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  • The Resource Center presents 34th Ability Awareness Awards

    The accomplishments of people with disabilities were highlighted when The Resource Center held its 34th Ability Awareness Awards Celebration.

    The event took place at the Chautauqua Harbor Hotel in Celoron.  The celebration 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 is one of my favorite events that we hold each year, because it gives us the chance to highlight some of the success stories that happen every day at The Resource Center,” Jones said.  “It shines a spotlight on the fact that it takes all of us – people with disabilities, their families, our employees, and the larger community – to make these success stories a reality.  By working together, we are able to generate tremendous results that strengthen us as individuals, and as a community.”

    As part of the celebration, a video about each of the honorees was shown prior to the award being presented.

    The first award was for Advocate of the Year and was presented to Lynn Johnson.  Johnson, a community coach at The Resource Center who works in Northern Chautauqua County, was honored for her commitment to provide awesome experiences for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  They have gone to lunch, concerts, a zoo, car shows, and the County Fair, and there has been an unexpected favorite outing – riding through a car wash.  Johnson, who has missed family occasions to take folks on adventures, also helps out at a TRC home when needed.

    “I love supporting people with disabilities,” she said.  “This isn’t a job, it’s a calling.”  Johnson said she enjoys the “aha moments” – the joyous reactions of people with disabilities when she supports them to experience activities for the first time.  Admitting that she prefers to stay out of the spotlight, Johnson said she was humbled by being chosen for the award and that everyone else who works at The Resource Center is worthy of recognition.  “I feel that everybody involved at TRC are ordinary people, but we are all doing extraordinary things.”

    The Personal Success Award was given to Justin Moreland.  Moreland survived the debilitating effects of a brain aneurysm, eventually regaining his cognitive and physical abilities.  Determined to help others facing disabling conditions, Moreland joined The Resource Center as a direct support professional working with people who have developmental disabilities at TRC’s day habilitation program in Dunkirk.  His own experience during his recovery – when he knew the answers to his healthcare providers’ questions but was unable to form a verbal response – made him realize that some people with developmental disabilities face similar challenges.

    Moreland credited his young age, physical fitness and resiliency with his ability to bounce back from the aneurysm, and he plans to keep improving.  One ongoing challenge caused by his injury is a problem with his memory.

    “To receive this award is very satisfying,” Moreland said.  “I’m going to use this as momentum and just kind of level up and continue to just grow.”

    The Elmer Muench Volunteer of the Year was Jeremy Rugg.  Rugg, who is associated with ALLABILITY Martial Arts Association, has been coming to The Resource Center to teach karate to people with developmental disabilities.

    Rugg, who has special needs, has been a Special Olympics volunteer.  When he realized there weren’t a lot of opportunities for people with disabilities to become involved in martial arts, he approached The Resource Center with his idea to teach martial arts.

    “I’ve always wanted to help out others with special needs.  You get more out of volunteering than you get from your own work.  It’s a lot of satisfaction,” he said.

    “Being a volunteer here has been awesome.  I love the warm reception that I get when I come into the class,” said Rugg, who encouraged others to volunteer to support people with disabilities.  “I’d recommend more people come to The Resource Center and help out.”

    In accepting his award, Rugg thanked his former teacher Robert Goold, who is a member of The Resource Center’s board of directors and a longtime Special Olympics supporter, for providing the support Rugg needed to be able to graduate from high school.

    The Volunteer of the Year Award is named in memory of Elmer Muench, a longtime Resource Center volunteer and former president of TRC’s board of directors.

    The Bruce Walford Community Support Award was presented to John Felton.  Felton, in his role as the executive director of the Southern Chautauqua Federal Credit Union, has endeavored to improve the financial situations of marginalized people.  In particular, he has provided financial education to people involved in Invest U, an anti-poverty program operated by The Resource Center and the United Way of Southern Chautauqua County.  Felton and the credit union also focuses on supporting people living in ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) families.

    “There are individuals who are hard-working individuals, good people, that have had bad things happen to them.  There is no better joy in life than taking somebody who is trying – who is not looking for a handout but looking for a hand up – there is no better joy than being that organization that can help them with that hand up,” Felton said.  “We’re here to change their standard of living.”

