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60 years and growing: Al Sigl Member Agencies are testament to collaboration

Historical rendering of the original Al Sigl campus at the corner of Elmwood and South Avenues. (Rendering provided)
Historical rendering of the original Al Sigl Center campus at the corner of Elmwood and South Avenues. (Rendering provided)

Six decades ago, a group of parents and advocates joined forces to create a collaborative community network of organizations that service children and adults with special needs.

They were on to something. 

The Al Sigl Community of Agencies — which is celebrating its 60th year — has expanded from its first location on Elmwood Avenue to encompass nearly two dozen buildings on six campuses.  

It has also grown from serving 3,000 to serving over 55,000, with an increasing number of individuals and families turning to Al Sigl Member Agencies for help and support each year. 


“It was an innovative model that focused on doing things together in a more efficient way,” said Tom O’Connor, Al Sigl’s president, adding the model could be replicated in other communities outside of the region.  

Nancy Catarisano, chair of Al Sigel’s board of directors and managing partner of Insero & Co. CPAs, agreed that the Al Sigel concept was not only one-of-a-kind, but also important to the community. 

“The founders of Al Sigl were ahead of their times recognizing that a collaborative network would be so important in allowing multiple organizations to focus on the services they provide to the members of our community, while Al Sigl could focus on cost-effective space and philanthropic support to them,” she said. “Collaboration wasn’t a term often used 60 years ago but is the key to our success.” 

The initial concept was simple, O’Connor said. 

Justin Vigdor, Al Sigl’s founding board chair and an attorney with Bond, Shoeneck & King, was honored for his contributions at the President’s Circle of Hearts reception, held at Lawley’s Rochester office in November. The reception, for Al Sigl supporters, was one of many events held throughout the year to celebrate its anniversary. (Photo provided)

The goal was to create a convenient, accessible space that would bring many agencies together under one roof, with specialized and shared spaces to support each distinct mission and program and foster collaboration for the good of all.

O’Connor initially got involved with Al Sigl as a volunteer in 2008 and served as its marketing director and vice president of operations before becoming president in 2016. 

Among his proudest achievements is the opening in 2019 of the Golisano Autism Center, which offers evaluation, early intervention, childcare, after school and respite services, employment, arts and theater, a housing liaison and more. 

O’Connor said one of the advantages of the model is that it allows organizations to come together while maintaining their own independence. 

The focus is on providing complimentary services, rather than competitive ones, which can allow for shared support of the individuals served, he explained. 

Another area where Al Sigl can provide support is real estate, he said. The collaborative offers high-quality, cost-effective real estate options for not-for-profit organizations looking for environments that are welcoming and inclusive for people of all abilities. 

Al Sigl member agencies include CP Rochester, EPI, Medical Motor Service, National MS Society Upstate NY, Rochester Hearing & Speech Center, Rochester Rehabilitation and Starbridge. 

Leaders of the organizations meet monthly to stay connected and share successes and challenges. 

Among the biggest challenges all the Al Sigl organizations deal with is staffing shortages, O’Connor said, which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the retirement of many baby boomers.  

The pandemic, as well as inflationary pressures, has also led to an increase in the number of people seeking services from the Al Sigl agencies, from mental health services to support with managing finances, O’Connor noted.

That, in turn, has promoted Al Sigl leaders to reassess its space needs, begin work on updating its strategic plan and start looking at possible locations for expansion, which may come to fruition over the next 18 months.

“We expect to continue to grow,” O’Connor said.

He added that the business community can help with that growth, noting Al Sigl agencies are always looking for volunteers who can give their time, whether that be at events, on various committees or serving as a community ambassador.

Providing such support can be a rewarding experience, he said.

“It’s a great feeling to know you are truly changing lives,” O’Connor said.

[email protected] / (585) 653-4021 

CP Rochester opens supportive transitional apartments

New York State Homes and Community Renewal, CP Rochester and their partners have opened a $1.1 million, seven-unit residence for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. CP Rochester Transition Apartments will provide residents with the skills necessary to lead independent lives in a supportive environment.

“Our investment in CP Rochester Transition Apartments is an example of Gov. Cuomo’s commitment to increasing housing opportunities for all New Yorkers in need,” said HCR Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas. “We are proud to partner with CP Rochester on this $1.1 million development which is providing seven young adults with a home to call their own and the tools they need to transition to independent living.”

