Hotel in Celoron. The celebration, which was delayed several months because of the pandemic, was an opportunity to recognize people with disabilities who have made meaningful strides in their lives, as well as honor community residents and organizations that have helped improve the lives of those who have a disability.
Welcoming remarks were given by Denise Jones, The Resource Center’s executive director.
“This event is one of my favorites that we do, because it really pulls together and embodies what we are and who we are at The Resource Center,” Jones said. “We’re about community, and at this event we recognize our community. We’re all about succeeding and providing opportunities for people, and you’re going to hear all about that today. I hope that you’ll leave here feeling as inspired as I do every year when we have these awards.”
As part of the celebration, a video about each of the honorees in attendance was shown prior to the award being presented.
The first honor was the Community Partnership Award, which was presented to the United Way of Northern Chautauqua County. The United Way has been providing work training opportunities to people with disabilities from The Resource Center for about three years.
“I was happy to open our doors up to volunteers coming in from The Resource Center to provide them with work experiences, and the three years we’ve been working with that group of volunteers, they’ve brought so much life, so much energy, have just really made our workplace more enjoyable every day that they’re here,” said Adam Dolce, United Way executive director.
He said the United Way provides different work experiences based on volunteers’ strengths and interests, and he said the people from TRC are important to the United Way’s operations.
“They’re a critical component to helping us help the community. Over the last two seasons through our coat drive, The Resource Center volunteers have been an absolutely critical piece to making sure those coats get laundered and cleaned,” Dolce said. “The enthusiasm and the eagerness with which our Resource Center volunteers take that project on is so refreshing, and I think they appreciate knowing that they’re making a difference in helping people, and we certainly appreciate the assistance and all the work they do for us.”
The Edwin Roth Mental Health Award was given to Barbara Billings, a licensed mental health clinician with TRC’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services.
Abigail Pickert, a care coordinator at TRC, nominated Billings for the award. “She is the utmost professional and warm-hearted counselor,” Pickert said of Billings. “She really takes the time to be personable.”
Pickert said Billings’ commitment to her clients extends beyond counseling sessions, explaining that in instances in which Pickert and Billings work with the same person in different capacities, Billings will seek Pickert’s insight about the person in order for Billings to better understand the client and be able to provide the most appropriate care.
“I love doing the counseling,” Billings said. “I love working with people. I love doing the day-to-day process of helping people find themselves and be able to tap into the resources they have within them to meet the problems that they have day to day.”
Billings, who said receiving the Mental Health Award validates her career choice, said she often wonders whether she is having a positive impact on her clients.
“A lot of times, I feel like, `Man, I’m not getting it, I’m not getting it. What do I need to do to help this person?’ And then somebody comes along and says, `Well, guess what I did?’ And that’s the exciting part. It’s the success stories that are the thing that made me understand that, yeah, I have made the right choice. I found what I love to do.”
She credited her co-workers and her clients for the successes she has enjoyed as a counselor.
“These guys and gals that work here are amazing. We are a team, and we couldn’t do it without each other,” Billings said. “We work together to make this the best possible experience for each other as well as for our clients. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for.”
The Mental Health Award is named in memory of the late Ed Roth, an official with the New York State Office of Mental Health.
The Business/Employer of the Year was Tanglewood Manor. Tanglewood was chosen for the award because of the supports it provided to a worker with disabilities during the pandemic.
Before COVID arrived the worker, Lori Schneider, had a job coach from The Resource Center who accompanied her and supported her in performing her job tasks. When COVID hit, Schneider was deemed an essential worker but her job coach was not, so the coach could no longer accompany her. Tanglewood supported Schneider and contacted The Resource Center regularly to make sure the assisted-living facility was doing the proper things to enable her to be successful in her role assisting with activities.
“They would call me every day to check in to make sure that they were doing right by her,” said Ladena Marks, TRC case manager.
Thanks to Tanglewood, Schneider was able to be successful in her job, and in the process she increased her independence and sense of pride by discovering she no longer required assistance from a job coach.
“I want to keep this job,” Schneider said. “I really enjoy it, and I enjoy my boss and the residents.”
Madison Fehlman, Tanglewood’s activity director, accepted the Business/Employer of the Year Award. She said Tanglewood was honored to partner with The Resource Center to provide employment opportunities to people with disabilities. Fehlman added that as much as Schneider likes her job, Tanglewood’s residents enjoy having her there.
“It is such a wonderful thing for her, she feels important being there,” Fehlman said. “It’s also really important for our residents having someone come in that is motivated to work and so happy to be there. It really brightens up their day as well.”
The Elmer Muench Volunteer of the Year Award was given to Craig Colburn. Colburn, a retired business executive, served on The Resource Center’s board of directors for several years before stepping down last year.
