The Faces of Challenge
Challenge is different this way—we don’t just say ‘no’—we have to find a way to talk to each other and support each other in learning new things.
Angkana (อังคณา) Nathabheem
Challenge Workforce Solutions’s Contract Staffing division is a place where a wide range of hardworking people––teenage trainees and returning retirees, folks with developmental disabilities and mobility impairments, political refugees and former incarcerees, and many others whose stories are yet untold—all come together in the spirit of teamwork.
But Angkana’s story, for one, should no longer go untold.
In the mid-1990s, when Thailand was the world’s fastest-growing economy, Angkana (อังคณา as rendered in the beautiful Thai script) was in charge of accounting and purchasing for a five-firm construction conglomerate in Bankgok. In 1997, a financial crisis seized much of Southeast Asia, devaluing her country’s currency by half and its stock market by three-quarters. That year, she came to America and started her career path over from step one.
With very little English at her command, Angkana took a job serving at a Thai restaurant in Boston, soon being made a manager. Already a wife and mother of one, Angkana then made three more big moves with her young family: first to Chicago, where her second son was born; then to Tokyo, where both of her children learned a third language; and finally to Ithaca, where her husband entered a doctoral program in Regional Economics at Cornell University and she happened upon a posting for a job in the university’s dishrooms. Again, her leadership skills were readily recognized—and this time, her multiple language skills, too—and she was swiftly promoted to supervisor, coordinator, and now manager of Contract Staffing’s housekeeping team at Cayuga Medical Center.
Says Dave Cummings, Interim Assistant Director of Contract Staffing, “Angkana has earned the trust and respect of all the staff that have had the privilege to work with her.” For her part, Angkana says, “This is a new role for me, and I’m learning every day. But we’re all learning every day. Challenge is different this way—we don’t just say ‘no’—we have to find a way to talk to each other and support each other in learning new things.”
Seeing Briggs and the rest of the team work with the participants just made me fall in love with the job.
“I’m rarely in the building,” says Manager of Prevocational Services Brendan Shaw. “Every day, I’m taking groups all over town—Cayuga Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, Paleontological Research Institution and its Museum of the Earth, Dryden Community Center Cafe—and that’s where we’re assessing and building skills.”
These many and varied community-based experiences are central to Challenge’s prevocational programs, which aim to help adults with developmental disabilities become ready for the wide world of work.
Explains Briggs Seekins, Director of Prevocational Services, “The sheltered workshop model created an artificial environment. If we want to have a truly diverse community that values all people for what they can contribute, there is no substitute for training and activities that take place in a community setting.”
He adds, “It can be a real challenge for our staff to provide the proper supports for up to five participants at a time while maintaining good relationships with our community partners. Brendan does a great job at all levels. He gives first-rate services, and I think people feel good about working with Challenge when they see a staff member like Brendan in action.”
Brendan was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania (the Electric City) and raised just outside of Ithaca. He attended Candor Junior-Senior High School and then Ithaca College, where he majored in Psychology. Professor Hugh Stephenson, a clinician and author of several important studies on people with intersecting intellectual disabilities and mental health needs, was his advisor, and recalls him as a “gentle, insightful, thoughtful student with a lot of heart, and much-loved on his research team which focused on a program addressing financial knowledge and self-direction.”
Between his junior and senior years, he pursued a summer internship at Challenge. “Seeing Briggs and the rest of the team work with the participants just made me fall in love with the job,” he says. Right after graduation in 2013, a long-term position appeared and Brendan leapt at it.
Brendan currently works with participants who are just starting out in job readiness training as well as those who have progressed into ETP (Employment Training Program) and PTE (Pathway to Employment.) “In the beginning, it’s really important to go out into a bunch of different environments. That way, folks pick up a lot of practical skills—at Dryden Café we do food prep and weighing, and at Museum of the Earth we clean floors and at Cayuga Nursing’s snack shack we handle money and run registers.”
Furthermore, he says, “It’s essential for developing social skills, both in terms of interacting with a diverse range of customers and in terms of forming peer relationships—working as part of a small, intensive team with others who may come from very different backgrounds.”
