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‘Reaching a brighter place’

About to mark its 60th year, Skills of Central PA helps individuals with challenges

Roy Robinson (left) and Stephen Pendergrast (right) are joined by Charlie Lansberry, Skills manager. Mirror photo by Russ O'Reilly

With 2020 almost upon us, Skills of Central PA will mark 60 years of supporting people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness at home, work and in the community.

Without the local health and human services organization, many people with intellectual disabilities could be homeless and unable to reach their potential, CEO Rebecca Aungst said.

“Many of them don’t have family around or people they could live with,” Aungst said. “A lot of people in group houses have lived in institutions that closed.”

Skills’ services allow its clientele to try new things, feel more secure and confident in the community, said Charlie Lansberry, manager of employment services.

“It’s fulfilled people’s lives to the point where their mental health has reached a brighter place,” Lansberry said.

Management and staff at the Mirror hope to aid Skills of Central PA’s mission by making the organization the recipient of the 2019 Altoona Mirror Season of Sharing campaign.

Skills will be the 15th nonprofit organization the Mirror has recognized since the Season of Sharing’s inception in 2004. More than $235,000 has been raised.

“We’re very proud to have sustained our Season of Sharing program for 15 years, and there’s no question Skills of Central PA, like all of our past recipients, has served a vital role in our community,” Mirror managing editor Neil Rudel said. “We hope people, in the holiday spirit, will give generously so we can help Skills continue with its longstanding programs that have benefited so many local individuals and families.”

The community is a lot more receptive to people with intellectual disabilities than it had been in the past, Lansberry said.

He said he notices a difference just over the past three years.

“Finding a job is easier,” he said. “Employers are allowing job coaches stay longer with our clients.”

Businesses can earn tax savings of up to $2,400 per employee when they hire people with barriers to employment.

There are still a lot of questions and fear people have about people with intellectual disabilities, said Cathy McFee, regional vice president of operations and employment services.

“It really is just to help people fulfill their life. That’s really what the goal is — to help people get the life they want,” McFee said. “People with mental illness or people with intellectual disabilities can be productive members of society just like everyone else.”

Stephen Pendergrast of Altoona was referred to Skills three years ago. And only after one month of using Skills services, he gained a job at Cracker Barrel washing dishes and bussing tables.

“I wanted to work and make money and keep myself busy,” he said.

The most rewarding part of working was the activity, said Pendergrast, who lives with his mother.

But when he’s not working, he enjoys crossword puzzles.

Skills’ vocational training program helped Pendergrast build job skills, including time management, how to dress for a job and the social skills required.

Roy Robinson of Altoona is looking at retirement three years down the road. He’ll probably do a lot of fishing after that, he said.

But for 17 years, he worked for McDonald’s as a cleaner, and for the past five years, he’s been working at Marzoni’s.

“I like to clean,” he said. “The people are nice to me.”

Robinson is supported by job coaching and a Skills program that sends an employee to make home visits and take him on outings.

“I go shopping, bowling, and we clean my house,” Robinson said.

Skills provides its services with state funding and contracts with agencies, including school districts that use the services.

Donations also provide for much of the work conducted through the Skills foundation. The foundation provides people with money to make successful transitions to the larger community with handicap-accessible equipment as well as cover dental and medical treatment that insurance doesn’t.

Over the last five years, Skills has diversified. It now offers residential services, day services and vocational programs.

The vocational training program offers a variety of services for people with intellectual disabilities and contracts with companies to provide services including sorting, woodworking, light manufacturing and general assembly.

Skills residential programs provide community homes or lifesharing homes. In the lifesharing program, participants live with a family that opens their home.

Every dollar donated will help Skills’ work — and all money that’s donated — will be tax deductible.

To help make contributing easy, a preprinted envelope will be included with next Sunday’s Mirror. In addition, ads promoting the Season of Sharing program will begin Monday.

The Mirror is also partnering with several community arts groups as a means, through their productions, to raise money for the campaign, which is a joint venture between the Mirror and the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation.

In addition to mailing contributions by using the pre-printed envelope, contributions also may be hand-delivered to the Mirror offices at 301 Cayuga Ave.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

Past recipients of the Mirror’s Season of Sharing program:

2005: U.S. Armed Forces Mothers

2006: Brian Morden Foundation

2007: Shriners Hospitals for Children

2008: Gloria Gates Foundation

2009: Food for Families Soup Kitchen

2010: Zack Hinish Foundation

2011: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Blair County

2012: Home Nursing Agency’s Healing Patch

2013: Miracle League of Blair County

2014: Mountain Lion BackPack Program

2015: Family Services Teen Center & Shelter

2016: Altoona Salvation Emergency Disaster Services

2017: Flood victims of the Greater Houston Community Foundation, the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys and the Foundation for Puerto Rico.

2018: Blair County Suicide Prevention Task Force

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