Employer Profiles

I appreciate the Challenge crews more than you know.

Monalita Smiley, The Learning Web

For decades, Challenge Workforce Solutions and the The Learning Web have been pursuing a common mission—helping at-risk youth to explore opportunities, develop skills, and achieve self-reliance through real-world work experiences.

This year, our two organizations have gotten to know each other even better as the Learning Web has contracted with Challenge’s World Health Organization (WHO)-trained custodial crews to keep their offices clean and safe for their staff and the people they serve every day.

Will Taylor, current Challenge’s Grant Writer and former Contract Staffing Supervisor, explains, “These contracts have allowed small businesses and non-profit organizations in the area to comply with NYSDOH – New York State Health Department regulations for staying open safely. They’ve also allowed us to create employment opportunities for many workers who were laid off at the start of the pandemic. We offered jobs when no one else could, and for many team members, it’s not just a paycheck––it’s being a part of a team that anchors their well-being.”

Monalita Smiley, Director of the Learning Web’s Youth Outreach Program, reports, “I appreciate the Challenge crews more than you know. We have one staff person in the office at a time, and in between, the team members come in and do a very thorough cleaning of all the common areas. When I leave, I feel good knowing that the next staff person will be coming into a disinfected space.”

An Ithaca native and a graduate of Alfred State College and SUNY Morrisville, Monalita has been with the Learning Web for over twenty years. The department she directs was launched in 1990, when youth homelessness was still a severely under-recognized problem in most communities. Conceived of as a non-residential independent living program with a significant street outreach component, Youth Outreach continues to provide long-term services to housing-insecure individuals ages 16 to 24.

Along with addressing the basic need for shelter, one of the Learning Web’s key concerns is stable, meaningful employment. As one of the first agencies in the nation to integrate intensive case management with apprenticeship and entrepreneurship programs, it has long been an innovator in the field of youth employment.

Many longtime locals will recall that in 1985, the Learning Web teamed up with Ben & Jerry’s to establish the world’s first PartnerShop®—a distinctive social enterprise model that the ice cream company later deployed around the globe from Portland to Petrozavodsk.

Today, through their apprenticeship program, the Learning Web enables youth to pursue paid work experiences with a dedicated volunteer mentor in a field of interest. These community mentors contribute almost 20,000 hours every year, and these relationships very often lead to permanent job offers. In cases where job seekers need to pursue further education and training, or solve issues like transportation and childcare, Monalita and her colleagues are there to help.

She says, “Our participants get to call the shots as to what interests them, and we offer coaching and support. It’s important for them to know that there’s someone who cares and wants to see them succeed.”

We’ve had some really fantastic participants from Challenge.

Suzanne Onodera, Significant Elements

Many locals know Historic Ithaca as the voice for architectural preservation in our city and its role in revitalizing so many of the storied landmarks that shape our sense of place. These include the Clinton House (Ithaca, New York), once declared one of the finest hotels west of the Hudson and now home to New Roots Charter School, and the State Theatre of Ithaca, the last of seventeen grand vaudeville palaces in Downtown Ithaca, narrowly saved from demolition and resurrected as the city’s premiere live entertainment venue.

Much less recognized is Historic Ithaca’s enrichment of our community through training and work opportunities for at-risk youth.

Suzanne Onodera [pictured second from left] is the Work Preserve Education and Outreach Coordinator at Significant Elements architectural salvage warehouse. At Significant Elements, you’ll find three floors of reclaimed building materials, hardware, lighting, furniture, and décor, and their repair services range from re-caning chairs to re-wiring lamps.

Suzanne says that program participants “learn by doing” in this dynamic environment, building transferable skills in customer service, inventory management, repair, and remanufacturing. She first came to Significant Elements as the owner of a historic home and soon began volunteering under former Work Preserve Coordinator Karen Coleman.

“The first youth that I worked alongside were so inspired to be there,” Suzanne recalls. “They were actively absorbing and questioning and dreaming, learning and then teaching each other. It was like the perfect classroom for people who didn’t necessarily thrive in a classroom. It’s a lot of really practical, tangible skills, like how to use a screwdriver, but the ultimate goal is helping youth to develop a larger sense of purpose and engagement in the community.”

