If Mary Cariola were alive today, she might be astounded at the progress her namesake nonprofit has made in its 70 years.
“I would like to think it would take her a few minutes to catch up and that she would be really pleased. Particularly the medical advancements and what we’re able to do to support families— I think that would be significant. But also the investment in our staff,” said Karen Zandi, president and CEO of Mary Cariola Children’s Center Inc. “Philosophically the beliefs are the same.”
At a time when children with developmental and intellectual disabilities and those with complex medical problems were relegated to a life of institutions and medical plans that did not include integration, Cariola thought there must be a different way, a better way of treating those kids, teaching them and ensuring their lives were meaningful.
A successful social worker with the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Cariola in 1944 was approaching retirement when her sister had a son with severe disabilities. During Butchie’s preschool years his family cared for him at home, but when it was time to send him to school, there was nothing that could accommodate him.
Together with six families of children with severe and multiple disabling conditions, Cariola in 1949 founded the Day Care Training Center for Handicapped Children. The organization was designed to provide social, recreational and vocational experiences for children who were not eligible for public school, and in its first year had eight students.
Cariola’s tenacity and commitment in the face of prejudice was groundbreaking for the developmentally disabled. The agency was incorporated as a not-for-profit three years later.
“Mary was a woman ahead of her time,” Zandi said. “Seventy years ago, if you had a child with disabilities professionals said institutionalize. Now the culture is coming around. Mary, before the Americans with Disabilities Act, was a person who said children should be raised by their parents. If the parents choose to do that, they need help.”
Cariola was influential in the community and when she asked for something—donations, for example—she usually got it.
“So you get this sense of a very strong-willed, very determined (woman),” Zandi said.
In 1977, as industry experts and the world were becoming aware of institutional conditions and the importance of education, the Day Care Training Center’s certificate of incorporation was changed to develop community residences and the agency was renamed in Cariola’s honor. In 1979, the agency opened the first group home in Upstate New York.
Forty years later, Mary Cariola Children’s Center has grown to a staff of roughly 650 who serve some 600 families in the community. Students in the agency’s programs come from more than 50 school districts in 11 counties and some as far away as Syracuse and Niagara Falls.
With a budget of $34 million, Mary Cariola Children’s Center offers a number of services. The agency has six residential homes that provide family environments where residents receive 24-hour care. Residents also are enrolled in school or an adult day program or work setting.
The agency is highly regarded in the community and was the first in the nation to have a sensory room. Other services offered to students and families include nursing; occupational and physical therapy; behavior therapy; telemedicine; dental desensitization through University of Rochester Medical Center’s SMILEmobile; music therapy; psychological and psychiatric consult; vision therapy; speech therapy; social work and more.
“As society has changed and the needs have changed, our organization continues to evolve, stay current,” Zandi said. “One of the things we talk about is in this economy, where unemployment is really low, hiring and keeping really skilled staff who are mission-aligned is really important to us.”
To that end, Mary Cariola Children’s Center invests in its employees. As part of its 70th anniversary goals, the agency secured a $70,000 challenge grant from the Glover-Crask Charitable Trust. The grant will help staffers go back to school to improve their credentials and certifications.
“We really believe that educating our staff is really important. Frankly, it keeps them engaged with us as well,” Zandi said. “So we’re investing in scholarships for our staff, helping them go back to school, most recently figuring out what’s the path if you want to become a nurse. The world needs more nurses.”
More than 15 staffers have headed back to school to become teachers, social workers or nurses, Zandi noted.
“We could use that (challenge grant) as a recruitment tool as well, because in theory you can come work here, develop and advance your career and we pay you to do it,” said Greg Kamp, the center’s director of marketing & communications. “Plus, you’re getting tuition assistance or a scholarship. It’s a good deal.”
Mary Cariola Children’s Center Chairman Mike Stachura has a soft spot in his heart for people with disabilities, in part because a family member had developed a disability following an illness. He said the success of the agency is measured “one kid at a time.”
“Like many people, when you walk through the facility and meet the kids and meet the saints that we call teachers and staff that take care of the kids, you just get hooked,” Stachura said. “And I’m one of the many people that kind of got hooked.”
Zandi, the agency’s fifth CEO, arrived at Mary Cariola Children’s Center some six years ago. During her time there, she said one of the biggest changes she has seen is in technology, particularly around tech for staff, cybersecurity and access.
Medicine also has made great strides, Zandi noted. With medical advances, more premature babies are being saved, but that means an increase in medically fragile children who need services.
“As the world becomes more complicated, it’s more difficult for parents to take care of their kids with disabilities, so the mission that we have is even more important so that kids can have a rich and full life,” Stachura added.
And Cariola, who died in 1987, would be amazed by all of that, Zandi said.
“I think she’d be amazed if she walked into one of our group homes … to see the level of need that we’re serving with kids that really have significant behavioral challenges, and they have really good days where they’re preparing a pizza or kids are jumping in the pool, that there’s good quality of life for people who live with us and they’re involved in community activities,” Zandi said. “I think it would be heartwarming to know that our kids are delivering Meals on Wheels, that they’re helping in giving back to the community.”
Added Kamp: “I think if Mary could talk to Karen she’d say two things: The first thing she would say is this is all fantastic. And then she’d say, ‘But you’re not done yet.’”
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