Wednesday, November 23, 2011

From Katrina to KidStart - Commitment to Service Drives New Children's Program Chief

The prospect of directing a not-for-profit children's program was far from Chris Lynch's mind in February of 2007, as he served meals to thousands of homeless residents in Biloxi, MS and helped local families to rebuild their homes after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

But it was that fateful trip, taken with his wife Mitzi and about 20 other Livingston CARES volunteers, that laid the foundation for the Geneseo resident's future with KidStart, the children's services division of The Arc of Livingston-Wyoming.

"We served about a thousand meals each day, and were also given other assignments such as installing insulation and drywall.  I got so much more out of the experience than I ever thought I could," Mr. Lynch explains.  "From that point, I knew that when I retired, my next step would be some type of service.  I thought about Habitat for Humanity because of its similarity to my Katrina experience, but then an opportunity arose at KidStart.  It was very appealing because my whole career has been working with children."

Mr. Lynch joined the KidStart team as a consultant in September 2010, two months after retiring from his position as Principal at Dansville Primary School.  Among his responsibilities: managing KidStart's ongoing Opening Doors capital campaign, which seeks to offset costs incurred from relocating the program from a SUNY Geneseo facility that is earmarked for demolition into the Lehman Building, a new school in Groveland.  Thus far, the campaign has raised more than $400,000 toward its $800,000 goal.

On January 1, Mr. Lynch's priorities will evolve once again, when he assumes the post of KidStart Director, overseeing a multi-faceted early childhood center that encompasses Special Services, Day Care and Head Start programs.

Mr. Lynch brings 15 years of leadership experience to the position, as a Primary School Principal at Dansville and Livonia Primary Schools.  He has also held positions as Teacher, Counselor and Director of Pupil Personnel Services throughout a career in education that spans 35 years. 

At KidStart, Mr. Lynch will succeed Director Margaret Harrington, who plans to retire in August.  Mrs. Harrington has held the position of KidStart Director throughout an 18 year period of program growth.  During her tenure, KidStart's Day Care and Head Start programs have doubled in size, while its Special Services offerings evolved to include a comprehensive suite of therapies for children with special needs. Today, KidStart has an annual enrollment of about 350 children, ranging from 6 weeks to 12 years, many of whom have disabilities or significant developmental delays.

"Chris has qualities that are strong assets to KidStart," Mrs. Harrington says.  "He is an experienced and qualified school administrator who knows local school district personnel, and he has a knowledge of, and familiarity with, the State Education Department.  He also has a keen interest in, and understanding of, young children."

"To me, the most important time for children is when they first start school," Mr. Lynch explains.  "As educators, we can help give them a good foundation to develop social skills, early language literacy skills, and the ability to get along with peers."  As Principal at Dansville, Mr. Lynch implemented and supervised a Universal Pre-Kindergarten program to help prepare four-year-old children for future school success by developing strong foundational skills.

But learning happens at every age, and Mr. Lynch is quick to point out that he has already learned some lessons of his own within the walls of the Lehman Building.  And those learnings make him thankful that the road from Biloxi led to KidStart.

"I remember in particular seeing the care and understanding that one KidStart direct care professional had for a young person with special needs," he says.  "I had seen them together throughout the year, in therapy and in the classroom. Then I watched them at the end of the year, in the playground with other kids.  He was sliding down a regular slide -- out of his wheelchair -- just laughing and having a great time.  Today, that child is in kindergarten, and I just know that he is better prepared to succeed thanks to that aide, and the KidStart staff as a whole."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Sweet Life -- Former Newspaperman Chips Away at Second Career

After 55 years as this area's most recognizable and celebrated newspaper carrier, Mark Saunders has turned in his trusty delivery bike for a shot at the sweet life, packaging cookies four days a week at Hilltop Industries, the vocational rehabilitation division of The Arc of Livingston-Wyoming.

"I like it," says Mr. Saunders, who celebrated his 72nd birthday in August, about his late-in-life job change. "The people are good, and so is the money."

Hilltop Industries provides gainful employment to 350 community members with developmental disabilities each year, through contract labor that meets a variety of customer needs, from packaging and assembly to printing. On any given day, Mr. Saunders is among approximately three dozen Hilltop workers who package cookies for Original Gourmet Food Company, one of Hilltop's largest customers. In 2010, Hilltop packaged well over 1.5 million cookies for the Salem, NH-based confectionery giant.

Chocolate chip and other cookies arrive at Hilltop individually wrapped. Mr. Saunders and his co-workers prepare them for in-store display by placing each cookie into a metal tin with a decorative seasonal design for Christmas, Halloween, Valentine's Day, or Easter.

"Christmas is my favorite," Mr. Saunders admits. The tins are then shrink-wrapped, and shipped nationwide for display at retail stores. Mr. Saunders estimates that he prepares about 195 cookie tins in an average 6-hour workday.

