Q & A with Karen Zandi

President and CEO of Mary Cariola Center in Rochester discusses mission of the nonprofit — provide services for individuals with disabilities — and says workforce is currently the biggest challenge the center faces

By Steve Yablonski

Q: How long has the center been in operation?

A: We are coming up on our 75th year, 1949 — rocking and rolling!

Q: What are your qualifications — what did you do before you were CEO?

A: I have a master’s in social work. For 25 years I worked for a similar agency [the Hillside Children’s Center].

Q: What’s the meaning of the center’s name?

A: A woman named Mary, Mary Cariola, actually started the organization. She had a nephew with multiple disabilities. No school would take him, so she started the agency — one room, eight students and a teacher, for students who would not be served in a public district.  It was located in downtown Rochester [on East Avenue].

Q: Please summarize what your agency does.

A: Mary Cariola Center is a private, nonprofit agency and is regarded as a leader in providing education, residential programs and other services for individuals with disabilities, including autism, that have significant educational challenges.

We serve children between the ages of 3 and 21. We also have six group homes, residences that take care of young people with developmental disabilities 24/7. We also have a health home program that does case management. And, there are a few other services that are specific to addressing the children with other behavior challenges.

Q: What are the main challenges you encounter

A: Not unlike other organizations, Mary Cariola is not exempt to the staffing issues. We have challenges with getting enough qualified and skilled people to attend to our fragile children. We have some significant recruiting initiatives and retention ongoing in the development of our staff. I would say workforce is one of our biggest challenges. Another area is there are gaps in services for the people that we serve. The population that we serve is pretty exceptional, and takes a lot of training as well as patience to attend to their needs. So we invest a lot into training and services to close those gaps.

And frankly some of the buildings need modification.       

Q: How much is your budget?

A: Our current budget is approximately $41 million.

Q: Where does the funding come from? Do you fundraise?

A: Public [school] districts that cannot educate these children in district, pay a tuition to us. It’s as if you were sending your children to private school — but it is free to parents, there’s no expense to families. That’s that largest part of our budget. The other component is Medicaid and Social Security funds for the individuals who reside with us and have services delivered. Fundraising is roughly 5%. We have to fundraise for things that the state will not reimburse. We also fundraise if there are capital needs.

Q: How many employees do you have; what kind of employees?

A: 636 total. 510 full time, 126 part time — makes Cariola the 46th largest employer in Rochester. We support our staff to become credentialed; we really invest in our staff.

We have what you’d expect at any school — principal, vice principals, certified teachers — certified special ed teachers. We also have teacher aides and certified teaching assistants. We have an array of clinicians and given the medical complexity of the kids that we have here, we have a significant number of nurses. And every family gets a social worker.

There a lot of supports needed for our kids. Sort of parallel in our group homes. Each house has a manager and they’re staffed along with that.

Q: You serve students and residents from 52 school districts and 13 counties … how do you keep it all together?

A: (laughs) Commitment and people who are really good at their jobs. Strong teams, strong community, communication, passionate people and great support from our board and donors and broad community commitment. And frankly — the parents of those we serve. The parents of our students are very invested in their child’s success. They are partners in everything that we do. All counties are in NYS, surrounding Monroe County. School districts are within those counties.

Q: How many hours do you put in?

A: (laughs again) I would say most of our staff in our school works a ‘school cycle.’ The administrators? We are a 24/7 agency — so whatever needs doing, we do it. I can’t count the hours that I work. Because, honestly, it doesn’t matter. I have a passion for this organization. It doesn’t matter. Our administrators say the same. We don’t count our hours. We focus on what the priorities are. What work needs to be done — that’s what we do.

Q: How does someone become a part of the program?

A: The students are referred by their home districts.For our houses, they are referred by the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.

Q: How long can an individual stay in the program?

A: State education requires students to finish by age 21. You can’t stay in school. We work very hard to get our individuals into day service, whatever that looks like. In our houses, individuals can live beyond 21, stay with us beyond that age. Even though we are focused on being a children’s provider, there are individuals who stay with us beyond 21.

More information on Mary Cariola Center visit www.marycariola.org or call 585-271-0761. The center’s administrative office is located at 1000 Elmwood Ave., suite 100