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Kathy Hochul, Governor
Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner
October 2015 — Vol. 10, No. 10

Message from the Executive Office

This month’s newsletter contains incredible stories of young people who have overcome adversity and are now thriving, all with the help of someone who believed in them and supported them: a relative, a foster parent, or a mentor. Despite early hardships, they identified paths to success and were unwavering in their determination to achieve their goals. 

Each day, as we to improve the lives of children and families across New York State, we take a leap of faith. We do not know where – or even if – our efforts will pay off and truly make a difference in a person’s life. Yet, true to our mission, we take the leap anyway.  

A recent news story told of a woman who was reunited with the hospital nurse who cared for her as a severely burned infant. The woman, now in her 40s, had the opportunity to thank the nurse for the loving care she provided decades ago. But to the nurse, it was all in a day’s work: a very special kind of work that touches the lives of strangers and seeks to bring healing.

That is very much like the work we do. Today we invest in things like improving day care, finding foster and adoptive homes, helping the blind find meaningful employment, aiding young people in finding a path to a productive and successful life, helping move obstacles for families emerging from poverty to employment and seeking to aid some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers. We approach our work with vigor and determination and with the hope that we are making a difference.

I believe that this is a large part of what makes people who work in human services so special. It is a fundamental belief in what we do and a steadfast journey to make the world a better place, especially for those who face extreme adversity. Most of us will probably never directly encounter the people we serve, yet we have made a profound difference in their lives. So on their behalf, I thank you for the work you do. Please know that it matters greatly and is very much appreciated. 


Sheila J. Poole

Acting Commissioner


Adoption Success Story: Dancing His Way to Stardom

Davontee Lown glides across the stage like a skater. The choreography is complex, but his movements are smooth and effortless. Casually tossing in a few backflips, he sticks the landing as the audience roars its approval.

This talented 18-year-old has won back-to-back national dance championships.

What's even more amazing is that he overcame massive brain hemorrhages and bilateral retinal hemorrhages to do so.

“He was a shaken baby, but you would have no idea,” said his adoptive mother, Glenda Lown. “When I tell people that he is the miracle child, and tell them his story, they’re in disbelief.”

Glenda and her husband, Timothy, began fostering Davontee when he was six months old. They eventually adopted him and his two siblings through Broome County Department of Social Services.

"Mom, I Want to Dance"

Davontee took his first steps toward a life on stage at age five. Unhappy at flag football camp, he tearfully begged his mom to enroll him in a dance class.

“He started out doing only tap,” Glenda said. “He was so stinkin' cute. He won first place at his very first competition. He has a born stage presence.”

Davontee has mastered six styles of dance, memorized 13 routines, and racked up more trophies than he can count. He won national competitions in Atlantic City, N.J. in 2014 and Ocean City, Md. in 2015. 

This year, he is undefeated in competition.

“I love dance so much because it’s a way to express how you feel,” Davontee said. “No matter what mood you’re in, you can dance it out. I enjoy performing for people and doing what I love.”

Big Dreams

Now a high school senior, Davontee plans follow his brother to college before pursuing a career in dance. 

He hopes to audition for the television show, So You Think You Can Dance, with the ultimate goal of working as a backup dancer for rappers and choreographing music videos.

“I’d like to dance as long as I can,” he said, “until my legs don’t work anymore.”

Davontee credits his instructor, Brian Maciak, for mentoring him. Most of all, he credits Glenda and Timothy for giving him a loving and supportive home.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better family,” Davontee said. “They’ve done everything they could to make my dreams come true and help me to be successful.”

(L to R: Glenda, Marquis, Davontee, and Timothy.)

Celebrating Kinship Caregivers

While her peers were enjoying their golden years, Barbara Denniston was changing diapers. The retired elementary school teacher was 64 when she began providing kinship care for her son’s 1-year-old and 3-year-old daughters. 

“He wasn’t able to care for them and they were in a foster home for a year or so,” Denniston said. “That really tugged at my heart, so I pursued gaining custody. The sense of family is very important.”  

Denniston and her husband, Jay, raised the girls and put them on a path to success. Along the way, she began mentoring other kinship caregivers through the Relatives as Parents Program (RAPP), sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Orange County.

(Denniston, at left, was a longtime teacher in the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District. After retiring, she served as a substitute teacher in Washingtonville.)

In recognition of her work, the New York State Kincare Coalition honored Denniston, now 80, with its prestigious Cura Award for Outstanding Service.

OCFS Kinship Care Manager Patty Bryant made the presentation at a luncheon on September 1, the first day of Kinship Care Month.

“Barbara is an example of the thousands of relative caregivers who unselfishly give unconditional love and support to children,” Bryant said. “Many times it’s a great sacrifice but, in the end, it brings many blessings.”

(At right: Bryant introduces Denniston at the luncheon. Acting Commissioner Sheila J. Poole and Carol McCarthy, Director of the New York State Adoption Service, also attended.)

To raise public awareness about kinship care, Bryant and NYS Kinship Navigator Director Gerry Wallace distributed brochures and answered questions at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland on September 17.

OCFS funds programs that provide educational, financial, housing, legal, medical, and mental health services; parent education; respite activities; support groups; and youth development to kinship caregivers and their families.

For her part, Denniston encourages anyone with relative children in foster care to consider joining the ranks of kinship caregivers.

“We do it out of love,” she said. “We love these children and we want to do what’s best for them. We give them all the love and support we can, and send them on their way.”

(Above: New York City Regional Office staff celebrate Kinship Care Month.)

SPPD, CCF Help Young Man Fulfill Lifelong Dream

His story reads like the script of a Hollywood movie.

