The Faces of Challenge

I’ve only been here a short time, but it’s a perfect fit. I call home and tell them that someone needs to pinch me! I love the supportive atmosphere here, and I’m excited to engage with the community to promote this program.

Aleah Rivera

Challenge Workforce Solutions is delighted to introduce a brand-new team member in a brand-new position: Aleah Rivera, Youth Outreach Coordinator!

Each summer since 2014, Challenge has run a six-week work experience program for area youth with disabilities or other barriers. This program centers around paid stints with local employers and provides individualized onsite job coaching as well as weekly group classes where Challenge employment specialists and guest speakers from the community cover job readiness skills including résumé and cover letter writing, disclosure rights, and worksite safety.

In this frenetic economy, when so many businesses are jockeying to attract and retain entry-level employees, we at Challenge recognize that a key solution is to bring new, often-overlooked talent into the labor pool. Nationwide, high-school-aged youth with disabilities represent a potential workforce over one million strong—but without the right supports, an overwhelming majority of them will not seek employment once they are out of school.

And what are the right supports? A mounting body of evidence demonstrates the vital importance of programs that combine job readiness training with authentic experiences—real-world work for real pay. For example, a recent study by Dr. Erik Carter of Vanderbilt University¹ showed that young adults with “severe” disabilities who did paid work while still in school were more than twice as likely to be employed two years after graduating as their peers who had only participated in unpaid work-study, job shadowing, or classroom-based readiness training.

With all this in mind, Challenge resolved to make our youth program a top priority in 2019: we now offer supported employment services to individuals ages 14 to 24 throughout the whole year. We’ve also hired on a dedicated Outreach Coordinator with an abundance of fresh new ideas and energy grounded in meaningful experiences with evidence-based youth programming, poverty alleviation, and community wellness.

Aleah Rivera is a Northwestern Indiana native and a recent graduate of the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington (Indiana University). She says, “I came to IU with a focus on medical science, but as I went along in the program I became more and more interested in the community health side of things—the determinants of well-being outside the doctor’s office, including people’s social and work lives.” During her senior year, Aleah pursued an internship with Girls Inc. of Monroe County (Girls Inc.) where she was responsible for implementing evidence-based activities for after-school and intersession programs with the aim of equipping girls to navigate gender and socioeconomic obstacles to grow into healthy self-reliance.

“I had my hands pretty full as the organization’s only program coordinator,” Aleah says, but she still summoned the endurance to ace advanced courses like Healthcare in Diverse Communities and serve as a volunteer at Shalom Community Center, which serves people experiencing poverty’s ultimate expressions: lack of food, clothing, shelter, and social connection. At Shalom, she assisted guests in obtaining toiletries and getting set up with social workers and other public resources.

Soon after graduating, Aleah took a trip to Ithaca and, after hiking a few hills and gorges, fell in love with the area: “Coming from Indiana, where natural features are at most three feet tall, I was just amazed, and I moved here before even getting a job.” Likewise, when she interviewed at Challenge, she instantly knew she had found the right place: “I’ve only been here a short time, but it’s a perfect fit. I call home and tell them that someone needs to pinch me! I love the supportive atmosphere here, and I’m excited to engage with the community to promote this program.”

Aleah says that she is particularly looking forward to forging stronger partnerships with outlying school districts. “Now that we’re able to run programs year-round, we have the capacity to serve a much broader reach of students. We already have great relationships with TST BOCES and Ithaca High School, but there are lots of youth in more rural areas with a lack of access to transportation—and that alone can be as much of a barrier to employment as a disability. Connecting with those youth, before they leave school and get out of structured routines, is going to be really important.”

Welcome, Aleah!

¹ Carter, Erik W., Diane Austin, and Audrey A. Trainor. “Predictors of Postschool Employment Outcomes for Young Adults With Severe Disabilities.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies 23, no. 1 (June 2012): 50–63. doi:10.1177/1044207311414680.