Then, once participants are in ETP or PTE, “Our focus shifts and we try to narrow in on each individual’s interests and talents and develop them towards a specific kind of job. That’s probably my favorite part of this work—getting to know people one-on-one and discovering what their niches are, like Jeffrey R. [pictured with Brendan, on left] and his flourishing art career as well as his success in his internship with Ithaca is Gorges (Ithaca & Tompkins County Tourism) in Downtown Ithaca. Of course, it’s a great thing when they find the right job and leave our services, but I do miss them.”
While Brendan is busy transporting and coaching Challenge crews all day long, at 5 PM his work is far from done: he is currently enrolled in not one but two professional master’s programs at Binghamton University. He expects to earn both an MPA (Master of Public Administration) and MSW (Master of Social Work) in 2021. Somehow, amidst this truly mind-boggling schedule, he managed to get engaged as well—to a remarkably supportive and understanding fiancée, we must surmise!
Thank you, Brendan, for all that you do here at Challenge—and congratulations to you and Taylor! We hope you will have plenty of richly-deserved relaxation time in the years to come!
I really have to give credit to this community. People are a lot more accepting here than many other places, and there are a lot of good resources.
Many people in our community aren’t aware that Challenge Workforce Solutions’s largest constituency is job seekers living with mental illness. About 27 percent of our program participants have a primary mental health diagnosis, and a further 15 percent are dually diagnosed with a developmental disability. This population faces unique challenges in the workforce, and our Employment Specialist Pete Wolfanger is uniquely suited to helping these individuals find success and fulfillment.
Pete was born in Rochester, earned an M.F.A. at American University in Washington, D.C., and moved to Ithaca in 1997. His first job in the human services field was at Evergreen House, one of the community residences run by Lakeview Health Services, Inc. These residences provide a homey atmosphere for small groups of adults who are recovering from the impact of mental illness in their life. There, he got to know a number of longtime Challenge participants and came to understand the importance of meaningful work as a part of the rehabilitation process. In 2009, Pete joined the staff of Challenge, providing supported employment services for people with mental health diagnoses in Seneca County for five years before transitioning into his current role as an Employment Specialist based our of our headquarters in Ithaca.
Today, Pete provides on-site employment supports to people at a variety of community workplaces including Cornell University, Walmart Ithaca, and the Trumansburg ShurSave. Owing to his background, Pete’s caseload tends to include many workers with severe psychiatric diagnoses. This demographic is less likely to be employed than any other group with disabilities in the United States. Signed into law by the late George H.W. Bush in 1990 and revised by the younger Bush in 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) broadly defines disability to include a range of psychiatric conditions including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and PTSD. Nonetheless, employment rates for people with these types of diagnoses have actually been decreasing for many years. The NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) reports that only 12 percent of this population is employed full-time despite a majority indicating that they want to work. NAMI suggests that this disparity is due in large part to a lack of access to supported employment programs like Challenge’s.
Pete says that one of the greatest difficulties in helping this demographic to find work is that mental illness often manifests cyclically. He explains, “It’s hard to predict long-term success because people might seem to be doing really well for a period of time, and then things will change for the worse, and we will discover that it isn’t the right environment. We often have to go back to the drawing board several times before something sticks.”
Pete also feels that unfair stigma compounds these practical challenges. “The perception alone can be a barrier. There’s a sense that these people are dangerous, but in reality they are a highly vulnerable population. They are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. And then, on the other side of the coin, there is different kind of stigma associated with ‘milder’ conditions like anxiety and depression, because these are sometimes seen as a lack of willpower, and not something necessarily deserving of accommodation like more apparent disabilities are.”
“But,” Pete adds, “I really have to give credit to this community. People are a lot more accepting here than many other places, and there are a lot of good resources.” One such resource that complements Challenge’s employment services is the The Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, of which Pete is a board member. “The MHA has a lot of great programs like the Jenkins Center, which provides a good social environment, and Mental Health First Aid trainings, which help businesses to respond to people in crisis.”