Suzanne, who also had experience mentoring underserved youth in California, Oregon, and Maine, was called upon to lead the Work Preserve staff when Karen retired in 2019.

Funded by the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency Community Development Block Grant Program (City of Ithaca, New York) and the Park Foundation, Work Preserve works with youth referred from a number of local agencies who face an array of barriers including homelessness, lack of government documents, and primary childcare responsibilities. One key partnership is with Challenge Workforce Solutions’s Youth VOICE program, which serves as a bridge between school and employment for teens and young adults with disabilities by providing individualized job-readiness and self-advocacy training alongside paid, supported work experiences in community settings.

Says Suzanne, “We’ve had some really fantastic participants from Challenge. One young gentleman recently came here for a six-week work experience—the first week he was really withdrawn and didn’t give much of an indication of what he was interested in doing, but by the second week he was on cloud nine, really interacting with the other participants and bringing lots of enthusiasm. We got him driver’s ed, got him set up with a bank account, worked with him on interview skills, and now he has a permanent position as a retail associate at The Cornell Store (Cornell University). He’s a total superstar and we’re really proud of him.”

Aleah Rivera, Challenge’s Youth Outreach Coordinator, is grateful for the partnership as well. “Suzanne is a dream employer to work with. She really values the skills and talents of each individual that comes through the door. I don’t worry whether a youth will feel supported. And Significant Elements is such a great work environment—always lots of cool things to see and lots of skills to develop. We’re looking forward to collaborating more as our year-round program keeps growing.”

I would one hundred percent encourage anyone to keep an open door and an open mind to working with Challenge. There’s no better opportunity for your business or your clientele

Danielle Kelly, CNS

With a rich background in early childhood education, speech-language pathology, music, and yoga, Danny Kelly brings remarkable creativity and spirit to her role as a Lead Teacher and Program Director at CNS: Community Nursery School – Ithaca, NY. A key employment partner for Challenge Workforce Solutions, Danny is also enthusiastic about empowering youth and adults to explore their career interests and skills in a vibrant, nurturing environment.

Danielle Kelly—Miss Danny to her pupils—received a BS and MS from Ithaca College and then spent several years in New York City teaching everything from cooking to hip-hop dance to infants to teenagers across all five boroughs. She returned to Ithaca with her husband in 2015 to teach at CNS, a play-based, co-op model preschool located within the First Congregational Church of Ithaca UCC.

A typical day in a CNS classroom might start with exploratory process-based art or cooking activities, followed by circle time with singing and stretching, and outdoor gross motor play if weather permits. Then it’s snack time, sensory tables, dancing, and cooperative games before noon dismissal, after which there’s an optional lunch bunch and extended day program. The school also offers a variety of enrichment mini-courses including Zumba, pottery, and storybook theatre.

Under Danny’s guidance, CNS has proved to be a highly conducive setting for both short- and long-term work experiences.

The first job seeker Danny got to know was Jacob M., known to radio listeners across the region as “The Voice of Challenge.” As a child, Jacob didn’t start talking until much later than his peers, but then all of a sudden, his oratory skills burgeoned, and these days he is much in demand for his voice acting and storytelling talent. Young children in particular are captivated by Jacob’s ability to bring a whole cast of characters to life, and CNS has become one of several welcoming venues in the community where he can hone his craft. As for what’s ahead, Jacob says, “I could be in the movies, or I could do the voices for video games. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do—but I’m going to find out!”

Another recent Challenge–CNS success story is Kya S. “I’ve always known that I wanted to be a teacher,” she says. Through Challenge’s Youth VOICE program—which provides individuals ages 16 to 24 with paid community-based work experiences, job readiness training, and college counseling—Kya was able to secure a placement as a teacher’s aide. “Because of that experience,” she continues, “I knew I wanted to focus on early childhood education. Last fall, she matriculated into Tompkins Cortland Community College’s Early Childhood program, and just last month she was hired back on as a substitute at CNS. “I can’t say enough nice things about Kya,” Danny says. “She’s wonderful with the children—calm, engaging, sweet, helpful, always gets down on their level.”

She adds, “I would one hundred percent encourage anyone to keep an open door and an open mind to working with Challenge. There’s no better opportunity for your business or your clientele.”

Tess Fraser, Challenge’s Development Director, returns the appreciation. “As a parent of a CNS graduate, I am so grateful to have such a nurturing and loving preschool for our little ones to learn through exploration and creative play. I am also so grateful to have CNS as an employment partner for Challenge, giving people like Jacob and Kya a supportive environment to demonstrate and develop their professional skills.”

My vision is one where volunteers are not only here to serve the public but are supported in their own learning and growth as well.

Emily Belle, Sciencenter

Embodying the Sciencenter‘s mission to cultivate a broad community of curious, confident, critical thinkers, Emily Belle empowers people to explore their interests and expand their skills in a range of engaging environments.

An Ithaca native and a graduate of the Lehman Alternative Community School and Oberlin College, Emily has fulfilled a number of different roles at the Sciencenter and currently holds the title of Volunteer Program Manager. She explains, “The Sciencenter was founded and built by community volunteers, and that’s always been a big part of our ethos. My background is in education, and particularly informal education, so my vision is one where volunteers are not only here to serve the public but are supported in their own learning and growth as well. I also think that the volunteer program is a great place to do some of our inclusion and access work.”

To those ends, Emily has been instrumental in facilitating both short-term work assessments and longer-term work experiences for numerous Challenge Workforce Solutions participants. Community-based work assessments last as little as two shifts but can be powerful tools for evaluation and self-discovery, especially when the venue is as lively and varied as the Sciencenter. Says Employment Specialist Matt Dankanich, “We try to arrange placements that align with our job seekers’ particular strengths and goals, and Emily has always been enthusiastic and welcoming, allowing folks to try out everything from customer service to back-office clerical tasks to caring for the animal habitats, and also encouraging them to learn more about the exhibits that caught their interest.”

This summer, Emily also supervised a youth participant who was placed at the Sciencenter for a longer-term, four-day-a-week waged work experience. Lizzie, a recent high school graduate who has the ultimate goal of becoming a teacher, was given the opportunity to facilitate learning experiences throughout the museum—the Discovery Space, Tidepool Touch Tank, Curiosity Corner, and Saltonstall Animal Room—in cooperation with a larger cohort of teen workers under the auspices of the Ithaca Youth Bureau‘s Youth Employment Service. Emily comments, “Lizzie was really great about communicating with us about what was working well and what wasn’t, and we were sure to provide whatever accommodations we could to make it a positive experience for her.”

For anyone who hasn’t visited the Sciencenter in a while—or ever—Emily encourages you to head on down soon: “It’s always a really a rich space for hands-on learning, we have free and reduced-price memberships available to those who need them, and we have some awesome new exhibits and events on the horizon. We have a new featured exhibit coming called Design Zone, and our Museum Experiences team is working on a really cool installation on climate and weather. For adults, we have our Sciencenter After Dark program which pairs interactive learning with beer and wine. Also, for parents and children with special processing needs, we have Sensory Hours, which we’ve developed in collaboration with behavioral specialists at Racker to provide a more welcoming and relaxed environment—the next one is September 8th.”

And for the ophiophilists (AKA snake enthusiasts) among you, don’t miss the chance to meet Bob (pictured with Emily here) and learn how his species, the California kingsnake, earned its exalted name!

Thank you Emily—and everyone at the Sciencenter—for opening your doors and your hearts to our job seekers!

We were absolutely thrilled by the prospect of having some extra hands!

Jim Brophy, New York State Parks

Jim Brophy of New York State Parks Recreation & Historic Preservation is responsible for maintaining three of the region’s most treasured natural areas—and he’s also responsible for making them fruitful grounds for job seekers with disabilities.