There are so many people who want to work—I truly believe, and know firsthand, that meaningful work brings meaning to life—and Challenge makes that possible. My job is to spread the word and get people inspired about the work we do, just like all of us get inspired every day we are here.


Kim Pugliese

Kim Pugliese came to Challenge Workforce Solutions with a highly diverse set of experiences. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she was a member of her high school’s nationally-ranked marching band and subsequently attended Temple University to study the nascent field of computer science. After being recruited to write code for the innovative NEXRAD weather radar system being jointly developed by NOAA and the Air Force, she decided to pursue an abiding passion for the culinary arts. She started a catering business specializing in small executive parties in the Philadelphia area and later served as a chef and catering manager for several restaurants, event companies, and Greek houses in Ithaca, New York. Alongside this lengthy career trajectory, Kim also worked as a certified dog trainer and directed a fitness program for senior citizens.

In 2014, Kim joined the staff of Challenge, a non-profit organization in Ithaca, New York dedicated to creating pathways to employment for people with disabilities and other barriers. Initially hired on as a Job Developer, she was soon promoted to manage the Pathway to Employment and Employment Training Programs for job seekers with developmental disabilities. In 2016, she brought her decades of organizational experience and her newly-gained knowledge of the disability employment field to her current position as Director of Development & Marketing.

In this role, Kim’s most visible endeavors have been the organization’s Annual Awards Events, which are regionally recognized as having shattered the mold of the typical charity dinner to feature powerfully vulnerable first-person testimonials, lively theatrics, and the purposeful integration of program participants into every aspect of the celebration. The 2018 event was particularly noteworthy as it marked the organization’s fiftieth anniversary and paid a moving tribute to its founding family, the Sproles. Kim also initiated Challenge’s yearly Krispy Kreme fundraisers, which not only provide sweet treats to local supporters but also give prevocational participants a chance to practice money-handling and customer service skills out in the community.

Some of Kim’s most vital work, however, happens behind the scenes: she is principally responsible for defining Challenge’s long-term public relations strategy and for stewarding its fundraising efforts. Over the last three years, she has established and maintained a robust traditional and social media presence in collaboration with devoted Marketing Associates; grown the annual fund, launched the Pathway Society for high-level giving, and engaged individual donors with initiatives of particular personal significance.

While many people think of development as synonymous with “asking people for money,” Kim says, “It’s really more about making connections and expressing to the broader community why we are here. There are so many people who want to work—I truly believe, and know firsthand, that meaningful work brings meaning to life—and Challenge makes that possible. My job is to spread the word and get people inspired about the work we do, just like all of us get inspired every day we are here.”

The stories behind the folks I work with are amazing!

Johanna Knapp 

Johanna Knapp is one of several people who first came to Challenge Workforce Solutions to receive help with their job search and ended up getting hired right here. In her case, a six-week career exploration and readiness class led to a twenty-four year career in Challenge Imaging, where she has had the opportunity to work with a wealth of important historical documents and a host of remarkable people.

Challenge was established in 1968 to create pathways to employment for people with disabilities, but we have also served people with a variety of other barriers—legal, economic, and familial—since the early 1990s. Johanna was part of an early cohort of job seekers to attend Job Club, a program that provides job search strategies and hands-on assistance with the application process. “It was very helpful,” Joanna recalls. “I was a single mom with three young kids. I had some part-time jobs before, but I was kind of out of the loop. It was good to get out of the house and be around other adults, and it really prepared me for the job market in terms of what to wear, what to say, and what to expect.”

Among the interviews that Johanna went on after completing Job Club was in Challenge’s Microfilm Department—another initiative of the early 1990s. The Department was established to serve the preservation needs of research libraries and archives locally and abroad while providing meaningful training and employment opportunities for an integrated workforce. Johanna impressed the manager with her newly-honed interview skills and was hired on as a camera operator, working out of Challenge’s old “Pink Building” on East State Street to photograph the pages of rare books and manuscripts on hundred-foot reels of film while Alan Thomas (now the enterprise’s director) developed the images in the darkroom.

