By Jill Keppeler
Sixty years ago, a newspaper article was the start of something that's made a profound difference in the lives of hundreds of Niagara County families.
Edith Hunter of North Tonawanda, the mother of a daughter with a developmental disability, happened to see an article about an organization in New York City that was providing services to those like her child, said Roxane Albond-Buchner, manager of communications at Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara.
"(She) read an article in the New York Times and called the group and said, 'How are you doing this?' " Albond-Buchner said. "And she brought the information back ... and then started calling other parents. They all started talking."
There were small groups of parents already meeting in Lockport, Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda, at locations such as church basements and schools, Albond-Buchner said. They started working together, raising money, hiring people and buying properties, then reached out to NYSARC in Albany and went through the steps to found a Niagara County chapter.
"They started taking a look at what the needs were," she said. "There have been many programs over the years."
Today, 60 years later, Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara is the largest not-for-profit organization in Niagara County. It provides services to about 600 individuals with intellectual and development disabilities, and has more than 500 employees, full- and part-time and per diem, at sites in Niagara Falls, Wheatfield and Lockport.
About half of those employees are members of the Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara Employees Union, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year, and 14 percent have been with the organization more than 20 years, Albond-Buchner said.
"It is a high turnover field. I think, in part, because it is a challenging position, direct support is," she said. "But the people who are in it, who choose to make it a career, over something they do on their way to something else, they stay with it."
Beverly Stewart-Hicks of Niagara Falls is one of those who's stuck with it. She's worked for Opportunities Unlimited for 37 years, doing "a bit of everything," she said, but currently as a habilitation specialist.
Stewart-Hicks said she enjoys the challenge of her job.
"You get so much from it," she said recently, taking a brief break from talking and interacting with the people taking part in day habilitation services at the Niagara Falls site, which can include working, volunteering, education and other activities. "You get so much satisfaction seeing how much people achieve over the years."
Stewart-Hicks said simply getting someone who rarely speaks to say "Hello," or getting someone else to smile, can make it all worthwhile.
"It's the little things to me," she said. "It's the big ones, too, sometimes. That's like ... 'Wow, I was part of that.' Those are our victories, too."
"I'm a background player. I get my joy just watching them grow," she said with a smile. "This job has been good to me. I hope I've been good to it."
Loretta Bischoff of Niagara Falls has been a habilitation specialist at OUN for 18 years as of Tuesday. She said she never wanted to be a teacher, because there are so many in her family ... but she now does a lot of teaching anyway.
"Everyone has things that hold them back. They also have talents ... if they know how to access them," she said. "I love the diversity that day hab offers. One minute we can be delivering meals, the next moment, we're coloring.
"I like being creative. I think all learning starts with creativity. We're always doing something different. You can't get bored."
OUN services include day habilitation, vocational services, supported employment, residential opportunities, recreation and other services.
Cindy Hyde, OUN special events supervisor, is also the mother of Jennifer Martin, 24, who takes part in day programs, pre-vocational and recreational programs at OUN.
"It's helped the social aspect of her life," Hyde said of her daughter. "She's made friends and she's happy. It's a meaningful place for her to be during the day."
Albond-Buchner said a third of the members of the Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara board must be the parent, guardian, family member of someone with a development disability.
"We hold those governing principles very dear," she said. "It's a way not only to involve the family members ... but show that we are holding to the philosophy of what the family members expect.
"It's really their governing philosophy of what their hopes and dreams were for the individuals."
Kellie Spychalski, executive director and CEO of Opportunities Unlimited, said the services the organization provides are integral to helping people realize their full potential.
"We help people to realize their dreams and achieve their goals," she said. "We're here to help people live, learn, work and play so ... they have the same opportunities you have and I have to enjoy life.
"Everybody should have the opportunity to live their life in a successful and meaningful way, and that's what our job is here."
The anniversary will be marked with small gatherings, as well as commemorated at the OUN talent show in November and the Heroes of Niagara awards dinner Dec. 3. For more information on Opportunities Unlimited, visit www.opportunitiesunlimited.org.