Within Jim’s domain are Allan H. Treman Marina, one of the largest inland marinas in New York and a favorite spot for dog-walkers and bird-watchers; Robert H. Treman State Park, featuring a rugged gorge with hiking trails that twist and turn past twelve sublime waterfalls; and Buttermilk Falls State Park, which takes its name from the frothy cascade formed by Buttermilk Creek as it tumbles through the Larch Meadows wetland and down to Cayuga Lake.

Jim grew up in Northern New Jersey and learned at an early age that he enjoyed working outdoors. After college, he found his way into the New York State Parks system, working first in the Hudson Valley and then along the coast of Lake Ontario before coming to the Finger Lakes Region in 2015.

“We’re a public service agency,” Jim explains, “so our mission is to keep these natural resources safe and accessible for the hundreds of thousands of people who come every year to hike, swim, picnic, camp, walk their dogs, hold their weddings, and everything else. I manage and work alongside the crews that keep up with all the cleaning, construction, and repair work that has to get done through the seasons. It’s a great job—it’s something new every day, it involves a lot of creative problem-solving, and I really appreciate the mission and the history.”

Given the scale of his operations—these three parks cover over three square miles and over ten percent of the Town of Ithaca—one of Jim’s perennial challenges is staffing. “As a state agency, budgets are always tight, and there’s never a shortage of tasks. Last year, we added fourteen new cabins at Buttermilk, and we realized that we were going to need more help with their upkeep.”

As luck would have it, that’s just when the staff at Challenge Workforce Solutions reached out to him to inquire about possible work opportunities for participants in its community-based prevocational program.

“We were absolutely thrilled by the prospect of having some extra hands,” says Jim. “The Challenge workers came every Friday to prepare the cabins for the next group of weekend campers. They were terrific, and it wasn’t long before we were giving them more responsibilities—exterior painting, landscaping, trail cleanup, and other projects that we never would’ve had the time to tackle.”

Mike W. was among the Challenge participants who got plenty of fresh air and valuable experience at Buttermilk last summer. “Gardening, painting, posting signs—I loved working there,” he effuses. “Having an outside job is really good. I miss it and I want to do it again next year.”

In addition to providing much-needed practical labor, Jim found that the Challenge participants helped to motivate his own staff. “Having them show up every week excited and ready to work really boosted our productivity and morale. Everyone was really impressed by that pride and purpose. It’s been an awesome partnership.”

Jim is actively looking for ways to engage more Challenge workers—not only for short-term work experiences, but for longer-term waged positions as well. “We’ve been in touch with one of the guys from last summer and we’ve encouraged him to complete some additional training he’d need for a permanent job. We’d love to get him back soon, and in any case, we’re seeing the long-term benefit of getting to know capable people in the community.”

Briggs Seekins, Director of Prevocational Services at Challenge, says that for the population he works with, such paid training and employment opportunities aren’t easy to come by. “The main purpose of our program is to prepare people for competitive work, and many kinds of community-based assessments and skill-building opportunities can be valuable to that end. But being able to offer at least a few paid opportunities is important for making the connection between work and reward tangible.”

And now that it’s officially summertime, Jim encourages locals and visitors alike to head outdoors and experience all that Ithaca’s state parks have to offer. “Swimming is open at Robert H. Treman, and we’ve also got guided hikes every Saturday in the upper park, led by a history buff who tells the whole story of the old grist mill and the ghost-hamlet of Enfield Falls. Come on out!”

Our goal is to include everybody. We try to cater to each individual’s interests. But we also try to challenge people to get out of their comfort zones.

Tammy Annonson, Dryden Community Center Cafe

In a county with hundreds of restaurants, as well as hundreds of nonprofits, the Dryden Community Center Cafe is a singular entity: a sandwichery with a social mission.

Located right on Dryden, New York‘s Main Street, the cafe was established by village residents in 2007 and formalized its 501(c)(3) status in 2013. In addition to serving up locally roasted coffee, scratch-baked pastries, and scrumptious savory panini, it offers a meeting and event space for area service organizations, monthly art shows and weekly music nights showcasing homegrown talent, family-friendly special events like ice cream socials and scavenger hunts, a kids’ corner with toys and games, a book swap bookshelf, an angel tree at holiday time, and many other community-oriented amenities and happenings.

