By Tina Cherenzia
When I was asked to submit some thoughts as I approach my career tenure of 40 years with the Olean Center, I was hesitant as I typically don’t enjoy being in the spotlight. However after giving this some thought I feel it is important to remember our history and how far we have come.
Before I started at Olean, I had heard of Frank Olean but had never met him. Once I did, I understood why he was revered in the state as a formidable foe for anyone who would stand in his way of trying to accomplish his life passion; providing all individuals with an intellectual, physical, and developmental disability a chance to thrive and be included in their own community, without barriers or prejudice.
When I first started at the Olean Center it coincided with the initial closing of Ladd School, the state institution where most of the individuals in my first work group had lived for many years. Fresh out of college I could not have imagined many of the stories that were to play out as I tried both successfully, and unsuccessfully at times, to acclimate these men and women to a life outside of an institutionalized setting. Those who spearheaded the closing of Ladd are to be commended for their tireless efforts in ensuring that men and women in our state were provided with the care and dignity they deserved while overcoming so many obstacles.
At the time the Olean Center was one of many sheltered workshops in the state and we were tasked with overseeing production work while also trying to afford the individuals some freedoms and liberties that were foreign to them for so many years. Many learned behaviors and coping methods were carried over to their “new lives” outside of the institution, and proved to be very challenging. The stories of accomplishments that I witnessed are many. I am proud that I played a small role in helping them achieve some of their goals while literally growing up alongside them. The lessons I learned will never be forgotten, some happy, some sad and some life-changing.
As time moved on, so did the DD community’s efforts to pursue further progress and acceptance of those we supported in all aspects of their lives; where they lived, worked, worshipped, shopped and spent their leisure time. Initially these efforts were met with resistance, but we persevered. Mr. Olean always reminded us to “just put the person first”, excellent advice that we heed to this day. Communities have come such a long way from those initial days of separation and isolation. It is illuminating for me to see how, through information sharing, education, and continued interactions, agencies can spearhead formidable change so anyone in any community can be welcomed and accepted. It is through the work of agencies such as the Olean Center, alongside community partners, that I take comfort in knowing what I witnessed so many years ago will never occur again for anyone in our state with a differing ability.
"The Olean Center has a tremendous group of dedicated and loyal staff who understand the mission of placing each individual first in order to allow them to grow, evolve and achieve their lifelong dreams, whatever they may be."
I recently ran into a father and his daughter who have been members of the Olean community for most of my tenure and he asked me how long I had been at Olean. When I responded it will be 40 years in April, he said you should be very proud of all you have accomplished, look at the difference you have made in her life and the lives of all her friends. I was very touched by that comment. In reflection I do hope in some small way I have contributed to enhancing the lives of those men and women I have had the great fortune to work with, and thank each of them for enriching my life in a way I could not have imagined 40 years ago.