Tuesday, December 15, 2009
By Jacquie Simone
Ioanna Vlahos beams as she says how much she loves her job. Three years ago, she hardly ever smiled: She battled severe panic attacks and bipolar disorder, which hindered her ability to find steady employment and support her three children. Then she came to Challenge Industries, a local non-profit that helps people with physical and mental disabilities find employment and become more independent. After several training programs, she was employed as an administrative assistant at Challenge and now helps other people overcome obstacles just like she did.
“Challenge has given me and other people the opportunity to see that we do have skills, that we can be productive and that we are employable,” Vlahos said. “It gave me a life.”
Challenge Industries has been operating in Ithaca since 1968, but this month it will move to a new building to decrease expenses and provide more services to people like Vlahos.
“The new space will allow for expanded services, a more efficient and safe environment for providing services and a lower operating budget,” Emily Parker, Challenge’s director of development, said.
The board of directors had discussed relocation for more than four years and decided last year to move from 402 E. State St. to the South Hill Business Campus. The move was originally planned for December 2008, but the state budget crisis delayed the relocation until fall 2009. The Challenge staff members plan to begin work at the new location in late December.
Challenge offers a variety of services to adults with disabilities in Tompkins County, including helping them find and keep work and live independently. About 800 people participate in Challenge services each year, which are organized by about 100 staff members.
“It’s important for everybody—anybody—to have work, and maybe sometimes especially people with disabilities, because otherwise their quality of life isn’t so great,” Erinn Seward, an employment adviser at Challenge, said. “Everybody needs to have some place that they’re needed, some place to keep busy.”
When people with documented disabilities first come to Challenge, they are usually interviewed to determine their level of experience and ability. Challenge’s clients, as they are called, have a wide range of disabilities, from depression to cerebral palsy. According to Seward, this makes it important to give specific attention to each person and assess his or her individual needs. After the initial evaluation, most people are enrolled in Job Club, where they learn how to develop a résumé and behave in a work environment. Challenge job placers then determine which types of work would be best for the person and help them arrange interviews.
Some clients with particularly large obstacles to employment are placed instead at Challenge’s work floor, where they perform repetitive manual labor and are paid for the amount of tasks they complete. Their assignments include packaging the produce from Challenge’s garden at Finger Lakes Fresh. In the current building, the work floor is near the staff offices. The layout of the new building allows for more designated areas for such tasks, which Seward said will create a better work environment. Additionally, the South Hill location has a loading dock, which will make it easier for people at the work floor to access the trucks they need for their assignments.
“At the new building, everything will have its own space,” Seward said. “Right now, all of us with offices are on the same floor as the work floor; it won’t be that way anymore.”
If Challenge matches clients with an appropriate job in the Ithaca community, employment advisers like Seward meet with them at least once a month to monitor their success. Workers can decide whether they want their employers to know about their involvement with Challenge, which determines if the employment advisers talk with the bosses and visit clients in the workplace. This relationship continues as long as the client wants. Seward said most clients are successful in their jobs, because Challenge offers a strong support network and helps them adapt to the new employment environment. However, she said Challenge also emphasizes independence and personal responsibility.
“It’s a struggle, because you want to see everyone be successful,” Seward said. “The biggest problem, especially with mental health, is that sometimes people just fall off. You could do a lot of work, and it could be disappointing to watch people put a lot of effort in and, because of their illness or disability, not succeed.”
Many of Challenge’s clients work at the dish rooms in the Ithaca College dining halls. The new location on South Hill will enable employment advisers to more closely monitor the employees’ progress. Deb Mohlenhoff, a member of the Ithaca Common Council and the assistant director of community service and leadership development at Ithaca College, has worked with Challenge for years and said she hopes the move will create even stronger bonds between the non-profit and the college.
“The proximity to campus will allow them to do a whole bunch of innovative programs where their clients will actually come to campus and have some direct experience with some of the campus programs and student organizations,” Mohlenhoff said. “That, to me, is a really exciting benefit of them being on South Hill.”
In addition to employment services, Challenge also offers programs focusing on socialization and life skills. The organization hosts a variety of discussion groups and craft sessions, where people can explore new hobbies or learn about current events. These services are offered as part of the Life Options program, which helps people with disabilities form social connections and develop new interests. The Life Options participants go on field trips, perform volunteer work, take independent study and exercise classes and engage in other activities not necessarily related to employment. Seward said these programs should be expanded, since many Challenge clients are senior citizens who are more concerned with living independently than having a job. She said the new building will provide more specific spaces, such as a kitchen where members of the Life Options program can learn to cook.
“Challenge will benefit from having more efficient space that will improve their productivity,” James Brown, president of the United Way of Tompkins County, said. “They’ll be able to serve more people, and they’ll be able to do a better job of serving people. In addition, this will allow them to partner with other agencies and expand existing partnerships. In some ways, it’s going to transform the agency.”
The United Way is one of several state and local sources of funding for Challenge, including the Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities, the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, Medicaid and Tompkins County Department of Social Security. Since many of these agencies depend on the state and county budgets, Challenge has been trying to cut operational expenses. The move to the South Hill Business Campus and subsequent sale of the State Street building will generate extra revenue.
“The move now is a matter of cost in some ways,” Seward said. “This building is very old, and they’ve been here for a long time, and it’s costly to keep it up. In some ways, it’s not working for the program.”
Challenge employees said the move will benefit both staff members and clients. Vlahos said she thinks the move to a new building will allow the organization to offer more services and help Tompkins County even more than it already does.
“I think Challenge should be in every county,” Vlahos said. “It’s necessary because it puts people who have lost all hope to work and it gives them hope, a sense of pride, a sense of self-respect. It helps the community.”
Below: Ioanna Vlahos discusses how Challenge Industries helped her.