Mr. Saunders works at Hilltop's Mount Morris, NY workshop, in a clean-room environment that is mandated as part of Hilltop's SQF 2000 – Level 3 Certification by the Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI). Hilltop recently achieved the elite certification for secondary packaging of food; it will allow Hilltop to carry out work for Target Corporation, as an approved supplier. Internationally recognized as the most stringent and highest level of certification, it also paves the way for Hilltop to gain certified supplier status from other retailers that operate under an SQF mandate, such as Wal-Mart.

Mr. Saunders has led anything but a cookie-cutter life. But those who know him are quick to point out that sweetness is his specialty, which makes him a perfect fit for his new vocation.

"He is great for the job because he gets along well with everyone, and because he is used to following a daily routine from his years of newspaper delivery," says Hilltop Case Manager Lisa Beals, who has known Mr. Saunders since she was a child.

Mr. Saunders developed a cognitive disability after contracting the mumps at a young age. He received formal schooling until age 7, when he was excluded from public schools after repeating kindergarten twice. At age 15, he began delivering newspapers, first for the Times Union and later for the Batavia Daily News. For five consecutive decades, Mr. Saunders carried papers to customers throughout his hometown of Perry, NY in the baskets of his trusty bike, NellyBelle, which he named for the jeep driven by cowboy actor Roy Rogers' sidekick Pat Brady.

In an online discussion that spans three pages, members of the Facebook group "I Grew Up in Perry-dise" recall Mr. Saunders' unique brand of customer service with fondness.

"He knew everyone and everyone knew him," one poster comments. "As kids, I don't think we appreciated the special warmth he brought to the community."

Another notes, "I remember he never delivered our daily newspaper without stopping and chatting and saying hello. My parents had us pay him; he would stand next to his bike, make out the receipt and tell you all about his day. What a wonderful heart he had, just to want to simply enjoy the company of the people in his community."

Struggling with arthritis, Mr. Saunders retired from the newspaper business on May 29th, 2010. That same year, he connected with The Arc, shortly after an illness forced his mother to move from their family home to East Side Nursing Home in nearby Warsaw. Mr. Saunders now visits her there weekly.

Since June of 2010, Mr. Saunders has lived with five other residents at the Hope IRA, an Arc-operated residence located in Retsof, NY. An IRA, which stands for Individualized Residential Alternative, is a specialized group home designed to serve individuals who are able to live on their own with the aid and support of trained staff. The Hope IRA, which is named for Arc of Livingston-Wyoming founder Mary Hope Derby, is one of 14 community IRAs operated by The Arc.

When he's not working, Mr. Saunders enjoys making crafts, playing golf, and spending time with his nieces and nephews. He is an honorary member of the Perry Fire Department, and attends Perry Baptist Church.

He's also not one to leave his passion for the sweet life at the office.

"I'm a cook, too," Mr. Saunders says, with his trademark smile. "I just made some really good homemade cookies."

For additional information about Hilltop Industries, contact Sales and Marketing Manager Rebecca Crocker at (585) 658-3311 ext. 201.

C is for Cookie ... and Certification

Hilltop Industries, which provides gainful employment to 350 community members with developmental disabilities annually, announced today that it has been awarded SQF 2000 – Level 3 Certification for secondary packaging of food by the Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI). SQFI is a globally trusted, recognized and accepted food safety and quality program; SQF 2000 – Level 3 is its most stringent and highest level of certification.

The certification ensures that customers will find Original Gourmet Food Company cookies packaged by Hilltop Industries on the shelves of Target Corporation stores nationwide, and opens the possibility for Hilltop to gain certified supplier status from other retailers such as Wal-Mart that operate under a SQF mandate.

“This is clearly a story about abilities, not disabilities,” says Kellie Kennedy, Director of Hilltop Industries. "Our entire process has been evaluated and meets the most rigorous global certification available. Every person at Hilltop Industries played an integral role in achieving certification from SQFI."

Hilltop Industries is the vocational rehabilitation division of The Arc of Livingston-Wyoming, the largest not-for-profit organization providing services to individuals with disabilities in Livingston and Wyoming counties (NY). Hilltop Industries provides labor on a contract basis for a variety of customer needs, including packaging, assembly and printing. The work is completed by individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, who are typically paid by the piece and are supported by Hilltop Industries staff.

Original Gourmet Food Company is among the largest customers at Hilltop Industries' Mount Morris, NY workshop. In 2010, Hilltop Industries packaged well over 1.5 million cookies for the Salem, NH-based confectionery giant. Chocolate chip and other cookies arrive at Hilltop Industries individually wrapped, where Hilltop workers prepare them for in-store display by placing each cookie into a metal tin with a decorative seasonal design for Christmas, Halloween, Valentine's Day, or Easter. The tins are then shrink-wrapped, and shipped nationwide for display on retailers' shelves.