In addition to his exceptional work as a job coach and advocate, Pete also retains an abiding interest in art. While he studied painting in graduate school, his favored media these days are drawing and photography. He enjoys attending open figure drawing sessions in town and his deft camera skills are much in demand at special events at Challenge and around the community. And if that isn’t enough, Pete is also a music aficionado and can often be found spinning vintage vinyl at Atlas Bowl.
I really had no idea how many local businesses employ people from Challenge—and you wouldn’t ever know if you were just going about your day here.
Challenge Workforce Solutions’s newest Employment Specialist, Gabe Malone, has come into our midst with one of the most interesting and varied professional backgrounds we’ve seen so far.
Raised in Louisiana and California, Gabe first came to Ithaca to get a degree in psychology from Cornell University. Soon after, he got a second degree in Latin and Greek from the University at Buffalo and then spent some time working on an organic farm in Vermont before landing a position teaching Latin to ninth-graders at a classically-influenced charter school in Washington D.C. He taught there for over a decade before switching tracks again and returning to Ithaca to work in the day habilitation program atUnity House of Cayuga County, Inc., which assists individuals with developmental disabilities in achieving greater community awareness and independence.
Seldom accused of indolence, Gabe continues to work at Unity House on the weekends in addition to his new Monday-to-Friday position at Challenge—and he also serves as a powerlifting coach to a number of clients both in the Ithaca area and online. He characterized this last pursuit as “totally unrelated” to his ongoing work in the human services sector, although we countered that no two things in this town are totally unrelated and learned that one of his regular clients is noted Special Olympics NY athlete and former Challenge participant Joel “El Duderoo” Armstrong.
At Challenge, Gabe’s caseload comprises about sixteen participants who are receiving “extended supports.” These are individuals who have secured employment in the community, and with anywhere from six months to thirty years under their belt, have graduated from our more intensive training and job coaching services. Gabe checks in with these participants once to twice a week to help them fine-tune soft skills, negotiate with supervisors, and provide whatever extra guidance and encouragement they need to continue being successful and confident in their positions.
While Gabe arrived at Challenge with a great deal of familiarity with the area and its network of services for people with disabilities, he said he was surprised by the extent of Challenge’s reach in the community. “I really had no idea how many local businesses employ people from Challenge—and you wouldn’t ever know if you were just going about your day here. That’s not only a testament to how many people we serve, but also how well integrated they are in their workplaces. As someone who’s accustomed to a much more supervised, hands-on approach, that’s been great to see.”
With his passion for helping people to succeed in their vocational and recreational pursuits, and his own successes in so many vastly different fields of human endeavor, we are very glad to welcome Gabe aboard!
An integral part of the Challenge team for ten years, Sherry Ponton has worked both on the front lines and behind the scenes to ensure the success of our mission.
Sherry was born in California, raised in Colorado, and first came to this area in 1988 to pursue a degree in Psychology at Ithaca College. After graduation, she worked in a group home in Groton, then moved back to Colorado to manage a range of day programs for adults with physical and behavioral needs, and finally returned to Ithaca in 2008 to take a job at Challenge.
Sherry’s first position here was in the Life Options Program—a forerunner of our Prevocational Services Program—where her primary focus was helping seniors with disabilities to develop new skills, interests, and social connections. She was then hired as an Employment Specialist in our Contract Staffing division, where she provided one-on-one coaching supports to our hardworking dishwashers and servers in the dining halls at Ithaca College and Cornell.
Now, as Challenge’s Quality Assurance/Compliance Associate, Sherry plays a critical role in keeping the agency’s largest single funding stream flowing smoothly. She explains: “When we provide pre-employment services to job seekers, or extended supports to participants who have found work in the community, we have to provide detailed documentation to Medicaid in order to be reimbursed. It’s up to me to stay on top of all the regulations and make sure that everything we submit is compliant and accurate. My motto is: ‘If you don’t document it, it didn’t happen!’”