As the twenty-first century dawned, the Microfilm Department began transitioning to high-resolution digital scanners and was renamed Challenge Imaging. Its clientele expanded to include banks, government agencies, and HR departments looking to convert their massive repositories of paper files into secure and searchable databases. It also began to offer a personal scanning service for people looking to preserve their family snapshots, letters, and other precious mementos. In 2010, Challenge Imaging moved, along with the rest of Challenge’s operations, to the South Hill Business Campus, where it continues to handle a staggering workload—over six thousand images scanned every hour and over one million every month.

As this enterprise has evolved and grown over the years, so too have Johanna’s responsibilities. Says Alan Thomas, “There are many little things that need to be managed and monitored on a daily basis and Johanna seems to do all of it effortlessly. Software, equipment, customer service, data transfers, project inventories, and supervising other staff—that’s all in her wheelhouse as Production Coordinator, and the quality of her work is exceptional.”

When asked about her favorite part of the job, Johanna doesn’t hesitate to respond, “The people and the mission.” Surrounded by a diverse team that includes fellow participants-turned-employees, people hired from the community, and prevocational trainees getting their very first taste of work life amidst the scanners and stacks, she says, “The stories behind the folks I work with are amazing.”

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.

Pete Wolfanger 

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.

Gabe Malone

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!


If you don’t document it, it didn’t happen!

Sherry Ponton

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!

We all have to work for a living, but doing something good for the community is so important to me, and I’m so glad that I got the chance to merge both of these things.

Ebru Arslan

Challenge is very pleased to welcome its new Director of Finance and Operations, Ebru Arslan!

Ebru was born in Turkey and came to the United States in 2000. She pursued a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Brooklyn College while working full-time at a construction company and later earned a master’s degree in Economics while serving as the Accounting Manager for a specialty food importer.

About 12 years ago, Ebru’s brother came to Cornell and bought a house in Freeville that soon became a favorite summer getaway spot for the whole family. Through these visits, Ebru fell in love with the people and the scenery of the Finger Lakes and began to look for job opportunities in the area.

For Ebru, her new position isn’t just a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city but is also a long-sought opportunity to apply her skills to a worthy mission: “We all have to work for a living, but doing something good for the community is so important to me, and I’m so glad that I got the chance to merge both of these things.”

As a key member of Challenge’s leadership team, Ebru’s ultimate goal is to “ensure a stable future for the agency so we can continue to achieve our mission for the next 50 years.” To that end, she has been working diligently in her first several weeks here to implement new and refined financial models across Challenge’s numerous programs and provide training and support to program directors so they can better set and manage their own budgets.

While Ebru’s financial and managerial expertise is immediately manifest, one talent that Ebru has not yet shared with the Challenge family is her Islamic calligraphy. She is trained in two distinctive styles of this expressive art form—Sülüs and Dîvanî—and plans to create a new piece for our upcoming staff and participant exhibition to be held at the Hilton Garden Inn as a part of Downtown Ithaca’s Gallery Night on October 5. Mark your calendars!

We provide a supportive home for a wide range of people who would otherwise be facing major obstacles in the community.

Dan Chapman

While many of Challenge’s employees are constantly on the move—traveling between various job sites in the community—a dedicated team of professionals are always at work behind the scenes to keep our large, complex organization running smoothly.

Among them is Business Analyst Dan Chapman, who works closely with program directors and the finance department to track over a million dollars of revenues and expenses each month, manage financial restructurings and other major changes, and formulate plans for the future. Following a difficult financial crisis in 2014, Challenge has been on a path of stabilization and growth and is now projecting a modest surplus for fiscal year 2018. Dan’s analytical acumen—as well as his calm and even-tempered demeanor—has been essential to our recovery.

For Dan—even though he’s clearly a numbers guy—it’s the people of Challenge that ultimately matter. “The best part of my job is interacting with all of the different participants who come through the office. We provide a supportive home for a wide range of people who would otherwise be facing major obstacles in the community.”