“During his time on finance committee, he was a very active member of the committee. He even volunteered additional personal time to help support us build rings of defense, how as an organization we can grow or retract depending on market needs, especially supporting our Allied Industries,” said Kelly Dimitri, TRC’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer. “He also has supported us in taking big-picture tracking of fiscal performance by program and focusing in on where we may need improvement plans and what our plans are working toward.” Also developed a one-page summary of financial results by program to help fellow board members know how TRC is performing based on the prior year and the current budget.”
As a member of TRC’s board and finance committee, Colburn noted, “The biggest agenda item always is to make sure that, financially, we are on the right track as an organization and sustainable so we can complete our mission and continue to serve the most important people we have, which is our clients.”
“I love TRC,” he continued. “The longer you’re associated with it, the more it weaves into your heart. It’s a very special organization, it’s a very professional organization, and it serves a very, very vital purpose, and I can’t say enough about how great this organization is.”
The Volunteer of the Year Award is named in memory of Elmer Muench, a longtime volunteer for The Resource Center.
The Advocate of the Year was Andrew Heggarty, who is a direct support professional at one of the homes operated by The Resource Center. Heggarty, who has worked for The Resource Center for 17 years, was honored for the ways in which he interacts with the home’s residents, particular one man who has challenging behaviors.
“I enjoy helping, picking people up when they’re down,” he said in explaining his approach to his job. “Be kind. You never know what the other person’s going through. It doesn’t cost anything to be kind to someone. It’s free, and it probably helps them, it helps you, and it gets passed along.”
He thanked his co-workers for their support and said it takes the efforts of all employees working there to make the home run smoothly. “You’ve got to rely on members of your team,” he said.
“What we do is fun, and I can’t wait for more journeys,” Heggarty said of his role as a direct support professional working with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The Bruce Walford Community Service Award was presented to Patrick Smeraldo. Smeraldo is a schoolteacher as well as an independent service coordinator with Chautauqua Connections Inc. and its Connections Children’s Coalition.
Heather C. Brown, TRC’s assistant executive director for program operations, said that through Smeraldo’s work overseeing the Connections Children’s Coalition, he has established collaborations with more than 30 other local agencies to take on a number of initiatives to support area children and eliminate gaps in services.
One of those initiatives was the creation of Kids & Sibs summer camp for children with developmental disabilities and their siblings. To ensure there would be enough funding so everyone could attend camp free of charge, Smeraldo solicited donations and then raised money by walking around Chautauqua Lake.
During a point in the pandemic when there was a shortage of personal protective equipment, Smeraldo used his personal and professional connections to ensure that area schoolchildren had access to face coverings.
“There were just a lot of different tasks that he got engaged in that were really going above and beyond what the normal coalition work was,” Brown said.
“This is the most rewarding work I’ve done,” Smeraldo said of his efforts with the Connections Children’s Coalition. “There’s a definite need for agencies and school districts to collaborate and work together, because a school really can’t do what an agency can assist them in.” A large agency such as TRC, that reaches into many areas of the county, can help all 18 school districts, he said.
“That’s really the joy of what I like to do, is marry the two together and provide services for the kids so that they’re able to possibly reach their maximum potential,” Smeraldo said.
While honored to receive the Community Service Award, Smeraldo said more meaningful to him has been the chance to support others through his work with The Resource Center.
“The reward for me is the opportunities that The Resource Center’s opened up for me, and to meet all kinds of new people and do various different projects, whether it’s around health care or children or assisting with events,” Smeraldo said. “I will carry this with me for the rest of my life, the experience I have gained from here.”
The Health Provider of the Year Award was given to Krista Petry, family nurse practitioner at TRC Community Health Center. Deja Ferrara and Meg Paolini, nurse managers at The Resource Center, nominated Petry for the award because of the care Petry provides to residents of TRC’s intermediate care facility on Foote Avenue in Jamestown. Petry visits the homes twice a week to assess the health of residents, some of whom have complex medical issues.
“It really does make our job much easier to have her available to us, and she’s just so easy to communicate with,” Ferrara said. “It’s been extremely helpful and has helped us prevent some serious illnesses from progressing.”
She and Paolini emphasized that Petry is able to gain deeper insight into the residents by visiting them in their homes, rather than seeing them at TRC Community Health Center.
“She is able to spend quality time with the individuals and see them in their own settings. She’s done a lot of very kind things that have lent themselves to going the extra mile,” Paolini said. “She is just really an asset to the individuals that we support by virtue of the fact that she can see them in their own environment and really get a good sense of what’s going on in their own homes.”
Petry said she is committed to providing the best care possible to all of her patients, and that spending time with the residents of TRC’s homes, the nursing staff and the residents’ families assists her in accomplishing that.