The importance of this function is hard to overstate, since Medicaid accounts for nearly 40 percent of the agency’s revenue—well more than $2,000,000 annually. Without the Medicaid fee-for-service model—its complex regulatory systems and all—Challenge wouldn’t be able to operate our core programs which serve over 1,000 people with disabilities and other significant barriers to meaningful employment each year.
Says Sherry, “It’s great to have gotten experience in different realms at Challenge. It was very fulfilling to be in direct service, and now I really enjoy helping staff to troubleshoot when they have problems, and to be a mentor when I can.”
Outside of work, Sherry applies her outstanding attention to detail to a variety of home remodeling and repair projects. She says, “I can hang sheetrock, I can do tilework—but my favorite thing is interior painting. That’s the best, because unlike a complete remodel, you can see an immediate change, and that’s very gratifying!”
Thanks, Sherry, for all that you do!
Erinn, an Employment Specialist at Challenge Workforce Solutions since 2007, is a woman of surprising talents and unsurpassed energy.
Erinn comes from a military family; she was born in Upstate New York but grew up mainly in Alaska. After high school, she participated in Rotary Youth Exchange, spending a year and a half in Japan where she gained proficiency in the language as well as an abiding love for karaoke. Upon returning stateside, Erinn taught preschool and kindergarten for several years before entering the employment services profession as a Job Coach at Goodwill of Central & Northern Arizona. She returned to her home state shortly after the birth of her son.
Here at Challenge, Erinn mainly works with our pre-vocational participants—individuals who come to us via New York State’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities or Office of Mental Health to gain training and experience in general work skills before seeking employment in the community. Erinn provides support, guidance, and encouragement to a substantial caseload of participants engaging in a wide range of activities, including job readiness classes, travel training, job shadowing, internships, volunteering, and paid work trials.
This means that Erinn can very seldom be found at her desk. If she’s in the building at all, she is most likely supervising a group working to prepare important documents to be scanned by Challenge Imaging—one of the agency’s four in-house enterprises where pre-vocational participants work alongside full-time employees to fulfill contracts from area businesses. Likelier still, she is zipping between a variety of worksites in the community where participants are getting valuable hands-on experience; in recent days, she’s been at Finger Lakes ReUse, Loaves and Fishes, the Hilton Garden Inn, Thrifty Shopper, and Ithaca College.
Anyone who attended Challenge’s Annual Awards Event this year can attest that singing is not only a source of joy for Erinn but a truly rare talent. The further revelation, afforded to those fortunate few who have joined her for after-hours karaoke, that she can belt out hits for hours on end in both English and Japanese is all the more remarkable—and yet not wholly unexpected once you have seen the tremendous zeal that she brings to her work.
Carlene Fields has been with Challenge for less than two months, but she’s already making a real impact.
Carlene grew up in Lansing, NY and studied Psychology and Human Services at Elmira College. After graduating in 2016, she worked in childcare at the Ithaca YMCA and with the special needs population at Franziska Racker Centers. Once having gained some experience in the human services field, Carlene went on the lookout for an opportunity to work with clients in a one-on-one setting. When a position at Challenge opened up, she leapt at the chance.
As a Job Developer, Carlene meets with job seekers to assess their skills and interests, work with them on résumés and interview skills, and match them up with suitable positions. Here at Challenge, the role of Job Developers is complementary to that of Employment Specialists, who provide ongoing support to participants once they have secured jobs in the community. Both roles provide services that are highly individualized according to each participant’s unique array of strengths, barriers, and ambitions.
Carlene says the best part of Challenge is that everyone works as a team. “I like to say that teamwork makes the dream work—my colleagues have been wonderful in helping me find direction and do my job to the best of my ability.”
Carlene’s natural rapport with coworkers and participants alike is immediately apparent. Something that is less well known is her success on the racetrack. Carlene was an avid microd racer throughout her youth (a microd, we learned, is a kind of supercharged go-kart endemic to Central New York, with top speeds exceeding 50mph). She even survived a brake blowout during a championship race!