    He drew similarities between the ways in which TRC and the credit union operate.

    “There’s a lot of synergy between The Resource Center and Southern Chautauqua Federal Credit Union,” Felton said.  “The Resource Center has built such strong relationships with their clientele, that’s a model that we also embrace at the credit union.  Listening to people so that you can truly understand what is the problem, what is the hurdle in their life, will help you determine a better solution for those problems.”

    The Community Support Award was created in memory of Bruce Walford, former manager of The Resource Center’s manufacturing center in Dunkirk.

    The Community Partnership Award was given to the Gebbie Foundation.  Gebbie worked with The Resource Center and the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce to open a downtown Jamestown retail store called CHQ Plus.  The store, which is operated by TRC, sells locally made items and provides opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to gain work experience in a retail setting.

    Greg Edwards, chief executive officer of Gebbie Foundation, said the idea for CHQ Plus sprang from the foundation’s desire to make full use of storefronts along downtown Jamestown.  He entered into conversations with TRC officials regarding the possibility of having TRC operate a commercial business.  Edwards said Terri Johnson, TRC’s director of employment and community-based services, helped convince him the project was worth undertaking.

    “Terri really helped open my eyes to the multiple levels of benefit that the region could achieve if CHQ Plus became a reality.  And what were those benefits?  For us, it was filling that space with a new, exciting commercial opportunity for residents and tourists alike,” Edwards said.  “But what quickly sold me and sold my board of directors at the Gebbie Foundation was the additional advantage and bonus of finding ways to employ people that have developmental disabilities and helping introduce that potential workforce to the rest of our community.”

    He said CHQ Plus, located at the corner of Third and Cherry Streets, has been a success since it opened in October 2022.  Edwards said CHQ Plus provides a venue for local vendors to market their products in a cost-effective way.  He said he has heard from area residents that the store is a go-to place to find unique items.  Edwards noted some people with disabilities who have been trained at the store have taken what they’ve learned and found retail jobs in the region.

    Edwards said the Gebbie Foundation has enjoyed its partnership with The Resource Center, and he encouraged other businesses to consider partnering with the agency.

    “How thankful we are to have had this opportunity to help promote the work that TRC does, the help it’s providing to those with disabilities and, simultaneously, hopefully open some people’s eyes about the prospects of hiring folks that come out of this training program,” he said.

    The Health Provider of the Year was Rosanna Hatfield, who is a licensed certified social worker and the assistant director of clinical Services for The Resource Center’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services program.

    “It’s important that we all have good mental health, because we all have mental health struggles that impact so much of our daily lives and the lives of our clients as well,” Hatfield said.  “In regards to how my work makes me feel, I really feel like a good part of the community in trying to help people and working with others to improve their lives, so it kind of fills my bucket to be able to help people.”

    Hatfield, who has worked for The Resource Center since 1999, said she began her TRC career working in one of the homes the agency operates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  She said this experience prepared her well for her role as a social worker.

    “There are so many people that are non-verbal or can’t communicate, and you have to be their voice, and it really pushed me to be that voice,” she said.  ”It’s important to be able to advocate for others that are unable and unwilling to do for themselves.”

    The Business/Employer of the Year was Mazza Chautauqua Cellars/Five & 20 Spirits & Brewing in Westfield.  During the past few years, Mazza and Five & 20 have hired several people with developmental disabilities through The Resource Center’s Employment Services Program.  TRC officials have lauded Mazza’s commitment to its workers with disabilities and its willingness to make whatever accommodations are needed for the employees to be successful.

    Mario Mazza, vice president and general manager for Robert Mazza Inc., accepted the award.  He said Mazza and Five & 20 have welcomed the opportunity to employ people with disabilities, and that becoming an inclusive and accommodating work place has made the company stronger while giving its employees with disabilities the chance to thrive.

    “We had an opportunity to explore how we could modify our operations to be more accommodating, a bit more inclusive, and help fulfill some of our needs while also enabling somebody to help contribute to the work we’re doing,” Mazza said.

    He said one of the supervisors at the Westfield location believes that if a job applicant with a disability has a positive attitude, it can be more important than possessing the initial aptitude to perform the job tasks.

