Spirit Newsletter

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Our staff members give so much of themselves, emotionally and physically, so we recently asked them about the things that help the most with their wellbeing. The top thing? Most feel energized by spending time with their families.

Our agency started 35 years ago because of the love of family, and we know that our future success will rely on family, too – the kind you are born into and the kind you choose for yourself. That’s one of the many reasons we continue so many of our family-focused traditions. For decades we’ve offered Dollars for A’s to staff and their children, a special family night during our reunion weeks and an annual pizza and skating party, which just celebrated its 25th year in Rochester. Then, of course, we have our Family Dinner in Buffalo and our Annual Dinner in Rochester.

As many of you know, we lost a family member this past November when one of our founders Bob Otto passed away on Thanksgiving, which was so very appropriate for a man who lived with great gratitude. He will be remembered for his commitment to his family and to our agency’s mission. You can see a glimpse of that in a video where he talks about what it was like as a parent when the first home opened in Webster nearly 35 years ago.

Family and friends strengthened us during that time of loss and they make it easier to recharge and serve with compassion. We’ll draw on that strength again and again in our next 35 years. Thank you for being there for the people we serve and the people we employ. Together, we will live out our mission well into the future.


Marisa Geitner, President & C.E.O.

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When Janet Van Staalduinen talks about Heritage Christian, she uses words like dream and family – and she talks about how hard the founders and all those who came after them worked to make the agency a success.

“They needed help with their children,” said Van Staalduinen, who celebrates 31 years with the agency just two months before HCS celebrates its 35th anniversary. “They worked hard and tough and long for this and it just bloomed, it blossomed. And that’s what we are about. We take a dream. We work toward the end goal.”

Many dreams were realized in the first 35 years, she said, including purchasing a fully accessible retreat center in Inlet, where Van Staalduinen serves as caretaker of the property. The agency grew from one home to offering a host of programs and services that touch the lives of more than 23,000 people in the Rochester and Buffalo areas and even the lives of people in Guatemala.

And, thanks to its strong business foundation, it’s growing in other ways, too – especially as it continues to focus in on what matters most to the people who use its services.

The agency recently renovated two homes so that almost every person within the certified residential program has a private bedroom. In addition to its commitment to opening three new certified homes, the agency will be offering more non-certified homes for people who would like to choose the number of roommates they have and decide what staffing works best for them. One of those homes will serve people with complex medical needs, which is a step toward making this kind of housing accessible for all.

HCS launched the Supported Decision Making New York Pilot, which recognizes that everyone has a right to make his or her own decisions and helps people develop a formal agreement about their preferences as decision makers. The agency already supports more than 300 people with selfdirected plans – one of the fastest growing services offered at HCS – and that means more people are mapping out the supports and services that are most important to them. It’s also serving more than 100 people with self-directing home care services throughout Monroe, Livingston and Genesee counties and will soon expand into Erie County. The program, called Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Program, allows people with or without disabilities in that county to hire and train personal care aides to provide care.

Watch Janet’s video, here.

“In these past 35 years our biggest accomplishment is growth. We’ve come from doing something so small to something so big. And the growth we see is within the individuals. Something small to you might be big to them and it’s nice just to see the agency adapt to all of the changes within the individuals, within the OPWDD system, and just allow for more person-senteredness. That’s where we have grown as an agency.”

–Tiffany Tolbert, manager at the home on Buffalo Road

Watch Tiffany’s video, here.


“I think as long as Heritage keeps doing what they’re doing – with that standard of quality that they produce – that they are going to end up being the number one possibly in the country.”

-Fran Schifferle, educational assistant at Challenger day program

Watch Fran’s video, here.


In addition, HCS is reaching out to the larger community in new ways by:

  • working with close to 200 employers to match them with talented employees who have disabilities;
  • partnering with Jewish Senior Life to start Project Search, which is a new internship opportunity for young adults with disabilities;
  • providing behavioral supports to individuals age 8 and up who live with their families;
  • welcoming people and businesses to rent space at Balcony Point at Springdale Farm;
  • beginning work on its fourth Expressive Beginnings Child Care; and by
  • redirecting the money would have spent on holiday cards to build a home for a family in Guatemala.

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C.O.O. at Bryant & Stratton College and a member of New York State Society of CPAs. He is a founding board member of Camp Puzzle Peace and the Family Autism Center and a former board member for Junior Achievement. He lives in Webster.



Vice president of information development at Wegmans Food Markets and a member of the Project Management Institute and of the International Institute of Business Analysis. He is a former member of the board and a cofounder of mpXML. He lives in Webster.



Luxury travel consultant with Skalny Travel Group and Van Zile Travel. He is a trustee for the Landmark Society of Western NY and his family’s charitable foundations have supported cultural, educational, medical and youth organizations. He lives in Brighton.