Dan grew up in southern Maine and first came to Ithaca to attend Cornell. He left to work at Whole Foods Chicago and Denver, and then returned to serve as Business Development Manager for Challenge’s Food Hub in Groton. He came to Challenge’s headquarters on South Hill when the Food Hub was sold to Old Chatham Creamery in 2017.

Outside of work, Dan enjoys kayaking on the lake, hiking the gorges, and otherwise reveling in our area’s remarkable natural beauty. After a long day of poring over spreadsheets, we think that’s the perfect cure.

Erinn can very seldom be found at her desk…

Erinn Seward

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.

I love helping individuals reach their goals—whatever they may be.

Jennifer Northrop

Jennifer Northrop came to Challenge Workforce Solutions with a diverse educational and professional background. She grew up on a dairy farm in neighboring Tioga County; earned a BA and an MS in education; and worked in banking, retail, and childcare before transitioning to the human services field. Jennifer worked as a career coach at Goodwill of Western & Northern Connecticut and then as an independent living skills trainer at Compassionate Care of Central New York before being hired on as a Job Developer at Challenge in early 2017.


Jennifer is currently transitioning into a new position as Business Outreach Coordinator. She still works one-on-one with job seekers but is now taking on a more proactive role in building relationships with area employers. She explains, “I approach businesses, find out what their workforce needs are, and come up with creative solutions for how to meet those needs. The goal is to create relationships that are positive, long-term, and mutually beneficial for the businesses and our participants.”

One key part of the business outreach process is informing employers of the many incentives for hiring folks with disabilities and other barriers. There are numerous different federal and state tax credits to take advantage of, as well as several programs that reimburse wages paid during try-out or training periods. Most importantly, when employers hire a Challenge participant, they’re getting a thoughtfully matched, highly motivated employee with ongoing supports. This translates to reduced absenteeism, turnover, and dissatisfaction—three of the most notorious profit-killers in the business world.

In addition to her important work at Challenge, Jennifer is pursuing a new entrepreneurial venture of her own—and returning to her agrarian roots in Tioga County—with Richford Hill Winery, which will produce a variety of blueberry wines from fruit grown on her family’s farm. She, her husband, brother, and sister-in-law are all busily preparing for their first tasting this June—and if they need extra hands during the harvest season, she knows where to go to make a few good hires!

Teamwork makes the dream work!

Carlene Fields

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!

I can see the impact firsthand—I’ve witnessed tremendous growth.

Ryan Notarpole

“It’s a cliché to say ‘I learn more from them than they do from me,’ but in this case it’s absolutely true, because I’ve never had to face the obstacles that they’ve had to overcome.”

As an Employment Specialist at Challenge Workforce Solutions, Ryan Notarpole manages a full caseload of individuals with disabilities and other barriers to employment, providing them with support and encouragement throughout the entire process of finding and keeping jobs in the community. He helps participants to identify their strengths and problem areas, set goals, communicate needs to employers, track their progress, and celebrate important milestones along their career path.

Ryan is a “Cuse boy”—a native of the Syracuse metropolitan area north of Ithaca. He attended Keuka College, studying Unified Education, Special Education, and Childhood Education, and upon graduation worked as a residential rehabilitation specialist at ARC. He then moved to North Carolina to work one-on-one with a deafblind child with severe behavioral issues, using tactile sign language to communicate. Six years ago, he returned to the Finger Lakes region and landed his current position at Challenge.

Says Ryan, “This has been the most rewarding job I’ve had—this is where I see myself helping the most. I can see the impact firsthand—I’ve witnessed tremendous growth. So many people with these kinds of barriers don’t get the opportunity to find work in the community, gain independence, put a down payment on a house—these are huge achievements.”

Ryan’s deep commitment to his participants and to the mission of Challenge does not go unnoticed. He was presented with a Staff Award at last year’s Annual Recognition Luncheon.