Perhaps most notably, though, the cafe is staffed primarily by community volunteers and provides a supportive, stimulating venue for people with disabilities and socioeconomic barriers to try their hand at a variety of marketable skills. Every day of the week, one or more groups from the area’s direct service agencies—JM Murray, Racker, Unity House of Cayuga County, Inc., CSS Workforce New York, The Learning Web, and of course Challenge Workforce Solutions—come to the cafe to learn baking, coffee-making, dishwashing, serving, and all other aspects of running a bustling eatery.

“Our goal is to include everybody,” says Tammy Annonson, the cafe’s manager since 2016. “We try to cater to each individual’s interests—right now, we have a girl who really wants to make soups, so she’s coming in once a week just to learn our soup recipes. But we also try to challenge people to get out of their comfort zones and interact with our customers. Interaction is a big thing.” Tammy also explains that there is something of a symbiotic relationship between the participants from these agencies and her other community volunteers: “So many of them are retired teachers or medical professionals, so they really like jumping into a mentorship role.”

Tammy was raised in the local hospitality industry—her parents ran Trail’s End Campground just three miles from the cafe—and she enjoyed a long tenure as a nurse before a dual diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and lupus obliged a change of career. But she hasn’t stopped working hard to welcome and care for people from every walk of life. “I really love my job,” she beams.

At present, Tammy oversees workers from three different Challenge programs. One is Challenge’s Youth Employment Program, which entails short-term placements with intensive onsite coaching and hourly compensation provided by our agency. Tammy also regularly hosts work assessments and work experiences, in which youth and adults seeking supported employment in the community engage in tryouts lasting from 4 to 400 hours to assess their strengths, needs, and interests in a range of practical work environments. One of her few paid employees, Jake H. (pictured), started out in a work experience, thrived in the environment, and was put on the payroll. Finally, Tammy supervises small groups of prevocational participants—adults with developmental disabilities who may be destined for the competitive workforce in the longer term and are undergoing training in community settings to expand their work tolerance, follow directions, multitask, and solve problems.

Says Demetri Tzivaeris, an Employment Specialist who accompanies prevocational participants to the cafe on a weekly basis, “Tammy and the rest of the crew have always welcomed us with open arms. They are caring, compassionate, and supportive of our goal of getting people ready for community employment. Our participants have learned many important skills there that they wouldn’t have been able to learn at other venues.”

Our relationship with Challenge has been really valuable in terms of meeting our workforce needs, and it’s also brought more diversity to our tight-knit team.

Karen Moriarty, Beechtree

We at Challenge Workforce Solutions want to take this opportunity to salute our community partner Beechtree Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing as it enters its 100th year of providing quality healthcare to the Ithaca community.

Formerly known as the Reconstruction Home, Beechtree was first established as a residence for children with polio. After Jonas Salk’s miraculous vaccine was made available in 1955, the center shifted its focus to skilled nursing and rehabilitation for individuals with disabilities, and eventually evolved into a long-term care facility for our area’s growing population of elders.

Today, Beechtree serves up to 120 residents and embraces the philosophy of Person-Centered Care, where each individual is encouraged to make choices about their daily routine and select from a wide variety of recreational activities and experiences that involve family, friends, and community. One of the things that is most important to quality of care, as well as quality of life, is good nutrition—and this is the realm that is overseen by our friend Karen Moriarty.

As Beechtree’s Food Service Director, Karen oversees a team of 20 that prepares and serves hundreds of meals and snacks each day—all tailored to different dietary needs and preferences. Karen is no stranger to the food business: she started helping out in her aunt’s diner at age 17, cooked at Cayuga Nursing & Rehabilitation Center (formerly known as Cayuga Ridge) for 11 years, and then worked as a sous chef in Florida before returning to this area and stepping into her current position in 2016.