These days, Carlene still enjoys attending auto races with her father, and can also be found playing in an indoor soccer league or volunteering at Loaves and Fishes.
Thank you, Carlene!
Joe has been with Challenge for 5 years, he and his family moved here after they figured shoveling 2 feet of snow would be easier than surviving hurricanes. They had been living in Florida but after experiencing 2 hurricanes in as many months a change of venue was due.
Joe started at Challenge as a dish room supervisor and now is one of our Employment Specialists. He describes his role here as “other duties as assigned”. “The part of “duties as assigned” I like best is seeing the people I works with gain the confidence to take that extra step toward independence. I love that I get paid to ride the bus.” Joe is the go to person at Challenge when someone needs travel training. He loves watching people go from never having navigated the bus on their own to being able to travel anywhere they want on the TCAT and most especially a job. It’s a privilege most of us take for granted.
Joe told the writer that this is the best job he has had since leaving the Navy. Joe comes from a military background. His dad was in the Army and his mom’s dad was a army engineer. His great Grandpa worked on building the Olympia, helping to create Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet”.
He wants people in our community to know that we are still here. We’re not in the pink building anymore, we are everywhere in the community.
Something people may not know about Joe: He and his wife used to belong to a gay and lesbian bowling team in Ithaca called the “Flaming Monkeys”. That and the fact that Joe is a aquarist!
“You can tell her that I was with the only brothers I had left and that there was no way I was deserting them. I think she’d understand that.” – Saving Private Ryan
He was in search of a job and his brother in law told him Challenge was hiring. Harrison had no experience working with the disabled but he took a job working in our Imaging business, scanning and organizing documents for the county as well as preserving clients personal photos. Seven years later he is still with us. Since he started, Harrison has moved up several times. He is now an Employment specialist working with our Employment Training Program. It’s a perfect fit. He is brilliant at his job! He works directly with our participants and the employers they work with, both love him.
He says his favorite part of working at Challenge is the camaraderie. He has worked other places where everyone worked on a common goal to put out a product but Challenge is different. “It’s about working together and the mission is about the people. “Everyone’s heart is in the right place here! There is no better feeling than seeing someone achieve success even seeing someone improve just a little and knowing that you helped is the greatest feeling!”
Harrison wants the community to know that the term workshop doesn’t mean we just put people in shredding or a dish room. The people working in these businesses have purpose and enjoy the work and the camaraderie they experience there. Not everyone is going to be able to work in a community job and we strive to find employment that is meaningful to everyone!
When Harrison is not at Challenge he spends time with 3 dogs, 3 cats and 3 fish as well as playing music.
People that know Harrison through his job at Challenge may be surprised to know he is a very talented musician in a Heavy Metal band “Ire Clad”. People who know Harrison as a musician may be surprised to know he works at Challenge during the day. He is also an amazing photographer!
“There are no compasses for journeying in time.” ~Graham Swift, Waterland
Everyone’s heart is in the right place here! There is no better feeling than seeing someone achieve success even seeing someone improve just a little and knowing that you helped is the greatest feeling!
Tammy works in our finance department here at Challenge. Her job entails one of the most important things to our staff, Tammy is in charge of Payroll! She also takes care of our accounts receivables as well as “other duties as assigned”.
She came to Challenge in 1990 from Cornell. She was looking for a job with more consistency and knew about the work Challenge did, Tammy had an uncle with down syndrome so she was familiar with some of the folks we serve.
Her favorite thing about being a part of the Challenge family is the people, staff and clients alike. “Our participants are so honest and the things they say can touch your heart.” Bus duty is one of her favorite times of the week. It is one of the most rewarding tasks we can volunteer to participate in here. Getting to know the people we serve is so much more than part of the job.
Tammy would like people to know that Challenge serves so many more people than just those with developmental disabilities. We offer so much to the community that people don’t know about.
When Tammy is not playing with figures, she spends her time bowling with her husband on the “Rock stream Logging” team in Watkins Glen. That and her grandson keep her busy.
