Working For Self-Esteem


Adults with developmental disabilities thrive in jobs program

Caitlin Wilkenshoff (center), a participant in The Center for Developmental Disabilities’ Adult Supported Employment Program, is pictured here with Heritage Farm and Garden operator Wendy Dubner Master (far left) and supervisor Candy Dubner.

With roots dating back to the 1950s, when parents of children with what was then diagnosed as emotional disabilities were desperate for assistance, a gathering of six children and their families planted the seed for what became the Center for Developmental Disabilities (CDD). It comes into its 60th year with two main campuses in Woodbury and Hicksville, as well as the 19 residential locations throughout Long Island. The Hicksville part of the CDD moved to a much larger space where it is today after spending the prior 11 years situated in Woodbury. Its focus is centered on an Adult Day program that provides three basic service modalities: Day Habilitation, Supported Employment and Program Without Walls. Debbie Forte is the Vocational Innovations coordinator and a big part of her job responsibilities focuses on having local businesses partner with the center in giving program participants a shot at gainful employment.

“We partner with community businesses, try to make relationships with them and in many cases, we’re finding people competitive paid employment,” she said. “In a lot of cases, we’re working with employers to get some experience there, assessments or short-term experiences. Technically, it’s not supposed to be called an internship, it’s community experience.”

Aury Mejia completed The Center for Developmental Disabilities’ Pathway to
Employment program, which groomed him to become a steady and reliable employee at this local Dunkin’ Donuts location.

Currently there are about 55 participants in the program with a number of companies partnering up with CDD, including Target, Dunkin’ Donuts, the Town of Hempstead Water Department and the Great Neck School District. One local business that recently got involved was Heritage Farm & Garden. The family-owned Woodbury outfit is owned and operated by Steven Dubner and his daughter, Wendy Dubner Master. They gave Caitlin Wilkenshoff, a participant in the Center’s Adult Supported Employment Program, a chance to work under Candy Dubner’s supervision. It’s been a union that Forte said has worked out splendidly for all parties involved.

“I’ve been there and it’s really a joy to see. Caitlin is somebody who is in two of our programs for vocational support services and is our first individual to partner with Heritage Farm & Garden,” she said. “They made a gesture towards us, so it’s just been wonderful. They’ve been so anxious to help, so it’s become a very good place to develop that relationship.”

Forte has worked in the field for around 18 years, after coming out of a sales background. The long-time CDD employee changed gears while wanting to help people in a way that would allow them to better themselves, develop their potential and possibly change the culture in some small way. Currently, she has a front-row seat to witness the enormous benefits that vocational programs like CDD provide, particularly when it comes to helping give its participants a sense of self-worth in helping them feel like they are a part of their local community.

“When I see an individual come alive who has just been sitting around in their basement because they’re not comfortable being out in the world—you see the self-respect and self-esteem grow. And they’re being appreciated and accepted for who they are and being able to contribute positively and make a difference. When it’s the right situation, the person really feels like they’re doing something to benefit a business and they really feel like they matter and have made a difference. You see incredible changes in people’s lives and they really are transformed,” Forte explained. “Some of the things that were frustrating before, was that we didn’t recognize it as frustration. People are not at their best and then they change because they have a job and they feel like they’re like everybody else. They end up becoming independent. In this area of their life, they don’t feel held back. Even with the support, they sometimes are there with a coach who is supporting them, but they still feel like they’re being heard and doing their own thing.”

Among the many rewards Forte has gotten in her nearly two decades of doing this is seeing employer perspectives change for the better.

“It’s truly rewarding to work a business and educate them a little bit in opening up doors [in situations] where people may have had certain hesitations,” she said. “[It’s great] when we can go in there and just educate or help somebody take a chance, see the bigger picture and give it a try. Then you see an employer come back and ask for three more of these type of people because they work so well. It’s wonderful to see an employer embrace [the program] and it is wonderful to see the individuals be embraced and be able to contribute.”

Visit or call 516-921-7650 to find out more about the Center for Developmental Disabilities.

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In addition to being editor of Garden City Life, Dave Gil de Rubio is a regular contributor to Long Island Weekly, specializing in music and sports features. He has won several awards for writing from Press Club of Long Island (PCLI).

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