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Maximum Potential

Sunshine Village Provides Opportunities for Clients, Solutions for Employers

Gina Golash Kos

Gina Golash Kos says Sunshine Village has made a significant difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities.

Gina Golash Kos says Sunshine Village gives people with disabilities the opportunity to fulfill their potential, become independent, and learn valuable work skills.

“People’s lives are better today because of a dream conceived by a small group of parents in 1967 who wanted to create a warm, welcoming organization to help their children and other people with disabilities,” said Kos, the agency’s executive director. “That dream was and is Sunshine Village, and today the organization helps people find employment, make friends, and do things they never thought they could.”

The agency serves 400 adults age 22 and older, and has formed close ties with many local businesses that augment their employee base with trained workers who are available on a temporary, seasonal, or permanent basis.

“It’s a win-win situation because people with disabilities get the opportunity to work and businesses get great employees who show up on time and do the job correctly,” Kos told BusinessWest.

She added that using Sunshine Village as a subcontractor is cost-effective because it pays for traditional employee-related benefits and its employees are prescreened, trained, and overseen by a supervisor who accompanies them to the worksite each day.

“We typically meet with the employer, tour their operation, talk to them about the work they need done, and help them determine how we can help them save time and money through group or individual placements, before we assign people to a job,” Kos said.

Last November, Callaway Golf Balls Operations Inc. in Chicopee hired a six-person team from Sunshine Village to help fulfill a number of orders. “We put them on the assembly line and also had them label and unpack golf balls,” said Georgia London, Callaway’s maintenance, repair, and operating buyer and parts-crib supervisor. “They were here for six months, and we grew to love them. They showed up every day smiling, ready for the next challenge, and their smiles never diminished, no matter what we asked them to do. I was impressed and amazed by how conscientious they were and by their focus on quality. It was an excellent situation, and as soon as business picks up, we will hire them again.”

Kos said people who work for Sunshine Village are happy to be given the opportunity to earn a paycheck. Although some might not be able to meet the demands of a workplace on their own, the supervision they receive allows them to be successful.

“The workers we place are proud to do jobs that others might find repetitive or boring,” Kos said. “So many people with disabilities want to work and have the chance to prove themselves, and with our support, they are able to meet employers’ expectations and often exceed them.”

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Sunshine Village and its strong track record of providing opportunities for its clients and solutions for area employers.

Work in Progress

The village became a reality 47 years ago, thanks to the efforts of a group of parents whose children had disabilities. Under the direction of P. Joseph Casey of Chicopee, they procured 13 acres of donated land and built their program.

“They started with a nursery school and playground,” Kos said, adding that Sunshine Village soon grew to include three large buildings and a ballfield. “Over time, it went from a grassroots organization led by parents to a well-respected, sophisticated organization led by a board of directors.”

Sunshine employees

Sunshine employees (from left) Colleen Brosnan, Jonathan Gelula, and Richard Klisiewicz say their training center prepares people to work in industrial and commercial settings.

The agency employs more than 200 staff members, and its annual operating budget exceeds $10 million, which comes from federal and state money, boosted by private funding and proceeds from an annual fund-raising golf tournament.

Services provided by clients range from packaging to document preparation, catalog assembly, custom display assembly, box folding, labeling, collating, shrink-wrapping, clamshell and blister packaging, liquid pouring, and more.

Many begin their careers by working in the Employment Services Division’s integrated training center on the Chicopee campus, which prepares individuals to work in industrial and commercial settings.

“It’s a hub where we help people find jobs,” Kos said, adding that individuals with and without disabilities are trained alongside each other and fulfill orders that companies outsource to the facility.

The jobs can range from redoing work that was done incorrectly, such as removing inappropriate stickers and replacing them with the right ones, or removing products from boxes that were packed incorrectly, then repacking them. “We support a lot of manufacturers,” she added.

Sunshine Village also has a federal contract, and its employees maintain and clean all of the buildings and hangars at Westover Air Reserve Base. In addition, some perform other janitorial work, such as dusting, vacuuming, and emptying wastebaskets at local companies.

In addition, Sunshine Village opened a Community Based Day Service last month to allow individuals to find their own jobs while enhancing their professional skills through internships and volunteer opportunities, while enjoying an array of social and recreational activities.

Kos says the unpaid internships give people the opportunity to experience different types of jobs and work environments. “It’s important because some individuals are not sure what they would like to do,” she explained. “They may enjoy sitting and working quietly or prefer a fast-paced environment with a lot of other people around them.”

The volunteer work is also helpful. “Our clients have helped local churches with cleaning and spent time in local food pantries, at the Chicopee Public Library, and in the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center,” Kos said. “Volunteering is a great way for people to get ready for their first job and give back to the community.” She added that groups planning nonprofit events are invited to call Sunshine Village if they need volunteers.

Expanded Horizons

In addition to its Employment Services Division, Sunshine Village offers a Day Habilitation Services Program, which runs year-round and helps people acquire the skills they need to become productive members of their communities. It is a medically based model with offerings tailored to meet each individual’s strengths and needs.

“Physical, speech, and occupational therapies are incorporated into music, culinary, art, and sport therapy programs,” Kos said. “People might work on gross motor skills in music therapy or fine motor skills in art therapy. Music therapy helps them communicate and express themselves while they have fun and socialize with others. They also learn to prepare food in our culinary program and participate in yoga and tae kwon do classes in our sports program. We focus on developing functional life skills, improving coping strategies, and increasing independence.” Adaptive devices and equipment are also used to maximize each person’s potential.

Jonathan Scytkowksi and Samuel Whittle fill out job applications with help from Miguel Colon.

Jonathan Scytkowksi and Samuel Whittle fill out job applications with help from Miguel Colon.

These programs are conducted at a variety of locations. In addition to providing services at Sunshine Village’s main campus on Litwin Lane in Chicopee, the agency also operates community-based sites in Three Rivers, Westfield, Springfield, and Chicopee Falls, said Kos, adding that the organization receives a great deal of support from the community.

The golf tournament, for example, allows the agency to pay for improvements to its buildings, new technology, and holiday parties, as well as adaptive equipment and extra supplies, she noted.

Meanwhile, the Chicopee Elder Council 69 of the Knights of Columbus and Fairview Council #4044 have made generous donations to the agency, and many businesses provide ongoing support. “We are very fortunate to have so many people helping us,” Kos said.

As a result, Sunshine Village’s programs continue to grow. “We’re developing a day program specifically designed to meet the needs of people with autism-spectrum disorders,” she noted. “We want to help them live independent lives by promoting social and daily living skills and improving communication.”

The program is still in the planning stages, but the demand for it is clear. “Autism is a growing problem, and during the last year we have talked with our funding sources, local sources, and parents to determine the types of services that are needed,” Kos said.

People employed by Sunshine Village are proud that, since 1968, all of the organization’s programs have received the highest level of accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. “And the most recent accreditation, which was highly complimentary, was completed in April,” Kos told BusinessWest.

Bright Prospects

Sunshine Village has made a significant difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities.

“Everything we do, which includes the people participating in services, our experienced and caring employees, our innovative programs, and our effective outcomes, is a realization of our founders’ dream,” Kos said.

“We serve so many people who are truly happy, and we are proud of our history and what we achieve day by day,” she went on. “Our partnerships are growing and will continue to expand, which allows us to help people find jobs while providing employers with good employees. So we are confident about the future of our organization, because our success is sustained by compassion and enthusiasm and realized through strategic planning and effective leadership.”

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