Every day, every week and every month for the past 70 years, the Mary Cariola Children’s Center has helped individuals with complex disabilities fulfill their potential.
The center also does the same for the people they employ.
Through the staff scholarship program at Mary Cariola, teacher aides return to school to become certified teacher assistants, teacher assistants take courses to complete their teaching certificate, and others staff members sometimes pursue degrees in related fields.
They do so all while still teaching or providing necessary services to the more than 400 students between ages 3 and 21.
Mary Cariola’s Growing Our Own scholarship program pays the costs of the education, and in turn the employees pledge to remain at the center. It’s become a way to combat what had become a worrisome trend: staff members becoming adept in a specialized industry through their work at Mary Cariola, then leaving for better offers in neighboring school districts.
“Our teachers and our staff are highly coveted by the districts, and they’re being recruited,” said Karen Zandi, president and CEO of the center. “We needed to stop whining about people leaving. We had to start embracing that we are a training center, both for our students and the grownups who work here.
“Through Growing Our Own, we’re able to offer scholarships to our staff, who in turn make a commitment to stay.”
One staff member had pursued a degree in social work years earlier, only to be derailed by the happenings of life, Zandi said. The scholarship program enabled her to return to school. She’s now about to complete her bachelor’s degree in social work and is planning to pursue a master’s degree.
And all the while she has been helping enhance the lives of the children at Mary Cariola by continuing to work.
“She gave me a note to send to the donor; ‘To the person who changed my life,’ ” Zandi said.
The program, of course, requires funding. The center has fundraising campaigns to raise necessary money, including Celebrating Our Past, Preparing for Our Future, a dining, auction and student art show at Locust Hill Country Club on Nov. 7.
The ability to retain staff members — and thus maintain familiarity for students with teachers and staff — is an important piece of the overall equation to success at Mary Cariola. Students could be at the learning center for a dozen years or more.
“If you think about your own time in school; when a substitute teacher was in the classroom, you didn’t always focus on what you needed to do,” Zandi said. “Our kids with autism really, really need that familiarity. (Our staff) has to understand our kids and anticipate the needs. The long-term relationships are just very important.”
The center takes pride in enhancing the lives of staff members, too. In becoming a certified teacher assistant, or in earning another degree, staff members move up the pay scale while still being able to apply their desire to work with special-needs students.
“Our children’s programs are individualized and so are our staff programs,” Zandi said. “We want what’s right for them.”
Mary Cariola has a 100 percent graduation rate for teaching aides who pursue certification to become a teacher assistant. This fall, the center has 23 employees working on teaching credentials. “And we have almost as many teaching aides becoming certified teacher assistants,” she said.
The center also operates six resident homes throughout the county, with nurses and clinicians working at each facility.
“With our six resident homes, we’re also focused on retention,” Scott Collins, director of agency advancement, said. “We’re working with folks who want to pursue their passions of working at Mary Cariola.”
The ability to offer career enhancement training can be a perk.
“We’re not unlike the rest of the community; we’re in competition with many other industries,” Zandi said. “Unemployment is low, which is good, but organizations that are trying to grow are having difficulty filling roles.”
For the center, fundraising is critical. Each year there is between a $1 million and $2 million gap between what state, county and other organizations provide and what is needed to meet costs.
Mary Cariola has initiated Sunshine Circle, a leadership annual giving society where donors commit to a three-year pledge. Knowing a certain amount of money is coming in helps the center map out a cash flow plan, Collins said.
The Center also is hoping those in the community with philanthropic desires will consider a legacy gift within estate planning.
For information on giving, contact the Mary Cariola Children’s Center at (585) 271-0761 or visit marycariola.org.