Siffrin Academy:

More than a Job, It’s a Calling

January 17, 2019

By Morgan Schumacher, HR Coordinator

Recently I had the privilege to leave my daily human resources routine in the Stark office to spend the day with Mahoning County’s Siffrin Academy. As one of our newest additions to the company, its purpose is to help adults with disabilities transition from the juvenile setting (recent high school graduates) into the adult world. The goal is giving our Individuals job skills, communication skills, and life skills so they can achieve more independence on their own through post-secondary, hands-on education environment.

As I walked into the center, the individuals were working on a budgeting activity. It was a worksheet detailing the cost of certain activities and how much money they had to spend. They had to choose what they wanted to do and if they had the budget to do so. Our staff that was leading the activity, Wendy was calling on each person asking them for their answers. There was so much laughter and engagement that no one noticed me walking in. Everyone was having too much fun talking about what they wanted to spend their money on (or what they wouldn’t even bother wasting their money on) that you could see not only was learning happening, but staff and client alike were just enjoying the activity. Time wasn’t a factor, and the goal was happening, education, communication, social interaction. It was all flowing naturally. As I walked through the center I could not take my eyes off the adorable Christmas decorations that were made by our staff and individuals. Everything done not only has an aesthetic purpose but working on penmanship, writing skills and goal setting. The room gave off this vibe of just a fun, inviting environment, and I could not wait to better get to know those who have helped create this atmosphere.

One of my first missions of the day was to get to know everyone so I started at the top. I spoke with Dave Howe, Director of Community Integration Services and oversees Siffrin Academy. Dave came to Siffrin in 2015, and after working in the human services field, he wanted to start working in an area that had some personal connection due to having family members with disabilities. He had read about Siffrin and knew he wanted to be a part of what we were doing and applied for a position. The need for something like Siffrin Academy is really essential. Dave amplified the feelings shared by a lot of the staff I spoke with. They have worked in this field, especially in the day services area, and there needed to be an update to how we approach these settings by providing new relevant services that help gain confidence, skills and education for life. “This is the best group,” Dave says over and over when talking about his Siffrin Academy team. "Seeing their passion, putting forth their own personal vision, all their fresh and new ideas that help our clients meet their goals is amazing.”

The next person I met with was Melanie Thornton who is the Manager of Community Integration Services. She, like a lot of the staff I met with, found her way to Siffrin by a family member either currently or previously working here. I asked Melanie about a stand-out moment for her that has stayed with her, her reply “We had an individual who came to us who was very reserved, was here a long time and did not interact much then one day started walking up to everyone shaking their hands and asking how are you?” Seeing this happen reaffirmed to her that “even though sometimes it seems like we are not making a difference, we really are, we are making progress, and we really are making a difference.”

When I was visiting, it was a special day. Some of those at Siffrin Academy were getting ready to head out Christmas shopping at the mall. The individuals were really excited for the trip and were ready to buy gifts for their loved ones. Watching our staff organize everyone so efficiently and quickly really amazed me.  Everyone knew what they needed to do, where they needed to be, and in a matter of minutes, everyone was ready to go and out the door. Those who stayed behind were getting ready for lunch.  This gave me a chance to sit down and get to know our staff a little better. I asked about the best part of their jobs, the hardest part, some surprises of the job, and some of the milestones they have witnessed.

Starting with some responses about what is the hardest part about working with at Siffrin Academy. Lauren stated “getting emotionally attached, having to find a healthy balance between home and work, and trying to not take things personally.” Working in this field, this is a very common response among workers; it’s really hard to not become emotionally invested in those you care for so learning how to regulate those feelings is key to not burning out. Jean mentioned that it can be hard when an individual either leaves or graduates the program, or sadly passes away. Kenile says it’s the hardest “seeing individuals doubt themselves or thinking that they can’t do something.” The emotion behind these answers proved to me that to our staff, this isn’t just a paycheck to them, and they really care about the well-being of our individuals.

I needed to lighten things up a little so we talked about the best parts of working in this setting. Wendy loves that she is “Making a difference, loves being about to teach classes, and enjoys hearing the feedback from the parents about the changes that are happening at home.” Rodney who started working for the Siffrin Bridge then transferred to the Academy, noticed that he enjoys seeing how more hands-on he can be and how more independent the Siffrin Academy individuals can be. Tei’Osha enjoys “the engagement with the individuals, seeing them improve their skills, and build relationships.”

