By Jamie Swinnerton
A lot can happen in 50 years, just ask Challenge Workforce Solutions, the county-wide not for profit corporation that helps people with barriers to employment find the support and skills they need for meaningful work. It was half a century ago this year that the organization was formed and incorporated, opening their doors within Therm Inc. to 38 individuals in November of 1968.
When Robert “Bob” Sprole Sr. founded Challenge 50 years ago he wanted to create a place where people with disabilities and barriers could find an opportunity to grow and show off their skills, said the current executive director of the organization Joe Sammons.
“Fifty years ago, we did that by creating safe, sheltered, supportive environments,” Sammons said. “Today, we do that very differently. Ninety-two percent of the people we serve get the opportunity to grow and show their skills in the community.”
Today, Challenge serves around 1,000 individuals a year and works with hundreds of businesses and other organizations to find employment opportunities for those individuals. Around 54 percent of what Challenge does is provide some of the necessary training for employees in industries including food service and retail, offering support that an employer might not be able to give.
Part of the celebrating that the organization is doing for the anniversary is by reaching out to the community.
“All throughout the year there will be 40 different times that Challenge will be out in the community,” Sammons said. “If you name a community event, we’ll be there. IthacaFest, Women Swimmin’, I can’t even list all the events.”
All throughout the year, Sammons said, Challenge will be there with their participants, board members, and volunteers, telling the story of Challenge.
But some of the celebrating will be the same. Currently, the organization is in the thick of their annual Krispy Kreme Doughnut Fundraiser to raise money for their annual Recognition Luncheon for the staff and Challenge participants. In honor of 50 years, the organization has set a goal of selling 50,000 doughnuts. Their pre-sales last through Feb. 2 for the fundraiser.
“It’s a great way for people to kind of connect Challenge to the community in a really fun way,” Sammons said.
Challenge also holds an Annual Awards Event each year that the public is invited to buy tickets to. Last year the Annual Awards Event was moved to the Hangar Theater, a slightly less formal setting than a sit-down lunch, but was better suited to the event and its purpose.
“We brought it to the Hangar so that we can feature the stories and make them come alive in a way that you can’t really do in a sit-down dinner at Emerson Suites,” Sammons said. “We have program participants actually participating in the event. So, working with caterers. Some people are giving awards, getting awards. We have videos that we show at the annual event. People walk out of there with tears in their eyes because they realize that Challenge is not just sort of a building where people go to be safe and supported. These are human beings that are growing and showing their skills.”
In honor of the landmark anniversary, the Sprole family will be honored at this year’s luncheon. The founder’s son and grandson, Bob Sprole II and Bob Sprole III, will be in attendance to accept the thanks of the organization.
In October, National Disability Awareness Month, Sammons said the organization will be trying to bring that history to the present.
“By talking about the history of disability programs and services in our community, and about the founding of Challenge 50 years ago,” Sammons said. “But we’re also going to be talking about what is happening today.”
Part of the message will be that Challenge knows that people with disabilities don’t need to be sheltered anymore, they need the opportunity to be out in the community to survive and thrive out in the community. To achieve this, Challenge helps their participants by giving them the support and training to do the jobs they want to do, out in the community. But this mission isn’t always easy when the funding environment “is what it is.”
“We actually have an increasing culture of a lack of sensitivity to people who have disabilities,” Sammons said.
Looking to the future, Sammons said the organization has several items they want to work on: transportation for their individuals throughout the rural county, rebuilding the organization’s financial health after closing the Groton Foodhub, and creating training programs that fully support the people they work with. Funding, as usual, is also a concern, and changes to state funding requirements haven’t made things easier. Funding for services for people with severe disabilities will be drastically cut.
“It’s going to be a major challenge of ours to figure out how to fund that,” Sammons said of the highly supported work program that the organization runs out of its building. “It’s close to half a million dollars in funding that we’re going to lose next year that goes to support this population that, in some cases, are individuals who have been with Challenge for 40 years.”
Internally, the organization has created a new strategic plan to make sure the organization is working well for both the individuals they serve and their employees. The first goal is to keep the organization’s commitment while evolving the mission.
“We don’t want to leave anybody behind and that’s our first goal,” Sammons said.
The organization already has several of their own social enterprises that employ Challenge individuals, but Sammons said the second goal of the plan is to focus on community-based and employment-focused enterprises to help the organization grow. Third, to build a healthy organization by focusing on the staff, with staff development and strong leadership. Lastly, to engage with and in the community in order to educate people on all of the services that Challenge provides to not just people with disabilities, but other barriers to employment as well.
It isn’t just about telling the story of Challenge, Sammons said. It’s also about listening to the community. As it celebrates the past, this organization is also focused on what comes next.
Correction: An earlier version of this story confused the Annual awards Event at the Hangar Theatre that the oublic is invited to buy tickets to, and the Annual Recognition Luncheon that is for Challenge staff and participants only. The story has been edited to make the distinction more clear.