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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 

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

Golisano Autism Center establishes board of directors

In preparation for its groundbreaking this spring, Golisano Autism Center has incorporated and established a board of directors.

Mary Walsh Boatfield
Mary Walsh Boatfield

The $5 million Golisano Autism Center Inc. will be overseen by board chairman Mary Walsh Boatfield, who serves as president and CEO of CP Rochester, Happiness House and Rochester Rehabilitation Inc. Thomas O’Connor, president of Al Sigl Community of Agencies, will serve as vice chairman, while AutismUp’s executive director Sarah Milko will serve as secretary and treasurer.

Board members include Jeffrey Baker, Scott Burdett and Thomas Wilmot Jr.

The Golisano Autism Center will expand and enhance autism services to serve the more than 10,000 people diagnosed with autism in the Greater Rochester area. The center was named for philanthropist and Paychex Inc. and Golisano Foundation Chairman Thomas Golisano, who is making a matching challenge grant of $2.5 million to help build the center.

Sarah Milko
Sarah Milko

The first major gift toward the anticipated two-year challenge came from the Golisano Foundation in the amount of $500,000.

Taking the lead on the new Golisano Autism Center are CP Rochester, Al Sigl and AutismUp, although a number of other agencies will be involved in the project and will provide services at the facility. The comprehensive, innovative model emphasizes collaboration among complementary autism-specific programs in the community.

The Golisano Autism Center will be located on the Al Sigl Schwartz Family Campus on South Avenue near Science

Tom O'Connor
Tom O’Connor

Parkway. The center will feature shared program spaces, a sensory gym, classrooms, therapy rooms and more.

The project is slated to open in early summer 2019.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021

Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer