gina portrait

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM)—an opportunity to educate the public about disability employment issues and celebrate the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. NDEAM is led by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, but its true spirit lies in the many observances held at the grassroots level across the nation each year—including Challenge Workforce Solutions’s karaoke flash mob to Miranda Lambert’s “All Kinds of Kinds” at the 36th Annual Downtown Ithaca Apple Harvest Festival (watch the video at if you missed it!)

October also happens to be Down Syndrome Awareness Month—an effort started by the National Down Syndrome Society to encourage greater understanding of this often misunderstood condition. The NDSS reports that about one in 700 babies in the United States are born with Down Syndrome, which is a chromosomal anomaly occurring randomly across all races, sexes, and socioeconomic levels. People with Down Syndrome have an increased risk of certain medical conditions like heart defects, but recent advances in treatment mean that most are leading healthy lives. Likewise, all people with Down Syndrome experience cognitive delays to some degree, but with the right community supports they are able to attend school, work, form meaningful relationships, and contribute to society in countless ways.

Gina F. is one of the many remarkable people in our community who prove that this diagnosis does not preclude a fulfilling career and a self-directed life.

Gina came to Challenge knowing that she wanted to work at Wegmans, the family-owned supermarket that for so many Ithacans is a true agora—a place not only to shop but to stroll and schmooze. Our staff helped her to create a résumé and prepare for an interview. When she met with the Wegmans HR rep, Gina explained that she was a people person: “I said that I really like people of all ages, and she said she knew the perfect department for me—Produce. And now I’ve been in Produce for 18 years—and I want to be here 18 more years. I get to interact with all kinds of customers. They’ll come up to me, and I get a lot of nice feedback.”

When we asked Gina what kinds of challenges she has faced in the workplace, she chuckled, “Well, I am a little short! I couldn’t reach the top shelves before, but then they put in new shelves that I can reach. I can do most things. People with Down Syndrome should stick up for themselves and make opportunities.”

Gina utilized Challenge’s job coaching supports for many years but eventually decided she was ready to “graduate herself” from our services: “The environment at Wegmans is so great and supportive that I felt like I was ready to be on my own. So I let Challenge know that I wanted to be independent and I wanted to make sure that the job coaches would be able to help other people the way they helped me. I am thankful for all the support and training I got. Without Challenge I wouldn’t have found my dream job. I love this place!”

Wegmans is thankful for Gina, too. Says longtime store manager Gary Woloszyn, “Gina has added so much in so many ways. She has great tenacity—always working hard, always applying herself—and she really enjoys coming to work and interfacing with our customers. As a family company, that’s what we’re all about.”