We are proud to inform the AHRC New York City community that eight recipients have been selected by a committee of AHRC New York City leaders to be the recipients of the inaugural Pomegranate Fund Award, in the amount of $2,000.00 each. The Fund was recently established as a tribute to the life’s work of Aikaterini (Katerina) Chatzistyli, Director of Day Services. As you know, her untimely death from coronavirus left a huge void in our leadership team.  The award recipients selected are valued and exceptional staff members who have demonstrated the core attributes that Katerina so fervently espoused, and will continue to promote her groundbreaking work in the months and years to come.

Aikaterini Chatzistyli

Aikaterini Chatzistyli

Katerina’s outstanding commitment to person-centered practices was a beacon for AHRC NYC for more than 25 years.  The award’s name comes from the Greek myth in which Persephone, goddess of vegetation, expels six pomegranate seeds onto the earth to bloom and signal the return of Spring each year. During her time at AHRC NYC, Katerina founded and led a community of practice, called The Pomegranates, which provided rising leaders the opportunity to develop innovative approaches to person-centered thinking, practice, and advocacy. Like the seeds cast from Persephone, the group members provided a source of continual renewal for the organization and many have become talented leaders at AHRC NYC.

The Pomegranate Fund Award is given to staff members who embody the principles of The Pomegranates and whose work and philosophical orientation celebrate and uphold Katerina’s legacy.

The eight recipients have been selected to receive this award because of their demonstrated ability to support and follow the unique path and continued growth of each person with whom they work; to develop community, professional and personal relationships; to support valued social roles and belonging; to advocate for people to discover their voice, rights, and choices; to innovate; to eagerly learn; and most importantly, for their continued growth and contribution to the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The Pomegranate Fund Award began with a generous gift to the AHRC New York City Foundation of seed money from an anonymous donor who wanted to recognize and reward fellow staff members who had stepped forward as AHRC NYC front line heroes during the COVID crisis. The Fund has since received additional generous donations from numerous AHRC NYC staff and Board members, all of whom knew and respected Katerina’s extraordinary vision and efforts to give people with I/DD the life they deserve.

With great admiration here are the June 2020 recipients are:

Direct Support Professional Dominika McClees-Browne has been working at Malozemoff IRA for two years, and joined us as a permanent staff member seven months ago. Dominika has shown great development in how she relates to and works with the people supported at Malozemoff.  During the COVID-19 crisis, she has shown a level of commitment and dedication to the people supported that is exceptional and should be emulated.  When we were faced with a significant staffing shortage due to illness, Dominika responded immediately.  She not only elevated her attention and focus to the people supported, checking in with everyone and asking what they wanted to do to ensure everyone was engaged and happy, she tried to ensure that her coworkers’ absences did not have a negative impact in their home. While Dominika did not typically volunteer for overtime or additional shifts prior to the pandemic, when the people she supported needed her, she was there. Anytime we have asked for her assistance, her response has been “wherever/whenever you need me, just let me know.”

During these difficult times, Direct Support Professional Malcolm Coleman has brought a focus and hardworking attitude to Rubin IRA. On Tuesdays, Malcolm has been instrumental in working with the online music teacher, Cecilia, making sure the men and women supported enjoy the virtual music class. They love this activity, and Malcolm’s enthusiasm has been contagious as the online class has become a part of the house’s new routine.  While some will voice their pick of a song, for those who cannot Malcolm knows who likes a particular artist or song selection. He is there to assist and helps everyone participate and have a great time despite the impact COVID-19 has had on staff and the people living at Rubin. He keeps everyone upbeat, moving and grooving with music, and encouraging exercise with singing and dancing.

When COVID-19 first struck at Rubin, Malcolm volunteered to work additional shifts, ensuring coverage even if it meant working a double or even a triple shift. That commitment was tremendous for the men and women supported. His reliability and stability have been a driving force for maintaining a little normalcy. This has been a difficult time for Rubin IRA, as staff fell ill, which created a staff shortage, suffering the loss of a person supported, another hospitalized and one other member of the Rubin family had already been ill in the house, and yet through it all, Malcom is a constant.