Among those retailers: Target Corporation, which requires strict adherence by all suppliers to SQFI standards. But while it was the Target relationship that set Hilltop Industries' SQFI certification process into motion, the benefits of certification are more wide-reaching, Kennedy says.

"The point of it all is to have better confidence in the food chain," she explains. "The major retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart are taking the lead on it, but they dictate everything in the industry. When they start adopting standards, those standards tend to get pushed down to most everyone. More retailers will be setting up tight guidelines for the products that they carry; SQF certification is another way that Hilltop can help expedite placement of our customers' products in those stores."

The SQF program is a leading food safety and quality management system that is designed to meet the needs of suppliers and retailers worldwide. It provides independent certification that a supplier’s food safety and quality management system complies with international and domestic food safety regulations. This enables suppliers to assure their customers that food has been produced, processed, prepared and handled according to the highest possible standards, at all levels of the supply chain. SQF is designed as a food safety program, but it also ensures consistent product quality, to meet buyer specifications.

For additional information about Hilltop Industries, contact Sales and Marketing Manager Rebecca Crocker at (585) 658-3311 ext. 201.

A Rare "Pearl" -- Autistic Services Student Re-Imagines Classic Portrait

Little is known about 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who left a legacy of about 35 paintings, or of the identity of The Girl with a Pearl Earring, the subject of his 1665 masterwork of the same name.

Vermeer's portrait shows a porcelain skinned young woman cast against a solid black background, as she glances toward us over her left shoulder. She wears a modest smock accented by a simple headband and a pearl earring. She could be a relative, neighbor, or friend to Vermeer.

Fourteen-year-old Ben Brauen, a student at Autistic Services Inc. of Williamsville, NY, recently re-imagined the classic work on a giant 4-foot canvas. In his interpretation, which became the centerpiece of a month-long exhibition at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, Ben recasts the subject as an African American beauty, positioned amid a celebration of primary and secondary colors.

In its modest way, Ben's painting has become as intriguing as Vermeer's original — a rare work of art that satisfies aesthetically while sparking lively dialog about its subject and artist.

"It looks a lot like my grandmother when she was younger," says Ben's mother, Stephanie. "Ben's maternal great-grandmother's heritage is with Bahamian slaves who ended up with the Seminoles in Florida, and the Blackfeet Native American tribe. Ben may have internalized the stories she's told of her heritage, and this came out in the painting. Ben is very intelligent and very close to his great grandmother, even though he has limited verbal skills."

Diagnosed with Autism at a young age, Ben attends school at Autistic Services five days a week. The agency offers educational and quality of life programs to help people with Autism learn to function in a society that was never tailored to them. Approaching Autism as a culture that has much to contribute, Autistic Services attempts to provide a platform for artists to express themselves to their communities through its Arts Work program.

"The philosophy of the art program and the agency as a whole is to celebrate what's there, not to 'fix' something," says Autistic Services Teaching Artist Dana Ranke, Ben's art teacher. "The most meaningful part is that Ben is engaged in an art-making process he has chosen, and that he is at peace while he is drawing and painting. Art is purely an outlet for Ben to express his gift."

Dana has worked with Ben for three years, and says, "it was evident from day one by the way that he handled paint, his use of textures, and his bold shapes that his work was very special."

For his take on The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Ben used an overhead projector to magnify Vermeer's original onto a oversized canvas, where he penciled a general outline of the features that served as a foundation for his work, which he would bring to life using bright acrylic paints.

"He just took it and ran with it," Dana explains. "It was fun watching it evolve. It just wowed everyone. There was something new every day."

Dana selected Ben's finished painting as the featured piece for the Arts Work for Autistic Services exhibition at the Albright Knox Art Gallery, which included works by 16 student artists from the school during its September 1-28 run. Ben's piece was also used in all advertising for the event, including being featured in Artvoice, Buffalo's leading weekly publication covering arts and entertainment.

"I am just so darn proud of him, and remember when he was four," says Jody Dumbleton, a service coordinator for The Arc of Livingston-Wyoming who has worked with Ben for more than 10 years. "I've had the opportunity to see him grow and develop, even with sensory and other challenges. Creating artwork appears to be soothing and calming for Ben, and a powerful avenue for his self expression."

As with the original Vermeer work, it might be difficult to pin down Ben's inspiration. But according to his dad, the piece accomplishes much more than that, by providing meaningful insight into his son's creative abilities.

"All I can say is that I've never seen him create anything before that's quite like it," says Ben, Sr., whose Arcade, NY apartment walls are adorned with images of cars and comic book heroes colored by his son. "Ben loves to color, and he has always had an artistic side, but the Pearl Earring portrait is the best that I've ever seen him do."
Vermeer's 1665 masterwork
Ben Brauen's interpretation