People may be surprised to know that Tammy plays drums! She was in a drum and bugle corp “Pages and Squires” in her youth. Maybe some day we will see her in our Challenge band the “Danby Road Shredders”?
I personally love her favorite quote:
“It’s not how big the house is, it’s how happy the home!”
Sue has been with Challenge since early 2013. She came to Challenge looking for a job and found so much more. Her job is in the Finance Department. Sue works with numbers and spreadsheets.
“The best parts of working here are both the people I work with and the people who benefit from the work Challenge does.”
Outside of work, Sue spends time in her public ministry with family and friends. Sue is one of Jehovah’s Witness and volunteers 70 hours a month in community education work. Sue’s favorite hobby is learning new languages, she has studied French, Russian, Arabic, and is currently trying to learn Mandarin Chinese. She loves learning and making connections with the unique diversity of Ithaca’s community.
Briggs became part of the Challenge family 9 years ago when he decided to change careers. Tired of breeding cows in Cortland, he wanted a more meaningful job so he decided to go back into Human Services. Before moving to the Ithaca area in 2005 from Maine he taught creative writing and Human services.
His favorite part of his job is working with the participants. “They are harder workers than most people without barriers and most of them complain less.” I have seen Briggs interact with our participants…he is brilliant!
Briggs wants people to know that we help people become more productive and contribute to the community in a positive way.
When Briggs is not at work he spends time working out both for himself and coaching special Olympians. As a boxing enthusiast Briggs also spends time writing for a boxing magazine.
Something surprising that people may not know about Briggs – He is probably the only person in the US that has an MFA in creative writing and can breed a cow! He also served in Desert Storm as an infantry soldier.
His favorite quote (which he may have written and I love) is “If God wanted you to be happy, she would have made you a dog!”
Michael came to Challenge in 1996 with his wife Lisa and two children, as a temporary computer teacher for our VESID sponsored program. The contract was purposed to end after 3 months but when Michael restructured the course VESID extended the contract for another 6 years. He has been here ever since.
He is our IT director or as he likes to put it: “I manage it!”
Michael’s position now entails being responsible for anything that has a wire attached or an electron involved. The entire computer and communication network for Challenge revolves around Michael.
There are several things Michael enjoys about working at Challenge is that no two days are ever the same. At the start of each day, he says, he never knows what issue he will find, a paper jam in the printer or an operator error, which makes the day go by fast. He also enjoys both the staff he works with and the participants. “We have a professional, caring and dedicated staff whose mission is the best interest of our Program Patricipants.”
When Michael was asked, “What would you like the public to know about Challenge that they don’t know?” His answer was concise but brilliant: “Come visit us!” “Some people still believe we count coupons. If you come take a tour you will definitely be surprised to see the scope of what we do and who we serve.”
In his spare time Michael keeps busy with lots of projects, making furniture, photography, writing articles for a UK woodworking magazine and of course “Biggles!”
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Michael is that he has been woodworking since he was 6 years old. Take a look at Michael’s work at www.sawdustandwoodchips.com
Thank you Michael, there is not one employee at Challenge that has not come to you in a panic about a blank screen or a frozen computer!
Sophaul came to Challenge in 2009 as a participant. She began working with shredding down in the pink building at Challenge’s old location. She then worked in one of our Work Experience Programs at one of the hotels in Ithaca, but it wasn’t a good fit for Sophaul, so she began working in our Contract Production social enterprise business.
To say that was a good fit is an understatement. Sophaul excelled so much that the Contract Production manager promoted her to assistant supervisor of the shredding part of the business. Her manager felt Sopual had a work ethic that was “too valuable to lose.” She is always positive and has a smile each day at work, joking with participants and co-workers makes her day go by faster.
Sophaul is one of 3 sisters born to a Cambodian immigrant, she also has 2 older step-brothers. She speaks fluent Cambodian taught to her by her grandfather. When she is not at work, Sophaul helps her mom out with household chores and enjoys working in their vegetable garden. Mostly a homebody, Sophaul enjoys working to help her parents out with bills.
Everyone loves Sophaul!