Director of finance at Willow Domestic Violence Shelter and is an active member of the Boots and Barrels and HCS Foundation’s Budget and Finance committees. She is a Certified Public Accountant and lives in Canandaigua.



President and Owner of Best Times Financial Planning. He is on the Board of Directors for The SouthEast YMCA, the Estate Planning Council of Rochester and The Resource Group. He lives in Pittsford.



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Most of us know that things change as we age. The print may seem a bit smaller. The lawn may seem a bit larger.

For David Sayre, it was the tired feeling in his feet — and then in his hands – from working at a job where he stands for hours packaging soap that is sent to Naval ships. And after 31 years at the company, he needed to cut back his hours. He needed to ease into retirement and try some new things.

Now, every Monday and Friday a community habilitation staff member picks him up at his home that he shares with others and they meet friends for coffee at Wegmans. They know the chef and the baker and at least half a dozen other people who are regulars.

Sometimes they meet up with people while bowling or walking along the lake or volunteering at the Jewish Home. He’s scheduling a time for friends to come over for a dinner that’s cooked in his new kitchen, and he’s planning which movies he’ll see next.

“We go all over the place,” said David, “and my life is better now. I meet more people.” He didn’t settle for staying the same, and Heritage Christian doesn’t either. That’s why the agency was prepared with a program and was fortunate to find the right staff member who could help him have more personalized options for his retirement.

And that has made all the difference.


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The Amy Marie Tessoni Award winner was NICOLE BRUNSON, who is beyond dedicated in her role as a direct support professional at Rodwell Lodge.




CHARMAINE PEMBERTON was awarded the Eunice Hanson Excellence in Nursing Award for the way she shows compassion and dedication on a daily basis.




The Paul Hanson Excellence Award winner was NIKISHA RIDGEWAY, director of community initiatives. She was recognized for how she has served as a pioneer to help us open our doors to new populations and new services.




MARC O’MARA, a residential direct support professional at the apartments at Claire Court, received the ANCOR 2019 New York Direct Support Professional Recognition of the Year Award. Marc was selected for recognition from hundreds of nominations, and this award serves as a testament both to Marc’s work to support individuals in the community and to his leadership at Heritage Christian Services.



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Donor Spotlight

As Heritage Christian celebrates 35 years of service, it’s only right to shine the light on a family who was there from the very beginning.

BOB AND SUE DESARRA were in their 20s when their daughter Kimberly was born and they knew they would need support in the future. They met Bob and Marie Pieters, one of the founding families, and assisted in the start of HCS. Christian values, selfless dedication, and something more than just a job was what they wanted for their daughter and the people that served her.

The DeSarras hope that their contributions “enable HCS to maintain the highest quality of care, along with offering new services and opportunities to people. We have confidence in the leadership and we believe in the quality services.”

Bob and Sue believe that no financial gift is too small to create a better world. But besides giving financially, they volunteer and share with others about the mission of HCS. They are proud of their legacy and happy that even after the passing of their daughter, their son Paul and his family have continued their support of the agency. Paul serves as  a board member and on committees. “We got through all of it because of support, and we want to make sure that it will still be there for others in the future.”

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Volunteer Spotlight

PETER ALOI has many talents. The past four years he has been volunteering at A Second Thought Resale Shop. Along with the traditional volunteer needs of the store, Peter will help pick up donations from people’s homes and deliver them to the shop. Any donated furniture items that are in need of repair before they can be sold are seen by Peter. He uses his carpentry skills to fix and sometimes transform them.

He also helped with the renovations of the store, including making sliding barn doors. He is always willing to lend a hand and we are thankful he has chosen to volunteer at A Second Thought Resale Shop.

Thank you, Peter!


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Heritage Christian Services welcomed TARA DEFENDORF-KUBA, the new director of Heritage Christian Stables, in late January. Defendorf-Kuba is a lifelong equestrian with a degree in animal science from Cornell University and experience with a variety of riding and driving programs.

“I love the fact that therapeutic riding and horsemanship programs can bring horses and positive horse experiences to everyone in our communities.” said Defendorf-Kuba.

In addition to their hallmark therapeutic riding program, the stables now offers beginners lessons for children. “I would encourage someone considering lessons to call the stables and set up a time for a visit. Often just meeting one of our horses can ease any nerves that one may have. Our instructors are friendly, knowledgeable, certified and always willing to help. I look forward to increased opportunities for everyone at the stables.”


A 119,631 mile journey can really bring people together and that’s just what the Virgin Pulse Global Challenge did for many at Heritage Christian. Over the course of 100 days, teams throughout the agency collectively took 300,823,194 steps toward increased physical and mental wellbeing.