    “We’re happy to teach and train somebody, and if somebody’s interested and eager and has the motivation and willingness to work and learn, we’ll absolutely support that,” Mazza said, “whether that’s through training or whether it’s making accommodations to make work spaces more accessible.”

    Mazza noted that for businesses struggling to find workers in the current economy, expanding the number of potential employees by looking to hire people with disabilities makes sense.

    “There are challenges for organizations and businesses to find the work and labor that they need in some instances.  Broadening that pool (of potential employees) and being more inclusive has allowed us to maintain a solid and steady team of individuals here working to accomplish what we need to as we grow.”

    He praised the support offered by TRC’s Employment Services Office, especially job coaches who accompany new employees to the work site and help them master the job tasks.

    “We’re just happy to have some wonderful individuals that have joined the team, that are able to contribute.  Hopefully they’re feeling valued team members.  I know we greatly appreciate everything they’ve helped us with.”

    Mazza added the company recently bought a warehouse in Westfield and plans to expand its production and packaging capacity at the facility, and he expects to hire more workers with disabilities.

    The Edwin Roth Mental Health Award was given to Michael Trusso.  Trusso was chosen for the award for the way he supports peers in The Resource Center’s “Passages” PROS (Personalized Recovery Oriented Services) Center for Wellness in Jamestown.

    Trusso has attended group therapy and counseling sessions at The Resource Center since moving to the Jamestown area in the late 1980s.  “It’s been a wonderful journey,” he said.  “I’ve changed in leaps and bounds.”

    He was nominated for the award by staff at the Passages Center, who appreciate the compassionate way Trusso interacts with his peers.

    “I believe that helping others is the best thing I can do to improve my quality of life.  And I try to use my experience to relate to people who are going through similar things.  And we do that to help each other grow,” Trusso said.  “We share here on a peer level so that we can grow together.”

    He stressed that everyone needs to be mindful of their mental health.

    “Every person on the planet needs to work at their mental health.  And some people miss the boat.  Because of the stigma, they don’t think that they have to worry about their mental health,” Trusso said.  “If you’re mentally ill and don’t deal with it, it’s going to affect the entire rest of your life – your financial, your spiritual, your mental, social – all those parts of your life.”

    He recommended that when people experience emotional problems, they share their thoughts.

    “If someone’s going through struggles, I think the best suggestion I would have would be to tell somebody.  Don’t hold it in; don’t hold it back.  You can start with one person and trust them a little bit, and see that you can trust somebody.  And then over time you reveal more and more about the pain and sorrow you’re in, or the struggle you’re having.”

    Trusso added that just like when making other changes in one’s life, achieving emotional wellness is a process that takes time and commitment.

    “Losing weight takes time.  Strengthening your mental health is going to take time.  You have to take baby steps at first, and then build yourself up and work your way through.”

    The Mental Health Award is named in memory of the late Ed Roth, an official with the New York State Office of Mental Health.

    Victor Karas, who received NYSID’s Outstanding Performer Award, poses with Tamara Zofchak, who presented the awards to the Ability Awareness Award recipients.

    Also recognized at the awards celebration was Victor Karas III.  He 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 Karas for his job performance as a member of The Resource Center’s environmental services crew that maintains the Interstate 86 rest area in Ellery.

    Karas has worked for The Resource Center since 2010.  His supervisors describe him as an exemplary employee who will fill in whenever needed.  Karas also took the initiative to obtain his driver’s license so he could transport his team members to and from the work site.

    Karas said he enjoys his job and uses his earnings to buy items for himself and his daughter.  He was grateful to have been nominated for the award.

    “I am very happy to have this award, and I appreciate for people giving me this award,” Karas said.  “I want to thank everyone, like my co-workers and my bosses, for honoring me with this award.  I’m very excited.”

    Unable to attend the event was Joshua Hart, who was selected to receive the Outstanding Achievement Award.  With support from Resource Center staff, Hart has been able to overcome an anxiety disorder that had prevented him from relaxing enough to be able to travel places around the community.

    Via video, two Resource Center employees who work closely with Hart – his service coordinator, Tammi Blodien, and Brianna Ashdown, the nurse manager at Hart’s TRC home – discussed the progress he’s made.  Blodien said it has been a multi-year process that began with staff using a reward system to persuade Hart to be comfortable to get into a vehicle.  She described the first time Hart was able to walk to a store near his home and engage in conversation with a store employee, and how now he comfortably travels by vehicle to a variety of places in Jamestown and beyond.