Although his job keeps him very busy, Ryan has made time for several interesting creative pursuits. Right now, he is writing and illustrating a children’s book entitled Aunt Gone, about a woman who escapes her humdrum life to discover a secluded cabin and an ability to speak to woodland creatures. He can also be seen gigging around town as lead singer of Bob Roberts Calamity (inquiring minds want to know—yes, there is a Bob Roberts; yes, he is prone to calamity; no, he is not a part of the band.)

Thanks, Ryan, for all that you do!

Mikia Hoard

Mikia is the first ‘Face of Challenge’ that you’ll see upon arriving at our office. As our Administrative Assistant, one of her favorite duties is meeting and greeting all of the employees, participants, and guests that come our way each day. She also handles several other tasks that are vital to the day-to-day operations of our organization, including financial recordkeeping, communications, and support of our Marketing & Development department.

She is a native of Upstate New York and a longtime resident of the Ithaca area, with brief stints in Georgia and Pennsylvania. She first came to know many of the staff members at Challenge when her son worked here in the dish rooms and we were delighted to reconnect with her when she came back in to inquire about the position she now holds.

Mikia’s large, close family is her clear priority outside of work hours. With her husband, four children, parents, and sister all here in town, she is kept very busy with cooking, shopping, and trips to the skating rink and the movies (of which a recent favorite is Black Panther). She also plans to join her father’s bowling team this year!

I love that I get to meet new people and learn new things all the time!

Joe Wikoff

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! 

 Favorite quote:

“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

“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

Harrison Rumsey

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

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!

Joe Sammons

Prior to joining Challenge in November of 2015, Joe served as the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes, creating and completing a capital campaign of over $8 million while building new health centers in Hornell, Corning and Ithaca.

Joe has also served as Executive Director of the Geiger-Gibson Community Health Center in Boston, and as Assistant VP of Operations for Community Healthcare Network in New York City. In these positions he lived and learned the difficult but rewarding work of running community-based non-profit health organizations. Before that, Joe served on the legislative and district staff of New York State Senator Catherine Abate; he began his career as a grassroots activist with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Skilled and experienced in non-profit management, community health operations, legislative advocacy and leadership development, Joe’s focus at Challenge Workforce Solutions is to steer the agency through a difficult financial recovery while deepening the integration between Challenge’s mission and its businesses, and increasing visibility and impact for the community.

Joe lives in Cayuga Heights with his wife, Mary Schiavone and their son, Julian Sammons.

“It’s not how big the house is, it’s how happy the home!”

Tammy Everett

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!”

Pat F.

Visitors to Challenge may have seen Pat over the span of her 24 years here. She’s a part of the finance office, where she handles everything from filing to payroll data entry to Medicaid claims.

Pat moved to Ithaca in 1967, and has lived here ever since. She started as a participant in Challenge’s programs, and has continued to be a valuable worker.

“I like the people I work with, both the staff and the consumers,” Pat says.

Right now, she works about 14 hours a week at Challenge, and she says everyone in the finance office is very good to work with.

Outside of the office, Pat has been a long-time member of the choir at the Immaculate Conception Church in Ithaca. She’s also part of the Ithaca Singles Group, made up of mostly retirees, who meet for dinner and activities as a way to stay social.

She also gets a chance to see family often. Her nephew lives in Ithaca with his wife and kids, and she often gets a chance to see her brother, who lives on the other side of the state, as well.

Even at age 69, Pat has no plans to slow down. She tells us she feels “just the same as I did 20 years ago.”

Congratulations, Pat, on all your success at Challenge!

“I like the people I work with, both the staff and the consumers.”

Sue Weaver

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.

Sue’s favorite quote comes from Robert Frost:  “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference.”

Briggs Seekins

Briggs is our Manager of Pre-vocational Services. He 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) “If God wanted you to be happy, she would have made you a dog!”

“If God wanted you to be happy, she would have made you a dog!”

Michael Collins

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

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!

“We have a professional, caring and dedicated staff whose mission is the best interest of our consumers.”

Sophaul O.

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!