When Donna Saskowski walks into the work area at Genesee County ARC on Walnut Street, she feels a bit like Norm from the TV show “Cheers.”
Cries of “Donna” and “Hi Donna!” come from the employees as they work on various tasks, including putting labels on chocolate milk bottles for O-At-Ka Milk Products or making boxes for Kutter’s Cheese.
“I’ve worked with most of these people,” said the ARC executive director, who started with the agency in 1989 and took over the top spot in 2004. “I like helping people.”
Saskowski (maiden name Trowbridge) grew up on a farm in Corfu, where her family raised cattle, pigs, dairy cows and grew various crops. That’s where she developed her love of canning and making jams, something she does to this day.
She majored in social work at the University at Buffalo and later got her master’s degree from the same university.
Last week, the Darien Center resident was making final preparations for her daughter Karen’s wedding in Buffalo.
(The following interview with Donna Saskowski was conducted by managing editor Mark Graczyk Oct. 4 at the Genesee ARC facility on Walnut Street.)
You majored in social work in college. What made you decide to get into that career field?
I didn’t start in social work. I wanted to become a dental hygienist, but then I decided it wasn’t for me. So I went through guidance counseling and decided I was really interested in working with people. So I took some initial courses in human resources and applied to the undergraduate social work program at UB and went there and really enjoyed my internships at the Jewish Community Center and several downtown Buffalo centers for child care. I really enjoyed it. I like helping people, getting them on track, helping fix their problems.
You started at ARC in 1989, cold off the street, and you said you’ve done just about every job here. Before you became executive director, what was your favorite thing to do here?
The first thing that made me stick with it was working with a man, his first name was Curtis, and he made dinner for me. I was concerned but he made me pork chops, corn and tater tots. And he worked so hard to make that dinner for me and was so very, very proud of it. It really made me realize that people with disabilities, if you give them a chance, have a lot to offer and they just need some support.
I’ve also helped people get reconnected with their families. Sometimes when people are developmentally disabled they get disconnected. When we started the South Main home in Oakfield, it was great because I had an opportunity to help families bring their loved ones back from the Developmental Center in West Seneca and have them come back here closer to where their parents lived, so their parents could drop in and see them. That was a really good thing. Should have brought more but you can only do so much.
What are your duties now as executive director?
Oversight of most things but a lot of it is public relations, getting to know people, being active in the community. Just spreading our message, making sure people know what we can do for the community. Making sure families have what they need, especially now that the trend is for a developmentally disabled child to stay at home. What do they need to make their home life easier. Institutions are a thing of the past. And that’s a good thing.
A lot of people in the community know ARC for the trash and recycling program which is obviously a good program. What other types of services does ARC provide?
There’s a wide variety of services we provide to 60 people. We do vocational training here at the work center and that’s probably something that people don’t really understand. We have a contract with the federal government and we’re the sole provider of package safety pins to all kinds of government outlets. And we’ve been selling them to places all over the country and all over the world. They come here in bulk and we package them up in the right sizes that they need and ship them. And that’s created a couple of jobs here, a couple of well-paying jobs.
How many people work in all your vocational programs?
I would say about 140 because we provide services to people who work in the community who need extra support with their job. Places like Tops, the YMCA, a variety of places. We do janitorial contracts, retrieving grocery carts. The workers are very consistent, always come to work, never miss a day. And the employers never have to worry about it. There’s somebody that delivers papers, has a route.
How has the perception of the developmentally disabled changed since you were in college? Has it changed for the better?
It has changed. I think it has improved somewhat. I think there are still people who think people with disabilities are just looking for a handout. It’s a misconception. A lot of people we work with and a lot of our staff do volunteer work. We have a pretty core group that works for the backpack program for United Way, that packs the bags with food for the children. We work at churches. We volunteer at Stephen’s Table. A lot of people don’t see those things because we don’t advertise them widely.
And I think people understand more that our people have something to contribute.
What is the most rewarding and least rewarding part of your job?
I’ll tell you that the most fun is when I walk through the work shop and everybody yells my name. That makes me feel really good. I feel like Norm on “Cheers.” I’ve known a lot of these people as their direct care worker. I’ve known a lot of them for 22 years, as long as I’ve been here.
The tough part is administrative. Things we’re going through, budget cuts, like everybody else. And I’ve had to make some difficult decisions regarding staffing. I’ve had to lay a few people off. That’s a difficult thing. When you’re a social worker, you’re a social worker. And you see the impact on staff and their families.
One last question. You grew up on a farm. What types of values or skills did you learn from growing up on a farm?
I still do canning a lot. I think, and I’ve tried to instill it in my children, how valuable the land is, knowing you can support yourself. It’s something my mother gave me. I was on the YWCA board for a while and it reinforced it with me that women should have their own purse, that kind of thing. That’s why I first went into dental hygiene so I could support myself. I think agriculture kind of gives you that independence. I know that if I went to my cupboard, I’d have tomatoes, beans, all kinds of stuff to take care of ourselves.
And the other thing is the very high level of respect for family members and seniors, and by that I mean anybody older than me. Both my husband and me came from big families — he came from a group of seven and I came from a group of nine. Having family around you, supporting you.
FAMILY: Husband of 34 years, Paul; daughters Tracey, 32; and Karen, 29
FAVORITE FOOD: “A really good cheeseburger”
PASTIMES: “I love to bake. I make lots of jam, about 250 jars a year, which I give to friends as gifts.”
DINNER PARTNER OF CHOICE: Eunice Shriver
FAVORITE COLOR: Blue
IF I COULD DO OVER: “I would have kept going to college.”
DISLIKE: “People who try to snow me.”
WHAT I SHOULD GIVE UP: Baked goods
WHAT’S WRONG WITH GENESEE: “People don’t fully realize the value that people with disabilities bring to our community.”
GENESEE’S BEST-KEPT SECRET: “I think our park system is great.”