Homeless for part of his childhood in Albany’s South End, Jamar Gittens persevered to become the valedictorian of Green Tech High School in 2015, graduating at the top of his class and serving as commencement speaker.

Jamar, 18, paired his academic success with community service. As a volunteer for the non-profit Club Zoe, he mentored at-risk youth and put in long hours at food drives to help those less fortunate.

But Jamar’s remarkable success story took an unexpected turn this summer when several banks rejected his student loan applications. His dream of attending college was suddenly in jeopardy.

“It was heartbreaking to see a young man who grew up with almost nothing, but who always gave back anything he had to the community, not be able to go to college,” said Michelle Bianchi, who volunteered alongside Jamar at countless food drives.

It turns out, the story had only reached its turning point.

In August, Club Zoe hosted a fundraising dinner at the Reigning Life Family Church in Albany. Bianchi, a former intern in the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Development (SPPD) who now works for the Council on Children and Families (CCF), notified her colleagues.

“Everyone at SPPD and CCF wanted to do everything they could for him when they heard his story,” she said. “I feel so lucky to work with such generous and caring people.”

Nineteen staff members stepped up to help Jamar, paying out of pocket to contribute hundreds of dollars to his college fund. In all, the fundraiser brought in more than $5,000 – matched dollar-for-dollar by an anonymous donor.

Jamar was able to start his freshman year at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, where he plans to major in Mechanical Engineering.

“Seeing the community and others, such as OCFS and CCF, working together to get me to college truly meant a lot to me,” Jamar said. “It allowed me to know there are others who care for me, which inspires and motivates me to continue to work hard and grow every day, no matter the circumstances.”

Brookwood College Program Turns Out Another Grad

He did it!

At a moving ceremony on September 10, a youth at Brookwood Secure Center received his Associate’s Degree from Columbia-Greene Community College.

He is the fourth graduate of the Brookwood College Program (BCP), an innovative partnership that allows youth to take college courses without ever leaving the facility.

“In accepting his degree, the graduate spoke about the important role education plays in developing character as well as knowledge,” said BCP volunteer Margaret Ann Roth. “He said he’s learned that you get out of the college experience what you put in to it.”

(At left: Sean Pica, Executive Director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, congratulates the new graduate. Hudson Link offers college courses and re-entry programs to adult prison inmates.)

Dressed in a traditional cap and gown, the graduate told the audience that he plans to continue his education in the hope of earning a four-year degree. In addition, he is currently studying to become a certified Teacher’s Aide.

Executive staff in the Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth (DJJOY) traveled to Brookwood to celebrate the youth’s accomplishment, joining facility staff, honored guests, and the graduate’s family at the ceremony. 

(L to R: Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth Education Services Director Tim Bromirski, Brookwood College Program Director Jim LeCain, Associate Commissioner Dr. Joseph Tomassone, and Deputy Commissioner Ines Nieves attend the graudation ceremony.)

A former Brookwood youth, who went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree after leaving the care and custody of OCFS, returned to offer his encouragement to the new grad.

He described the ceremony as “an incredibly powerful experience.”

The Brookwood College Program has established a track record of academic success since its launch in 2010. Students have been named to the Dean’s List 25 times and the President’s List twice.

Three Years After Sandy: How OCFS Helped to Rebuild

The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless had big plans for the former military training center on Albany Ave. in Amityville.

Executive Director Greta Guarton and her team envisioned bringing together a group of non-profit agencies and creating a “one stop” for homeless Long Islanders, with an emphasis on homeless veterans. There would even be 60 units of permanent, affordable housing on site.

Then, just as everything was coming together, Superstorm Sandy tore the plan apart. The storm’s ferocious winds ripped off the roof, allowing the driving rain to saturate the interior of the 40,000-square-foot building.

“When Sandy struck, it caused significant damage,” Guarton said. “The building remained structurally sound, but was badly affected by water and mold. We are not able to open.”

(At right: An office suite at the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless is gutted after Superstorm Sandy and the resulting mold destroyed the roof, drop ceiling, carpeting, and furniture.)

That’s when OCFS stepped in.

The OCFS Superstorm Sandy Team, comprised of Contract Management, Financial Operations, and Audit & Quality Control staff, distributed $235 million in federal grant money to more than 500 human services and social services providers affected by the storm. Recipients included:

  • The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services – Trains day care and school staff to recognize trauma in young children, which may have been caused by the storm.

  • The Touro College Disaster Relief Clinic – Represents storm-affected households in FEMA denials or underpayments, resolves contractor disputes, and works with insurance companies.

  • Wabasse Nursery School – Funds allowed the school to replace carpets, children’s books, classroom cubbies, computers, and playground equipment damaged or destroyed by Sandy.

“These grants ensure that service providers have the space and resources they need to help the impacted communities in their recovery efforts,” said OCFS Finance Director Susan Costello, who co-led the Sandy Team with Rich DiMezza.

“These funds have greatly helped to rebuild," Costello said.

And that’s especially evident in Amityville, where the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless used the grant money to replace the roof, remove the mold, and open the Community Resource Center and housing units last fall.

(At left: The same office suite, three years later. It has been cleaned and restored using the federal grant money.)

“Without funding from OCFS, we would not have been able to perform the necessary remediation and rebuilding to open our doors,” Guarton said. “Thanks to the funding, the building has now been in operation since September 2014, helping Long Island’s homeless veterans and others.”

(Above: Painted by a recruit at the military training center that now houses the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, this mural is dedicated to the victims of 9/11. It was hand-cleaned and treated with a clear coat of mold-killing paint after the storm.)

Until Next Time...

Thank you for reading the October 2015 edition of the OCFS Newsletter. If you have a story suggestion for future editions, email steve.flamisch@ocfs.ny.gov.