“I don’t feel that every person, every resident, needs the same treatments, and so I really focus on trying to identify what’s going to work best for that person,” Petry said. “I feel like I am making a difference and I see the improvements in my patients, and that is absolutely heart-warming and my goal.”
Petry credited her co-workers at TRC Community Health Center, nurses and staff at TRC’s homes and the staff at the agency’s day programs for helping her to be able to be successful in treating her patients.
The Carl Cappa Humanitarian Award was presented to Dory Matwijkow. Matwijkow has a son named Austin who is on the autism spectrum and lives in a TRC home. She and her family have supported the Step Up for Autism walk The Resource Center hosts in conjunction with Filling the Gap, Inc. When the event couldn’t be held in 2020 due to the pandemic, Matwijkow organized her own Step Up for Autism walk in her hometown of Grand Island. It was so successful, she held the event again last year. Each walk generated more than $10,000 for Filling the Gap.
Matwijkow, who is a professional pastry chef, also bakes treats for humans and canines under the moniker Austin’s Angels. She then sells the treats to family and friends, donating the money to Filling the Gap. In addition, Matwijkow and her husband, John, have donated thousands of dollars to The Resource Center to support the creation of TRC’s Edgewater Art House.
“We really appreciate Dory and all of her efforts, and all of the money that comes our way through her different events,” said Victoria Trass Bardo, Filling the Gap’s development and events manager. “We’re very grateful.” She added that The Resource Center and Filling the Gap look forward to having Matwijkow and the rest of her Austin’s Angels in attendance when TRC and FTG hold their first in-person Step Up for Autism walk in three years September 24.
Matwijkow was pleasantly surprised by the success of the walks she organized. When she was planning her first walk two years ago, her initial goal was to raise $5,000. Thanks to her efforts and the support of her family and friends, she doubled that amount.
“It was life-changing. It was incredible. It makes me feel like I’m doing a really good thing for people that need the money,” Matwijkow said of her fund-raising walks and bake sales. “It just makes me realize that I have a lot of friends that appreciate what I do.”
She encouraged others to take the initiative to support causes important to them.
“I wish more people would try to do something,” Matwijkow said. “We all have a lot of free time, and just to try to raise some money just to donate it back, because it makes you feel really good.”
The Humanitarian of the Year Award is named in memory of Carl Cappa, a Jamestown businessman and philanthropist who was dedicated to supporting the community, including people with disabilities.
Also recognized at the awards celebration was Maggie Rivera. She was honored for having been selected by NYSID (New York State Industries for the Disabled) for recognition in its annual Outstanding Performer Program. NYSID honored Rivera for her job performance as a member of The Resource Center’s Environmental Services crew that maintains the Interstate 86 rest area in Ellery.
“She’s dedicated, devoted, consistent, and always goes above and beyond to get her duties done. We never have issues with her. The quality of her workmanship is fantastic. She fills in when we need her to fill in for other needs that arise,” said Dan Micek, production superintendent at TRC’s manufacturing facilities and the head of the Environment Services operation. “Her dependability is top-notch for us.”
Rivera, who has worked for The Resource Center for eight years, said she has made a lot of friends among her co-workers at the rest area – including the man who would become her husband.
“I feel very honored and special to receive this,” she said of her award. “It means a lot to me.”
The recipients of two other awards were unable to attend the event. Nichole Davis was chosen to receive the Personal Success Award. After working various jobs, Davis became a certified nursing assistant and obtained a job at a senior facility. She then achieved one of her goals by getting a job as a pharmacy technician.
Also unable to attend the event was Virginia Lehman, who was selected to receive the Outstanding Achievement Award. Last year Lehman moved into an independent living situation, and this has enabled her to become more self-sufficient. And after smoking for many years and saying she would never quit, Lehman gave up smoking.
Closing remarks were given by Richard Erickson, the President of TRC’s Board of Directors. “I’m humbled to be here,” Erickson said. “You guys really amplify the mission of The Resource Center.” He also shared ed a quote from former President Ronald Reagan:
“We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”
The Awards Selection Committee was composed of Vicky Bardo, who organized the awards luncheon; Jeanette Caprino, president and co-founder of Kidney Connection; Vesna Carlson, library para-professional with Jamestown Public Schools; Kathy Field, a retired TRC employee who helped organize the awards celebration for many years; Kathy McMaster, community member; and Michael Suppa, retired vice president of Filling the Gap.
Sponsors of the Ability Awareness Awards Celebration included NYSID, HM Insurance and RxBenefits. TRC’s Steve Waterson was the master of ceremonies, while TRC employees Chris Anderson and Austin Mitchell handled the photography and videography responsibilities.
Click here to make a donation in honor of one of the award recipients.