Rather than construct a new building for the transition apartments, CP Rochester renovated a former Individualized Residential Alternative building jointly owned by CP Rochester and Al Sigl Community of Agencies.

“CP Rochester realized an unmet need for young adults with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities to access community-based housing and begin the transition from living with families and caregivers to building a life for themselves within the community,” said CP Rochester President and CEO Mary Walsh Boatfield. “These individuals have a strong desire to pursue and create their own plan for community housing. The transition apartments are a stepping-stone to independent living that provides a safety net to young adults leaving their family home or certified setting for the first time.”

CP Rochester’s transitional residence design includes seven 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartments with a common room, kitchenette and living space. Individuals are provided support through the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, focusing on developing the skills necessary to live in a traditional, community-based apartment. Training is provided in money management, health and safety, community access, home maintenance, cooking, nutrition and self-care.

Residents will develop independent living skills while in the transition apartments and will naturally shift to more autonomous community living within a one- to two-year period. The living experience will offer individuals access to staff around the clock. The small, secured apartment setting will allow tenants to learn the skills necessary to be successful in an apartment while reducing risks, such as locking doors, checking visitors’ identity, learning to protect personal information and more. Tenants will bond with others who are going through similar experiences.

The total project cost is $1,060,000. HCR provided $413,050 through its Small Rental Development Initiative and The Golisano Foundation provided $240,000. Additional support came from Battle Construction Corporation, Wegmans, SWBR Architects, Al Sigl Community of Agencies, and The Lodestar Foundation.

“I want to applaud CP Rochester, New York State Homes and Community Renewal, The Golisano Foundation and the many other partners in this vital housing program,” said Assemblyman Harry Bronson, D-Rochester/Henrietta/Chili. “The CP Rochester Transition Apartments not only provide shelter for the young men and women who will live there, it will provide wrap-around services for residents so they can safely take the next steps toward their own personal growth. This program is an important step in the growth of our brothers and sisters with disabilities and I know how much this means for their families.”

This is the second development of its kind in the Greater Rochester area and Finger Lakes region. The original transition apartments opened in Ontario County in 2014 and have proven to be a successful model, assisting 26 individuals in reaching their goal of independent living made possible through a lead gift from the Golisano Foundation.

“Congratulations to CP Rochester and partners on the grand opening of the CP Rochester Transition Apartments,” said Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. “We are inspired by CP Rochester’s commitment to providing young adults that have physical, cognitive or developmental disabilities with accessible housing and the opportunity to transition to living more independently. Safe, reliable and quality housing for all people is one of the keys to a successful community. We hope that this is just the beginning of these developments so that we can continue to help support those in need throughout our community.”

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Golisano Autism Center opens

The long-awaited Golisano Autism Center opened its doors last week, but celebrated in earnest on Thursday with organization leaders, elected officials and Rochester philanthropist and Paychex Inc. founder Tom Golisano, who made the dream a reality with the initial $3 million donation.

Ann Costello and Tom Golisano prepare to cut the ribbon on the newly-opened Golisano Autism Center. (Photo by Velvet Spicer)
Ann Costello and Tom Golisano prepare to cut the ribbon on the newly-opened Golisano Autism Center. (Photo by Velvet Spicer)

“For them to pull it off, I consider it very unique,” Golisano said following a ribbon-cutting Thursday. “It took some skilled people to make it happen because you just don’t see this type of thing happen every day. Even in a nice community like Rochester, it just doesn’t happen. So I’m really happy and proud of these people who were able to pull it off.

“When you take a look at what it is, who it’s serving and the quantity of people that it’s serving, what a great deal,” he added.

The 33,000-square-foot facility includes custom areas for education, therapy, job training, indoor and outdoor recreation areas—including trampolines and a ball pit—sensory rooms and space to eat and relax. Teams from SWBR Architects & Engineers P.C., Marathon Engineering and the Pike Co. Inc. worked together to bring the space to life.

The autism center was the brainchild of Mary Walsh Boatfield, president and CEO of CP Rochester and chairperson of the Golisano Autism Center, who collaborated with AutismUp Executive Director Sarah Milko and Al Sigl Community of Agencies President Thomas O’Connor on the center’s concept.

“In 2015, the founders identified the need for providers in the Greater Rochester area to come together and transform delivery and access to services for individuals and families with autism,” Boatfield said to a standing-room-only crowd at Thursday’s ribbon cutting.

Ann Costello, Tom Golisano, Sarah Milko, Thomas O'Connor and Mary Walsh Boatfield were instrumental in pulling the Golisano Autism Center together. (Photo by Velvet Spicer)
From left to right: Ann Costello, Tom Golisano, Sarah Milko, Thomas O’Connor and Mary Walsh Boatfield were instrumental in pulling the Golisano Autism Center together. (Photo by Velvet Spicer)

The three founders traveled across the state looking for ideas and benchmarks for the new center but found nothing approaching the scope of their idea. In 2017, they met with Golisano, who did not hesitate to offer $2.5 million toward the center. The Golisano Foundation trustees gave an additional $500,000.

Before long, Boatfield, Milko and O’Connor were collaborating with the team behind the newly announced University of Rochester Medicine’s Golisano Pediatric Behavioral Health & Wellness, which had received $5 million in funding from Golisano. It was decided the two centers would share the Science Parkway property with a connection between the two buildings. The pediatric center is under construction.

The project broke ground in March of this year.

In July, the Golisano Autism Center announced its $9 million fundraising campaign, “Putting the Pieces Together.” More than 170 donors have committed $7.6 million toward the campaign, Boatfield said.

Rochester is home to some 10,000 individuals with autism. The new center in its first week provided preschool and school-age educational services to 40 students ages 5 to 13 from 14 different school districts. Fifteen percent of students served are from the Rochester City School District, Boatfield noted.

“More than 200 speech, occupational and music therapy sessions have been provided in just one week,” she added. “The Golisano Autism Center is a one-stop autism hub with 14 providers.”

Providers include the center’s founders, as well as Arc of Monroe, Easter Seals, Happiness House, the Hochstein School, School of the Holy Childhood and Mary Cariola Children’s Center and others.

Location was key to the success of the Golisano Autism Center; it had to be in the city of Rochester, accessible to all, on a bus line and near expressways. The number of students served daily eventually will grow to 130, Boatfield said.

“By year five we hope that we have touched every single one of those 10,000 individuals in our community with autism,” Boatfield said.

“We’re going to grow this thing. It’s going to grow in size and scope because we have more requests and more providers that were identified through our comprehensive approach,” O’Connor said.

The center offers evaluation, early intervention, childcare, after school and respite services, employment, arts and theater, a housing liaison and more.

“It is a model of collaboration, and we know collaboration is not easy,” said Golisano Foundation Director Ann Costello.

Tom Golisano and his grandson, Max Cerone, who will use some of the services offered at the new Golisano Autism Center. (Photo by Velvet Spicer)
Tom Golisano and his grandson, Max Cerone, who will use some of the services offered at the new Golisano Autism Center. (Photo by Velvet Spicer)

Golisano—whose personal philanthropy through the years totals more than $300 million—noted that he has a personal reason for underwriting projects that benefit individuals with autism and other disabilities. His stepson, Mike Cerone, his wife Carly and grandson, Max attended Thursday’s event. Max, who has been part of Autism Up since he was three, will continue to use the autism center’s services, the Cerones said.

Golisano added that his philanthropy could not have happened without the success of Paychex.

“None of this could ever happen if it wasn’t for the 15,000 employees, the 170,000 clients and thousands and thousands of shareholders,” he said. “They really are the ones that make it possible.”

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Al Sigl, WXXI partner on week of ‘Dialogue on Disability’

Al Sigl Community of Agencies will partner with WXXI Public Broadcasting System to offer a series on breaking the stereotypes of individuals with disabilities.

The weeklong broadcast, “Dialogue on Disability: The Herman & Margaret Schwartz Community Series,” will run on WXXI TV, radio and at the Little Theatre from Jan. 14 through Jan. 20 and will encourage community discussion about the perspectives and abilities of people with physical and intellectual disabilities.

WXXI and Al Sigl also will host a listening session of the award-winning podcast “Exited” on Jan. 14 at Al Sigl’s Golisano campus on Elmwood Avenue. “Exited” shares the journey of eight young people with disabilities as they transition into adulthood.