Emma Lange, assistant manager at the home on Clover Street enjoyed being able to recognize her teammates and found motivation through their successes. “I LOVED this opportunity. I think it’s things like this that help teams at residential or day hab sites to connect with each other, and really help with retention.”

Andrew Little, director of the Pieters Family Life Center and Global Challenge ambassador explained, “As an agency we understand that giving people the opportunity to focus on their wellbeing results in positive effects during their work day. We want to support people in meeting their goals, both the people who choose our services and our dedicated staff and hope that support will result in staff who choose to stay with HCS.”



It’s been five months since the first tenants settled into Heritage Gardens, an 83-unit apartment complex for income eligible community members. Laura Hoh moved in the day Heritage Gardens opened its doors. She said, “I like everything really. I like the community room and my apartment. You get to socialize like going to Bingo and coffee hours on Mondays. I get more independence than when I used to live with my parents.”

Home Leasing is the owner and operator. All 83 units are occupied and serving 100 people — including the 17 spaces reserved for people served by NYS OPWDD. The spots filled quickly and there is a waiting list.


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More than 500 donors contributed $342, 021 to our fall appeal last year. $163,025 came from 33 donors who had their gifts doubled thanks to a matching challenge grant from the Pulver family.





More than $2,300 was raised at the second annual Heritage Christian Basketball Classic to benefit the Employment Alliance, a program of Heritage Christian Services. The doubleheader, on Feb. 9, featured varsity men’s and women’s teams from Nazareth College and Utica College at the Shults Center at Nazareth College. Special thanks to presenting sponsor Tompkins Bank of Castile; as well as the generous support from event committee members: Tony Wells, event director; Lisa Formicola, Pittsford branch manager, Tompkins Bank of Castile; Pete Bothner, Nazareth athletic director; and Joe Seil, Nazareth sports information director.

Finger Lakes Extravaganza

Guests celebrated all things Finger Lakes at the third annual Finger Lakes Extravaganza Dine & Dance while taking in the amazing vistas of Rochester and the surrounding foothills from the Strathallan’s City View Ballroom. Earlier in the day, others attended the all new Taste! A Finger Lakes Experience, which offered cooking demonstrations, wine and beer tastings and a signature cocktail competition. Special thanks to: The Joseph and Irene Skalny Charitable Trust and event co-chairs Tom Wahl Jr. and Glen Skalny.


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Support from the following organizations will allow Heritage Christian to provide scholarships for therapeutic horseback riding at Heritage Christian Stables: Maibaum  Foundation, JM McDonald Foundation, The Jordan Fund, Tompkins Charitable Gift Fund, and Polisseni Foundation.

Through the generosity of the following funders, the Employment Alliance will be able to match employers with talented people who are seeking work: Daisy Marquis Jones Foundation, Gannett Foundation and Marie C. and Joseph C. Wilson Foundation.

HCS is thankful for the support of the Gonsenhauser Family Fund, M&T Charitable Foundation and Rochester Press Radio Club to allow children from across Rochester to attend field trips and respite camps at Springdale Farm.

Support from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield will purchase adaptive bikes so people served at HCS can exercise and enjoy the outdoors.

An award from the Glen Miller Grants for Health Care provided an emergency dental procedure that a person supported by HCS needed.

Support from the following Foundations will allow staff members to attend Dale Carnegie leadership training and gain the skills they need to grow with our organization: Paychex Charitable Foundation, Hoselton Foundation.

Club Adventure respite program will add staff hours thanks to a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The pool at our site on Keller Road will be made accessible thanks in-part to support from the Maria M. Love Convalescent Fund and the Anne Wolf Fund.

Thanks to the Rochester Area Community Foundation for their generous support of our Respite Friends program, Sign Language Meet-Up group, and Heritage Christian Stables.

A Regional Economic Development Council grant from the New York State Department of Labor will give the workforce at Heritage Christian a chance to learn about safety science theory.

Through the generosity of the Morgan Coe Fund, a gentleman was able to fulfill a lifelong dream of taking atrip to Walt Disney World.


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Marvin Barksdale passed away in October. He was 46 and he kept the joy of Christmas in his heart all year long. His favorite Christmas song was “Jingle Bells,” and he sang it all the time.



Kathy Campanella – an actress who shared joy and laughter with everyone she met – passed away on Christmas day. She was 57. She had a sense of humor that brightened hearts and a love of adventure that pushed her to travel.



Holly Gloede passed away in November. She was 29. She adored her niece and nephew and loved spending time with her boyfriend.



Bob Otto, one of the founders of Heritage Christian Services, also passed away in November. He will be remembered for his commitment to his family and to our agency’s mission.



Darren Hill, a man who loved music, sports and winning board games, passed away in February. He was 53.




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