Given the size and complexity of her operation, Karen notes that staffing is always a challenge. That’s why she has been keen to partner with Challenge’s Social Services Programs, which connects local employers with highly motivated job seekers who are working hard to overcome legal or economic obstacles and achieve self-sufficiency. Karen’s most recent hire was a graduate of STEPS, our intensive, individualized job search and readiness program focusing on single parents who receive SNAP (food stamps) or TANF (cash assistance). This candidate had some kitchen experience prior to becoming a single mother, and she was very eager to restart her career. Beechtree proved to be a great fit and she has been thriving in her position as a Dietary Aide for close to a year.

Says Karen, “Our relationship with Challenge has been really valuable in terms of meeting our workforce needs, and it’s also brought more diversity to our tight-knit team.” Challenge is likewise grateful for employers like Karen, without whom we could not fulfill our core mission of enabling people who face a variety of barriers to find and keep meaningful jobs in the community. “Karen is always reliable, efficient, and willing to assist,” says Marilyn Rodriguez, our Interim Director of Social Service Programs. “We thank her, and we congratulate everyone at Beechtree on their upcoming centennial!”

We both want folks of all backgrounds and interests to come together and work toward a common goal.

Frank Towner, YMCA

“We envision a community where people with disabilities and other barriers are a valued and integral part of our workforce” –Challenge Workforce Solutions vision statement

“That they all may be one” –World YMCA motto

• • •

For 175 years—and 150 years right here in Ithaca—the YMCA has been helping youth and families to cultivate active lifestyles, self-confidence, and social responsibility. In recent years, the YMCA of Ithaca & Tompkins County, under the leadership of CEO Frank Towner, has advanced that mission by partnering with Challenge Workforce Solutions to provide valuable occupational training opportunities for youth and adults who face a variety of obstacles to employment.

The first YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) was established in 1844 by George Williams, a 23-year-old London cloth merchant who was concerned about the lack of healthy activities for his peers in a rapidly industrializing city where taverns and brothels proliferated. The organization was founded on the principles of “muscular Christianity,” which emphasized athleticism, teamwork, and discipline as a path to both physical and spiritual health. The movement soon spread worldwide, and in 1868, Ithaca’s first YMCA meeting was held at the Cornell University Public Library. Beginning in 1907, our YMCA occupied a stately five-story brick building on Buffalo Street, which was destroyed in a tragic fire in 1978; its current facility on Graham Road opened in 1982.

Today, our YMCA is focused on three main program areas: childcare, aquatics, and wellness. Each day, their dedicated counselors look after over 250 children ages six weeks to nine years at three onsite daycare spaces and two offsite afterschool programs, while swimmers of all ages and abilities can select from over 250 monthly aquatics classes and folks who prefer to get their exercise on dry land can try out any of 70 other sports and activities including basketball, racquetball, pickleball, high-intensity interval training, and yoga. All told, the YMCA serves about 5,000 members each year, plus another 5,000 area residents who take advantage of their facilities and programs on a per-day basis.

Frank Towner has been at the helm of the YMCA of Ithaca & Tompkins County for seven years, in which time he has led many exciting developments, including major facility and equipment upgrades, an expanded scholarship program, and the establishment of a nutritional training center. Towner’s career in youth development and recreation began in 1980 when, as an undergraduate at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he got involved with Camp Good Days and Special Times Inc., a summer camp on the shores of Keuka Lake for children with cancer. From there, he worked in fitness and aquatics programs at two youth detention centers in the Rochester area, and then moved to Ithaca with his wife and young son to take a job at the Ithaca Area Church and Community Day Care Center in 1994. That year, he also started volunteering as a lifeguard at the YMCA, and in short order he was recruited to direct their volunteer program, from which he rose through the ranks to his current position as CEO.

When asked about his very first encounter with Challenge, Towner recalls, “Challenge was the place where we went to get our bulk mail done for the day care center, and then for the YMCA.” At the time, Challenge was best known for its in-house enterprises, including a facility that processed over five million pieces of mail each year; in the intervening years, our agency has evolved with the times to embrace a supported employment model in which 95 percent of participants are working in the community with individualized onsite supports. “Much more recently, as CEO,” Towner continues, “I was approached by some staff at Challenge who were interested in placing folks here for work experiences and assessments.”