Direct Support Professional Ayesha Cochran has always enjoyed working with the men and women at Jacobs IRA, scheduling outings and recreation and working as a part of the team.  Since the pandemic, Ayesha stopped taking the MTA and now walks to work every day for her health and for the safety of those she works with. As much as she enjoys going out, since COVID-19 Ayesha has started a cooking and baking class for the people living at Jacobs, which everyone looks forward to. For game nights, she brought in games from her home, to add some variety to what was going on.  The residence now have Friday night bingo which everyone enjoys and Ayesha even arranges to bring in little prizes so each person can win. It’s been a hit and something everyone looks forward to. Ayesha has really gone above and beyond to ensure that the men and women at Jacobs IRA are making the best of this situation and we all appreciate her efforts!

Joyce Minault is a Community Support Supervisor in Day Services at Brooklyn Day Habilitation who has been with AHRC NYC since 2010. Over the last several years, Joyce has played a leading role in B’lynx, a change team comprised of AHRC staff and people supported who live in Crown Heights. In her time with B’lynx, Joyce has helped develop new relationships and community engagement projects for the people she supports.

During the pandemic, Joyce has continued to demonstrate her unwavering commitment to person-centered values and a desire to discover new ways of doing things differently. In the early days of the crisis, Joyce was in constant contact with people she supports and their families – making sure people were ok, seeing who needed help, and providing reassurances all around. When she realized that many people she supported had no way of accessing the internet, she took it on herself to bring them iPads from the program so that they could participate in remote supports and see their friends. On one occasion she saw that the family had no masks at home so she gave them some of her personal masks so they could go out in their community.

In addition to providing vital supports to people in this time, Joyce is continuing to help stretch the thinking as a department and agency. She has taken on a leadership role in developing structures and strategies for remote services, with an emphasis on tailoring devices and supports to people’s needs and providing a sense of continuity. She has been sharing ideas and strategies with colleagues in other programs and has quickly become someone people are turning to for guidance and support. As one of the original Pomegranates, Joyce carries with her the importance of learning from those around us who and the commitment to passing that wisdom on.

April Fields is a Skills Instructor for Project Search in Employment and Business Services. The pandemic crisis has drastically changed the world we knew and how we provide services for individuals with I/DD.  Staff has had to quickly change service delivery and it is not a surprise that April Fields proved once again her dedication, compassion, flexibility, and dependability for the people supported.  April has been an AHRC NYC EBS employee for over 13 years and was promoted twice.  She currently works collaboratively with staff from the NYC Board of Education, ACCES VR, OPWDD and the host employer, Montefiore Medical Center, on a work-based learning program for students with I/DD in their last year of high school.  She is the skills instructor at the hospital supporting, 12 student-interns and 6 graduates who were hired at Montefiore Medical Center.  In addition, because of her ability to understand the individuals’ interests, strengths, learning styles, and the importance of self-advocacy skills, over 70% of her graduates obtain employment in life-changing jobs with career mobility.

Because of the pandemic, April has had to quickly change how she provides services and supports for the individuals.  When the NYC Board of Education went to remote learning, April seamlessly transitioned with the team to this new way of teaching.  She has been instrumental in developing new remote lesson plans, connecting the team with volunteers to assist with lessons and working one on one with the students to help them to feel comfortable using the new technology or with any other needs they have.  She also continues to stay in close contact with the individuals employed at Montefiore Medical Center who are considered essential workers.  Because of the pandemic, she can no longer provide on-the-job coaching, so April maintains regular contact via email or cell phone to make sure the individuals feel safe and have what they need

Sharon Pitt is a manager at Kraus Residence in Manhattan. Kraus has experienced the COVID 19 pandemic very directly, losing two residents to the virus. Throughout this time Sharon has managed to keep her team going as they continue to support the people in Kraus even as they themselves have battled illness. All those around her know of her 110% commitment to the people AHRC NYC supports and their families and loved ones.

Sharon is always looking to expand AHRC NYC’s supports and services in ways that embody the person-centered practice. She has brought cultural competency to her work with the diverse residents of Kraus, including immersing herself in the mixing pot of the lower east side, where Kraus is located. She has been an enthusiastic innovator in many pilot efforts throughout residential and is frequently a champion for systemic change in residential services.