What are some surprises our staff have encountered I asked? Rodney who was new to working in this field said he “really learned he couldn’t judge, everyone is intelligent in their own way.” Rachelle stated that when she would read an individual’s ISP, and it would state lots of behaviors, and we would never see them happen. Then one day the behavior would happen out of the blue, and it felt so uncharacteristic of the person they have gotten to know so well. Jasmine said something that doesn’t surprise most of us who work in this field, but it would surprise others not in this field “It is amazing how much our individuals can advocate for themselves without our or anyone else’s help.” That stood out to me as a major point that I want to come across in this piece. Siffrin Academy is only a stepping stool, a crutch, a help up, a place where those with disabilities can go to be treated with dignity and respect, and be seen as an equal member of society.

I wanted to know if there were any milestones that they have seen our individuals achieve that have really stood out to them since they started working at Siffrin Academy. Jean talked about a person who was really scared and uncomfortable when coming in. They wouldn’t interact much. After time, and hard work they started coming out of their shell more and more, and now they hate leaving at the end of the day. Tei’Osha says one of the best milestones she gets to see over and over with new individuals is when they start to socialize with each other and the staff members and start taking the initiative to talk to everyone. The one milestone that everyone mentioned, that made them all proud is when they can see one of our individuals meet their goals and move on to the next step, even if that means graduating from the program, which can be bittersweet for the staff.

What is that we want to see for the future of Siffrin Academy? The consensus was unanimous. They all wanted to see this program grow and flourish even more. Everyone wants to see more individuals, more tools to work with, higher goals being set, and overall to see this be a part of the future of caring for those with disabilities. Everyone wants to see a bigger facility, and a few even said jokingly that if they keep growing the way they are, Siffrin is going to own the whole block!

By the end of my day at Siffrin Academy I had seen so much positivity and team work that I really did not want to leave myself. If an individual needed assistance, staff made sure that they got it. If there was a question, it was answered. The day was structured but still left open for spur of the moment things like time for the individuals to ask the visitor (me) questions on why I was visiting with them and making them feel comfortable with someone new hanging around their space. We are fortunate as a company to have such dedicated staff like we do, and it is important for me to stop and look around at that from time to time. You tend to get caught up in the daily responsibilities of the job that you do need a reminder on why you do this job. It’s not just a paycheck to us; no matter what department you are in. We are all here with the same mission and the same vision. Seeing this mission in action today reaffirmed that to me. We are so blessed as a company to have found workers at our Academy that embody that mission down to their very core that this program is going to be a success for years to come. I not only left with such a sense of pride in my co-workers but a better understanding of the challenges they see day to day and how they overcome them.

Let’s get to know these hard working staff a little better! I asked them all a few questions about their favorite food, favorite activity, if they were binge-watching any TV shows or any favorite movies, and if they wanted to give a quote. Here are their responses:


Food – dill pickles

Activity/Hobby – Pittsburgh sports fan

TV/Movies – Any classic sports movies

Quote – “Thankful for the opportunity to make a difference for our staff and our individuals' lives”


Food – Pasta

Activity/Hobby – Bowling

TV/Movie – Hallmark Christmas movies

Quote - “I love what I do, I enjoy making a difference, seeing them smile makes me happy”



Food – Sushi

Activity/Hobby – Hiking, kayaking, outdoor stuff

TV/Movie – The Office, Family Man, A Star is Born


Food – Pasta

Activity/Hobby – Dancing

TV/Movie – Star

Quote – “ I like to have a good time, I am very outgoing”


Food - Pizza

Activity/Hobby – Camping

TV/Movie – Shameless

Quote – “The best is yet to come”


Food – Chicken

Activity/Hobby – Riding her motorcycle

TV/Movie – Mayans M.C.

Quote – “Live each day to its fullest”


Food – Italian stuffed shells

Activity/Hobby – Walking trails

TV/Movies – General Hospital, The Gifted, anything Marvel

Quote – “If we are happy, they are happy, if we are positive, they are positive”


Food – Tacos

Activity – Dodgeball

TV/Movie – Catfish

Quote – “Work what you have whole working for what you want”


Food – Ice cream & mashed potatoes (not together)

Activity/Hobby – writing in her journals

TV/Movies – Gray’s Anatomy, Sex & the City

Quote – “He who says he can, he who says he can’t are both usually right”


Food – Salt & Vinegar chips

Activity – Working out

TV/Movie – The Good Doctor

Quote – “Live, love, laugh, smile”

Thank you Mahoning Siffrin Academy Staff for letting me be a part of your world for a day! It was an absolute joy spending time with and getting to know you all!

If you want more information on Siffrin Academy, please go to our website at  or you can contact our offices. Want to help us make an impact? Please consider donating to the Siffrin HOPE Fund. The HOPE Fund was created by Siffrin to help provide necessities to improve the lives of persons with intellectual and physical disabilities. You can donate though our website at

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