With its broad range of programs, diverse clientele, and extensive physical facilities that require rigorous maintenance, the YMCA has been an ideal training ground for job seekers of all walks of life to discover their interests and abilities. For the past five years, Challenge has run a Youth Employment Program which enables teenagers and young adults with disabilities or economic barriers to pursue paid part-time work experiences with the support of onsite job coaches. Each year, the YMCA has enthusiastically agreed to serve as an employer. Additionally, the YMCA has played host to numerous adult participants who are engaging in shorter-term work assessments as part of their career exploration process. Work assessments last as little as two shifts but can be powerful tools for evaluation and self-discovery.

Says Evie Karnes, Challenge’s Business Outreach Coordinator, “Community-based work assessments and experiences are a vital part of Challenge’s continuum of services. Oftentimes we first meet an individual when they are referred for an assessment, and it gives us the opportunity to learn about them and their aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses. We can then determine what services and supports they need to maximize their chances for success. For many years, the YMCA has been instrumental in this process. They have hosted countless participants and have given them a variety of tasks. The staff is always willing to help, often coming in early or staying late to accommodate a participant’s schedule. They are truly a valued community partner.”

For Towner, the two organizations’ missions are in harmony: “It goes right back to our old motto from the 1800s—’that they all may be one.’ We both want folks of all backgrounds and interests to come together and work toward a common goal. We are looking forward to working with our friends at Challenge more in the future, and in particular we’re hoping to engage them in creating new opportunities in outdoor education. We were gifted 109 acres of wooded land a while back and we’ve just barely scratched the surface in terms of what we can do in terms of trail running and ropes courses and camping. But all the research says that being out in nature is really good for people, and that’s where our focus is going to be in the future.”

Thank you, Frank and everyone at the YMCA! We can’t wait to see where this partnership takes us!

It’s been a great partnership. We’ve been very open and honest with each other with regard to our staffing needs.

Katie Weber & Michelle Hand-Quail, Cornell Child Care Center


For over a decade, the Cornell Child Care Center (CCCC) has provided a nurturing environment for young children to learn and grow. Recently, through a close partnership with Challenge Workforce Solutions, they have also been providing valuable opportunities for adults with disabilities to develop skills and pursue their career goals.

The CCCC serves about 170 children, ages six weeks through five years, whose parents or legal guardians are affiliated with Cornell University. Their spacious facility on Cornell’s North Campus features a children’s library and Growing Readers nook, a garden and child-made farmers’ market, a Movement Matters zone to encourage active play, and Smart Boards to foster curiosity in technology. The center’s innovative curriculum also emphasizes scientific experimentation, creative expression, and respect for others and the environment. While Cornell owns the building, CCCC is operated by Bright Horizons, which was co-founded by Cornell alumna Linda Mason in 1986 and is now the world’s largest provider of employer-sponsored child care with over 700 centers across North America and Europe.

“I love my work because it allows me to be a lifelong learner and to spend time with wonderful children and families,” says Katie Weber (L), the CCCC’s director. Born in Batavia, New York, Katie studied History and Education at SUNY Cortland and received a Master in Literacy from Canisius College. She then served as director at EduKids Early Childhood Learning Centers in Buffalo and at another Bright Horizons center in Boston before coming to Ithaca in 2015. Weber currently supervises a staff of 60 teachers and administrators and is responsible for enrollment and marketing.

Also at the helm of this lively operation is Business Manager Michelle Hand-Quail (R), who first joined CCCC as a teacher and then coordinated its infant education program. In her present role, Michelle oversees the center’s tuition accounts and is also in charge of new teacher orientation. As such, she was among the first staff members to meet with Sammie H., a job seeker who came to Challenge last year after graduating from Tompkins Cortland Community College with a degree in Human Services.

Sammie, who had also pursued a social work internship at Beechtree Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, showed outstanding interpersonal skills and wanted to find a position where she could work directly with people. Jennifer Negus Northrop, Challenge’s Manager of Challenge’s Employment & Youth Services, set Sammie up with an interview at CCCC, and she was soon hired on as a substitute teacher. She has now been promoted to associate teacher in the toddler classrooms and reports that she is enjoying it tremendously: “I love the position and I especially love reading to the children!”

Jennifer says, “Katie and Michelle have been tremendously welcoming and supportive of Challenge in all capacities from the beginning. I’m thrilled that we are connected with CCCC.” Michelle agrees: “It’s been a great partnership. We’ve been very open and honest with each other with regard to our staffing needs and making sure that everyone has the proper support. With Sammie, we individualized the orientation process to make sure that we were moving at the right speed, and we strategically placed her with the age group that she had the best connection with. We made a great match, and she’s doing very well.”

As well as being a partnering employer, CCCC has also worked with Challenge to give prevocational participants a chance to gain relevant work experience in an engaging and receptive community setting. Jacob M., known to avid Cayuga Radio Group listeners as Challenge’s resident voice actor, has been visiting the center each Tuesday morning to hone his narration chops by reading books to the children—complete with all the different character voices. In addition, a small group of participants with an interest in horticulture have been helping to tend the center’s garden under the direction of green-thumbed Job Developer Lily C Rhoades. These opportunities not only allow participants to practice hard skills but also to have meaningful interactions with many people of different ages, backgrounds, and abilities.

The coaching supports that Challenge gives every single employee is amazing, and that’s helped us to avoid being stretched too thin during the busy seasons.

Teri Moon Tarshus, Hilton Garden Inn Ithaca


Challenge Workforce Solutions counts among its invaluable community partners over 150 local employers who have taken on one or more of our participants. Teri Tarshus, General Manager of the Hilton Garden Inn Ithaca, is one of our exceptional employers who has provided meaningful opportunities for numerous workers and trainees from every one of Challenge’s core programs.

Says Teri, “We currently have several associates in supported employment, we’ve hired from Job Club, we’ve had some prevocational participants doing job shadowing and work trials through the Pathway to Employment program, we’ve hosted a couple of summer youth workers and even hired one of them on a year-round basis—I think we’ve hit on just about everything!”

Teri was born in Albany, where her parents ran a group home for adolescent boys—“I grew up with nine older brothers,” she recalls fondly. She initially pursued a degree in elementary education but became fascinated with the tourism industry after an internship with a travel agency and decided to switch tracks. She completed Tompkins Cortland Community College‘s program in Travel and Tourism in 1996 and then spent three years managing the corporate division at Baker Travel before entering the world of hospitality. She held a variety of increasingly senior positions at several hotels in the region (including the Ramada Inn and the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Ithaca, NY) and stepped into her current role in September 2015.

Opened in 2005, the Hilton Garden Inn Ithaca is a 104-room property occupying four floors of the ten-floor Seneca Place building across from the Ithaca Commons. At any given time, the Hilton has about 70 employees between the hotel proper and its two onsite eateries (The Garden Grille and Kilpatrick’s Publick House), although staff numbers and assignments fluctuate seasonally. “There never seems to be a moment when we don’t have some kind of staffing need,” Teri explains. “You could be completely staffed in one department but then another department will be short. We’ve had to get very creative with cross-training our employees, and Challenge is also very creative about assessing and developing all the different skills and strengths that an individual has. The coaching supports that they give every single employee is amazing, and that’s helped us to avoid being stretched too thin during the busy seasons.”

In addition to her vital role as a job creator, Teri joined Challenge’s Board of Directors earlier this year and serves on its Development Committee. She is a frequent friendly face at Challenge’s various events out in the community, and recently played host to one: this October, an exhibition of artwork by Challenge participants and staff was displayed in the halls of the hotel and a Kilpatrick’s-catered reception was held in conjunction with First Friday Gallery Night.

While her service to Challenge and management of a bustling downtown hotel would be enough to fully occupy even the most ambitious among us, Teri is also active on the Downtown Ithaca Board of Directors and finds time to enjoy the region’s plenitude of concerts, festivals, farmers’ markets, and wineries with her husband and college-age daughter.