Mentoring and supervision are significant strengths of Sharon’s and she has cultivated many junior staff through her role at Kraus. Her mentees report that she provides excellent feedback and exhibits a positive strength they admire and hope to emulate. Sharon makes connections wherever she works and her commitment to deepening AHRC NYC’s understanding and deepening the human experience is exemplary.

Chantelle Grant has been a teacher at the Howard Haber Early Learning Center for five years.  During her time at Howard Haber she has shown that she goes above and beyond to make sure her students’ needs are met. She finds the positive in each one of her students and works tirelessly to ensure that her classroom is the best learning environment it could be. She is innovative and always seeks to bring new and engaging ideas into the class. Her calm nature brings out the best in the students and her students make progress. She brings out the best in her classroom staff as well.  She encourages them to develop and grow into the professionals they are. She wants their input into creating a fun and creative learning environment. She also empowers her fellow teachers by assisting them with curriculum, technology or any other support they may need. In her own unique, quiet way she is a leader. She encourages people to rise above any challenging situation by coaching them and allowing them to see their strengths.  She has remained a positive influence and her cooperative spirit and dedication help set the tone for teacher and team meetings.

Chantelle’s qualities and abilities have never been more needed than right now during this time of school closure and remote learning. All of AHRCs teachers had to create and implement an entirely new way of teaching – bringing the preschool classroom into the home, creating interactive lessons that address the children’s needs, figuring out ways to bring some routine, normalcy and emotional safety to the children during a very scary time – and doing that almost overnight. Chantelle embraced remote learning and made it work. She helped her assistants become comfortable with the remote learning platform. She walked her families through the process and developed schedules that worked for the parents – even outside of the school day. She created model lessons and activities that kept a group of preschoolers with disabilities engaged. She did that not only for the children in her classroom, but also for the children in another classroom where there was no teacher.

Lastly, Chantelle knew that many of her families would not have the resources and materials that the children would need to participate in the activities. She wanted to make sure that the students had what they needed so she put together packets of activities for each child. She then went to each one of her students’ homes and dropped off the packets at their door. She wanted to be sure that her students could continue working on the skills that were taught and have the resources to engage in the activities.

It’s clear that Chantelle is deeply committed to children with special needs. Someday she will probably be running her own program. She is a leader and example for her fellow teachers and assistant teachers. You see this demonstrated in her class every day.

The role of a Field Supervisor is not an easy one. There is a constant balancing of the needs of the agency, with the needs of the family, and of the person supported.  However, Darya Gomerova has managed to find this balance, while never diminishing the needs of the people, and the families she supports. She is genuine in her actions, grounded in her response, and often provides a much-needed perspective when problem-solving. When around Darya, you immediately become aware that she wants the best for those around her and acknowledges that this comes with time and investment. Darya does not place anyone into a category, nor does she hold anyone to their mistakes, but rather she strives to learn from them, and brings everyone along for the journey.

Darya has been with AHRC for just under a year but her commitment to support people to become the best they can be has been long-lived. From day one Darya has demonstrated a desire to help, teach and grow. She has worked with Russian speaking families to ensure they understand how to access services and has gone far above in securing needed supplies for the people on her caseload during the COVID 19 pandemic. Darya has also taken the lead in implementing virtual services with her staff and people she supports who would not or could not have services in their home. She immediately recognized the value of the service and needed little encouragement to adopt and support a new format of service delivery. Darya did all this while homeschooling her four children since schools were closed.

Darya came to AHRCNYC from the field of child protective services and very quickly embraced the person-centered practice. She demonstrated the understanding that when the person supported is involved in decision making, is encouraged to make informed decisions, and make changes when needed, a more successful outcome is achieved. Darya has often shared how many times she has attend a Life Plan meeting and has needed to create space for the person supported to be heard and participate in decision making.  When she is unsuccessful, she follows up with the person supported, so that they know she has heard them.  These small acts of person-centered practice have granted Darya access and acceptance into some very closed family systems in a very short period of time.  Darya is always on the lookout for creative way to deliver services and will often look towards the person supported for ideas and inspiration.

And while Darya is already making a daily contribution to the field of IDD though her adoption of the person-centered practice, as she completed her Master’s degree in Special Education, it is clear to all she will become and even more powerful champion for the IDD community.

CONGRATULATIONS to all 8 well-deserved recipients of the Pomegranate Fund Awards. Your work and commitment is an inspiration to everyone.