    “To see him out, and interact with different people in the community, was just incredible,” Ashdown said.  “He’s come so far from where we started, it’s spectacular to see and be able to do it with him.”

    Ashdown said that when Hart becomes anxious when in a vehicle or out in the community, he is able to calm himself be reminding himself to be patient.  She and Blodien said the goal is to get to the point that Hart will be able to visit a zoo and make a trip to see family members who live about 150 miles from Jamestown.  The two TRC employees are excited with the progress Hart has made.

    “Josh, you’re doing an excellent job riding in the van,” Blodien said.

    “I just wish that he could understand how proud I am of him,” Ashdown said, “to take the kid that we knew when he first got here and see the man that he’s become now.”

    Hart’s mother, Pam. accepted the award on his behalf.  She said her son moved to The Resource Center at the recommendation of the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, which told her TRC had staff who possessed the training and expertise to address her son’s challenges.  She praised the members of her son’s care team at The Resource Center and added that they seem to be emblematic of Western New York residents.

    “I’m blown away by the depth of the team here,” she said.  “I couldn’t be more thankful for this place.  I pray every night for The Resource Center and the staff.”

    Closing remarks were prepared by Rich Kimball, the vice chair of The Resource Center’s board of directors.  “Thank you so much to each of today’s honorees, who inspire us to use our own abilities,” Kimball said.  “The abilities the recipients of this year’s awards possess cannot be fully utilized without another `A’ word – attitude.”

    Kimball added, “In addition to personal success and achievement, this year’s honorees utilize their ability in the areas of business, health, volunteering, and community networks that are intertwined in the fabric of this community.”

    The Awards Selection Committee was composed of Victoria Trass Bardo, development and events manager for Filling the Gap, Inc., who organized the awards luncheon; Kathy Field, a retired TRC employee who helped organize the awards celebration for many years; Melissa Klenke, a care coordinator at Person Centered Services; Charlotte Olson, retired from Brown & Brown of NY; and Barbara Stewart, a member of The Resource Center’s board and the mother of a man who receives supports from TRC.

    Tamara Zofchak, a self-advocate at The Resource Center, presented the awards to the honorees.  TRC’s Steve Waterson was the master of ceremonies, while TRC employees Chris Anderson and Austin Mitchell handled the photography and videography responsibilities.

    Remarks also were given by Senator George Borrello and County Executive PJ Wendel.

    “The Resource Center does great things every day,” Borrello said, “giving people the ability to have a better quality of life, a happier quality of life.”  He called the Ability Awareness Award recipients “everyday heroes” for giving people with disabilities the supports they need.

    “What people are seeing in the community is the great work you’re doing” to further The Resource Center’s mission, Wendel told the honorees.  “Thank you for The Resource Center, but also thank you for all the awardees today for what you do to bring this mission to life and make these dreams realities.”

    Borrello, Wendel and Assemblyman Andy Goodell provided congratulatory certificates for each of the award recipients.

    Click here to watch the video of the Ability Awareness Awards Celebration.

    Click here to make a donation to The Resource Center TRC Excellence Awards Fund at the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation in honor of one of the award recipients.

    Recipients of The Resource Center’s Ability Awareness Awards pose together. Pictured are, from left, Mario Mazza of Mazza Chautauqua Cellars/Five & 20 Spirits & Brewing, the Employer of the Year; Greg Edwards of the Gebbie Foundation, which received the Community Partnership Award; Kaiso Rugg, who was the Elmer Muench Volunteer of the Year; John Felton of Southern Chautauqua Federal Credit Union, who received the Bruce Walford Community Service Award; Michael Trusso, who received the Edwin Roth Mental Health Award; Rosanna Hatfield, who was the Health Provider of the Year; Justin Moreland, who received the Personal Success Award; Lynn Johnson, who was the Advocate of the Year; Tammi Blodien, one of The Resource Center employees who supported Josh Hart to make such progress in his life that he earned the Outstanding Achievement Award; and Hart’s mother, Pam, who accepted the award on his behalf.

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