WXXI and Al Sigl also will present a free screening of “Perfectly Normal for Me” on Jan. 15 at the Little. The documentary follows four kids who strive for acceptance in a world that is indifferent to them. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with the film’s director, Catherine Tambini, via Skype.

Al Sigl and WXXI have worked together since 2003 to help break the ingrained stereotypes about individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities. The partnership is supported by the Golisano Foundation and Move to Include, a project designed to build a more inclusive community by inspiring and motivating people to embrace different abilities and include all people in every aspect of community life.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Ability Partners Foundation to honor five for civic contributions

Jack Howitt
Jack Howitt

Five individuals and organizations will be honored next week at the Ability Partners Foundation annual Evening of the Stars Gala at Locust Hill Country Club.

Jack Howitt will receive the Harold C. Augustin Founders Award. A former pediatric dentist, Howitt served as a faculty member at University of Rochester’s Eastman Dental Center. During his time as an instructor, Howitt helped design, establish and direct Eastman’s SMILEmobile program.

Howitt, who in 1972 founded Midland management and in 1977 founded Midlakes Development and Construction, is an active member of the Rochester community, serving on a number of boards. He is past chairman of Rochester Rehabilitation Center and a longtime trustee and governor of the Al Sigl Community of Agencies.

As part of his work with Al Sigl, Howitt established the Howitt House residence and rehabilitation facilities for people with multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.

Kathleen Whelehan
Kathleen Whelehan

Kathleen Whelehan will be presented with this year’s Humanitarian of the Year Award. Whelehan is president and CEO of Upstate Bank and is being recognized for her dedication and volunteer service to many nonprofit agencies in the region.

Whelehan serves on several boards including the Al Sigl Foundation, Highland Hospital and Friends of the Rochester Psychiatric Center. She has volunteered at hospices and in the state prison system and has delivered Meals on Wheels for a decade.

The Bonadio Group will be recognized with the Community Partner of the Year Award for its ongoing support to each of the Ability Partners three agencies: CP Rochester, Happiness House and Rochester Rehabilitation. Bonadio has supported the organizations through sponsorships, grants and in-kind donations.

The Volunteer of the Year Award will be presented to Kids Miracle Making Club. Under the direction of Steve Pellow, the organization has volunteered in Ability Partners’ classrooms, donated toys and other supplies and has been a strong supporter of CP Rochester for years.

Club members enhance the lives of children with disabilities by helping them develop their natural talents and skills through hands-on projects, workshops and volunteer opportunities, officials said.

Richard Hawks
Richard Hawks

Richard Hawks Jr. will be honored with the Outstanding Board Member of the Year Award. Hawks serves as vice chairman of Ability Partners Foundation, is chairman of the development committee and is a founding member of the Happiness House Foundation.

He is involved in a number of agencies that include the Greater Canandaigua Chamber of Commerce and the Canandaigua Rotary Club, West Ontario United Way and the Naples School Board.

“Their impact on the communities in which they live and work is remarkable and as a result, we all benefit,” said Mary Walsh Boatfield, president and CEO of Ability Partners Foundation. “We are making a difference together.”

The Sept. 28 event is sponsored by the Lilliputian Foundation, with Bonadio as the platinum sponsor. Joe Lomonaca, co-host of the 5 O’clock News Hour on News Radio WHAM 1180, will serve as auctioneer at the event, while Patrice Walsh will serve as mistress of ceremonies. The evening will feature a silent auction, cash appeal and a wine cork pull.

Kids Miracle Making Club
Kids Miracle Making Club

The gala also will feature keynote speakers Joshua Jordan and the Jencik Family, who will share a tribute.

“Many thanks to our presenting sponsor, the Lilliputian Foundation, and our platinum sponsor, the Bonadio Group, for their continued support of CP Rochester, Happiness House and Rochester Rehabilitation, as well as to our volunteers, families, donors, businesses and staff who also contribute to the success of this event,” Walsh Boatfield said.

Ability Partners Foundation is a not-for-profit organization established to raise and generate funds that promote, support and augment the continuation of long-term services for people with disabilities offered through CP Rochester, Happiness House and Rochester Rehabilitation. The foundation supports individuals with physical, intellectual and

The Bonadio Group CEO Gerald Archibald
The Bonadio Group CEO Gerald Archibald

developmental disabilities and their families.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer