Allegra Hampton Roads Awards $1,000 Grant From FootPRINT Fund to VersAbility Resources

VersAbility Resources received a $1,000 grant from the FootPRINT Fund.

The FootPRINT Fund awards marketing communications and print services through Allegra Hampton Roads to select applicant nonprofit organizations to help enhance their image, expand their services and extend their marketing communications and printing budgets. The awarded funds can be used for marketing planning, graphic design, printing, signs and banners, copying, bindery or automated mailing. The maximum award is $1,000. All awarded print and marketing communications services must be used by Dec. 2, 2024.

Allegra Hampton Roads is a full-service marketing and print communications company based in Norfolk. VersAbility Resources supports people of all ages with disabilities to help them lead full and productive lives of their choosing.

Meet Amarita Strange, VersAbility Vice President of Human Resources

Employees are every organization’s biggest asset. Developing them, recognizing them and retaining them matter, and Amarita Strange delights in all that goes into that role. The Newport News native joined the team at VersAbility Resources in March 2024.

Amarita embraces solutions that create a win-win for employees and leadership. “I strive to get rid of any stigma that Human Resources is the principal’s office,” she said. “I have a passion for developing  employees and finding out what is important to them through their feedback.”

Amarita holds a Bachelor of Science from Virginia Tech in Business Management with a concentration in Human Resource Development.

Her career has come full circle. Amarita first worked for Howmet Aerospace, which is across the street from VersAbility’s Hampton headquarters and a manufacturer that has employed people with disabilities from the nonprofit. From there, Amarita was hired by HII Newport News Shipbuilding, where she spent the next 12 years. She managed the shipyard’s summer internship program and then went on to become a strategic Human Resources Business Partner and advanced into leadership. Her focus was on employee retention.

“I helped leaders make succession plans and decisions based on metrics,” Amarita said.

HII Newport News Shipbuilding is a community partner to VersAbility.

When Amarita met with the leadership at VersAbility — President and CEO Kasia Grzelkowski, Chief Development Officer Joe Harrow and COO Reneé Rose — she immediately felt their caring personalities and heart for the mission: ensuring people with disabilities live full and productive lives of their choosing.  Amarita knew she wanted to be a part of advancing that mission.

“We have the ability to make a huge impact on people’s lives and future, and it’s rewarding at the same time,” Amarita said. “There’s so much opportunity and untapped potential for people with disabilities.”

Amarita is married to her sweetheart from Menchville High School, and they are active parents to a son and daughter. They enjoy the beach and spending time with their extended family in the area.

VersAbility Board member Embraces Opportunity for People with Disabilities

Karen Velkey grew up in Petal, Mississippi, with an eye toward a different future.

She knew she wasn’t going to be a nurse. Her grandmother, mother, several aunts and extended family were all nurses.

“Let’s just say I wasn’t a natural caregiver,” said Velkey, Vice President of Compensation & Benefits at HII and a volunteer member of VersAbility Resources’ Board of Directors.

In creating her own path, Velkey became the first in her family to earn a degree, awarded a bachelor’s in psychology from Millsaps College. Velkey imagined herself working in industrial psychology, although she didn’t want her focus to be on research and statistics.

“I wanted to help people be happier at work,” she said. “I saw both of my parents coming home and hating their jobs. I told myself I was going to solve this problem for people. I was going to help people love their jobs.”

Velkey realized it wasn’t so much the actual work that was trying, it was the financial struggle, the weariness that comes from being under compensated in pay and benefits. She wanted to have a hand in improving that piece for workers. Velkey realized she needed more education in business to go with her undergraduate minor in that field. She applied to graduate programs with her future husband, Andrew, who was interested in psychology research.

That’s how they ended up in another world — at University of Montana in Missoula. Velkey had been accepted at other MBA programs closer to home; Andrew was all for an adventure move.

“Don’t you think it would be great to move to Montana?” he asked.

“It sounds terrible,” Karen responded, but she relented, and they departed Mississippi for the west.

Missoula turned out to be a special place for both. They earned degrees and discovered a warm community and a new way of life. Karen remembers their time there fondly despite her Toyota Corolla being buried in snow regularly during the winter months.

“We made lifelong friends,” says Velkey, who worked in human resources at a local hospital and as a visiting instructor in the University of Montana School of Business during her time there. “Living there, we had to rely on other people for help. It was a great learning experience.”

After a brief return to Mississippi, the Velkeys decided they wanted more diversity and a more urban setting, a place where they could hike if they wanted and enjoy cultural activities.

Karen remembers the day Andrew called her to tell her he had heard back from an application he submitted to Christopher Newport University. “I have an interview on Friday,” he said.

“I have big news, too,” Velkey said. “We’re having a baby on Friday!” The interview was pushed back a week so Velkey and Andrew could together welcome their son to the world.

Today Andrew is Director of Neuroscience at CNU after starting as a professor there 22 years ago.

Velkey was hired by Northrop Grumman initially as a Compensation Analyst and promoted to a managerial role in 2008. While she only planned to be there for a short stint, she felt confident in a manufacturing environment. The crux of her duties required talking with employees about their jobs and ensuring they were compensated appropriately.

In 2011, Velkey went to work at HII, focusing on compensation and benefits following a data-driven approach that ensures the company is paying a competitive wage and incentive programs are compatible with industry peers.

“I’m living the dream,” she says. “I love this job.”

Velkey works in a space where diversity and inclusion are more than buzz words. That’s among the reasons VersAbility Resources’ mission — for people with disabilities to live full and productive lives of their choosing — resonates with her. “I love the fact that they have so many job opportunities, especially in government contracting,” she says.

Making hiring practices neurodiverse is important, she said. Her youngest son is on the autism spectrum but completely capable. He is finishing college while holding a job.  Differences shouldn’t exclude qualified people from a company’s hiring pool and yet they often do, Velkey said.

“It’s important to get good people in the workplace who can do good work,” she says. Accommodations can be made, for example, if a prospective employee has anxiety issues. “VersAbility has a good mission and I really enjoy the work they do. There’s blue sky opportunity for people with disabilities.”

VersAbility Board Member Kapua Conley Defines Success as Touching Lives

Kapua Conley didn’t plan a career in healthcare.

He enjoyed working in IT management consulting.

Then he got diagnosed with cancer. He was 24.

After surgery, four rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, he was cancer-free. The two years Conley spent getting healthy gave him time to reflect. He recalled his father, a Navy physician, always taking the time to talk about his passion for medicine and healing to Kapua and his sibling.

As a young graduate of Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business, Conley equated success to the pursuit money.

“I wanted to make a lot of money and emulate what my college friends were doing,” Conley said. “So, I got a job that gave me the opportunity to maximize my earning potential in a short amount of time.”

Conley was confident he would live despite the cancer diagnosis. But it was life altering, and he wanted to learn from the experience. His takeaway redefined his career path.

“Having cancer rebased me back to where I came from,” he said. “I realized that I wanted success for me to be about touching lives. I found an industry where I could leverage my business skillset and acumen to help the community I live in.”

An administrative fellowship role at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston started his trajectory. He went on to hold executive leadership positions in Texas, Arizona, Nevada and California before joining Sentara in April 2018.  Today Conley is a Regional President for Sentara Healthcare, responsible for the system’s Peninsula hospitals.

Healthcare positions and titles are endless, but Conley narrows healthcare into two primary roles: those who deliver care to patients and those who assist those who deliver care to patients.

“My job is to assist clinicians to make sure they have everything they need  to deliver exceptional care, and I take pride in that,” said Conley, who also holds a Master of Health Administration from Tulane. “That’s how I’ve lived my career in healthcare — making sure I break down barriers and give opportunities and provide resources so our clinicians can take the best care of patients.”

One of the factors that goes into accomplishing that is keeping care local. Under his leadership, Sentara created more infrastructure, recruited more physicians and developed stronger programs in key areas, which include primary care, cardiology, OB/GYN and neurology.

“People shouldn’t have to travel far for basic services,” he said.

Conley began serving on VersAbility Resources’ volunteer Board of Directors after touring its Hampton headquarters with CEO and President Kasia Grzelkowski. He was heartened to learn VersAbility provides careers for people with disabilities not just locally but in Hawaii and Guam, too. He has family living on both islands.

“The mission is what really resonated with me, so I asked, ‘What can I do to help?’ ” he said.

The missions of Sentara and VersAbility overlap from Conley’s perspective. Sentara has an integrated delivery model and embraces holistic care. Too often, social determinants dictate who receives care.

“If you don’t have a job, it’s hard to think about healthcare,” Conley said. “To think about healthcare, you need food, transportation and housing. Organizations like VersAbility help us deliver our mission of delivering healthcare every day.” Toward those ends, Conley is on the YMCA of the Virginia Peninsulas Board, the Board of Trustees for the Fort Monroe Foundation and a member of Greater Peninsula NOW. He is also a graduate of Peninsula Chamber of Commerce LEAD program and CIVIC.

The Arc’s Wings for All Lands at Norfolk International Airport

VersAbility Resources, The Arc US and Norfolk International Airport will co-host Wings for All® on Saturday, April 13, 2024. The Wings program is a chance for people with autism or intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and their families to rehearse the airport experience and board an airplane, many for the first time.

The Arc founded Wings for All in 2014 with the goal to alleviate the stress of air travel with practice and to educate airport and airline personnel and TSA on ways to improve the experience for passengers of all ages with autism spectrum disorders and IDD.

This event is free to families and open to all individuals with autism or IDD, however pre-registration is required here.

WHAT: Wings for All
WHEN: Saturday, April 13, 2024, at 10:30am
WHERE: Norfolk International Airport

Meet Michael Tomchick, VersAbility’s New CFO

Michael Tomchick’s dedication to service continued after he retired as a master sergeant from the Air Force. In March 2024, he embarked on a new journey with VersAbility Resources, driven by the desire to contribute positively.

“Joining VersAbility was a decision from the heart — to support a cause where the impact is profound. It’s a pivotal moment when you realize only 22% of people with disabilities are employed, despite the pressing need for talent across industries.”

Born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, Michael was captivated by the skies from a young age, a fascination that propelled him into the Air Force with dreams of flying.

His early experiences at Tyndall Air Force Base were transformative, providing him with the skills to perform command-and-control of military aircraft from all services, including fighter jets, bombers and support aircraft. His expertise eventually led him to the distinguished role of weapons director aboard the USAF E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft, where he honed his skills taking part in missions of national importance.

Michael served two tours with NATO overseas: his first at RAF Greenham Common just outside London in the United Kingdom and his last at Geilenkirchen, Germany. During multiple deployments, Michael earned an MBA in Finance from Drexel University summa cum laude.

He and his wife, Susan, spent four enriching years in Germany before Michael concluded his military career in 2008.

Transitioning to civilian life, Michael ventured into mergers and acquisitions with a national portfolio company as the director of operations and finance. His leadership prowess elevated him to the role of CEO/CFO of a multispecialty dental service organization in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he was instrumental in increasing access to care for patients without insurance while steering the business toward 33% growth. His journey led him farther south in 2022 when he was recruited to stand up a new dental service organization in Virginia Beach. Currently, Michael enjoys the tranquility of Toano, where he lives with Susan, their three children, and Gracie, their 16-year-old Dachshund.

Outside the demands of professional life, Michael dedicates his time to The Youth Aeronautics Educational Foundation. This nonprofit engages youngsters in STEM disciplines through hands-on training, inspiring the next generation of pilots. Michael continues his lifelong passion for aviation and education by mentoring young, aspiring pilots, guiding them toward achieving their pilot’s license.

VersAbility Staffer Earns Seat on Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities

VersAbility Resources’ Lara Zawacki has joined the Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities in Newport News.

Zawacki, Grants Manager and Disability Service Coordinator at the Hampton nonprofit, took the oath of office during a swearing-in ceremony that was part of a City Council meeting on March 12.

The City established the Newport News Advisory Committee on Disabilities in 1989. The committee’s main duties included advising City Council of potential access problems throughout the City and making recommendations for access compliance. In 2014, after years of inactivity, the Committee was dissolved.

Last year, the City re-established an advisory committee, the Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities, consisting of nine members appointed by the City Council.

Zawacki, who earned a master’s in public administration from Regent University and has worked at VersAbility Resources since 2022, holds one of the seats. The nine-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard has vast experience rooted in advocacy and service to others.

“In a world where it’s easy to focus on ourselves, lending a hand to others isn’t just a nice thing to do—it’s downright essential,” Zawacki said. “It’s like watering the garden of kindness that helps us all grow together.”

VersAbility Resources provides comprehensive services to more than 1,500 people with disabilities annually in the Hampton Roads region, the 10 counties on the Middle Peninsula and beyond.

The Mayor’s Committee serves as an advisory body to the City Council. Its functions are:

-analyzing the needs of persons with disabilities in the city;

-determining and assessing resources available to meet the needs of persons with disabilities in the city;

-advising the mayor, City Council and city manager on the needs of persons with disabilities;

-assisting the mayor, City Council and city manager in responding to the needs of persons with disabilities by reviewing city code and city policy and recommending amendments to assure compliance with state and federal law and to remove physical and other barriers that confront persons with disabilities;

-assisting the mayor, City Council and city manager in conducting special events and awareness campaigns focusing on persons with disabilities;

-reviewing and make recommendations to the mayor, City Council and city manager regarding city diversity and inclusion policies and programming for persons with disabilities;

-providing a forum in which persons with disabilities and their advocates may make known the problems and challenges they face in daily life and making recommendations for corrective actions;

-reviewing and making recommendations to the mayor, City Council and city manager on programs, policies and services that might remove barriers faced by persons with disabilities in housing, transportation, building access, public accommodations, employment, health, social services and education;

-assisting the city in identifying outside funds available for carrying out programs, policies and services recommended by the committee.

VersAbility Board Member a World Traveler with a Heart for Community Service

Dian Calderone grew up in tiny Ashtabula, Ohio, on Lake Erie and ventured far.

She started her own company, traveled the world, raised two children and served on too many boards to count. She is currently on VersAbility Resources’ Board of Directors, supporting its mission that pairs well with a core value of hers.

Summed up: You and I have a lot in common.

Calderone grew up playing outdoors with a group of kids, two with special needs. Other than attending a separate school, “The whole neighborhood played together,” she says. “They were just like us. It was a normal part of life to play with them and then you get out into the world and see that it’s not like that.”

Kids aren’t always kind to one other. Acceptance can be fleeting when people perceive differences. The fix isn’t that complicated, Calderone says.

“I’ve always believed that the reason people don’t accept people, whether special needs or other differences, is because of communication. Just talk to people. You find out you have the same worries, the same hopes, the same concerns.”

That’s why Calderone touts VersAbility’s Supported Employment program, which provides career opportunities for people with disabilities. “There are many jobs in this country for people with disabilities and people just don’t realize it,” she says. “They are very good at doing things by rote. And there are many things in every company you want done by rote.”

Calderone spent her freshman year at Ohio University before  her life took an unorthodox term. She married a military officer and moved to Germany, home for the next three years. With limited experience — Calderone had been treasurer of her sorority and spent summer doing accounts receivable at a small dress shop — she began looking for a job. A captain sent her to interview for an accounting position. She got the position and flourished.

“I learned all the basics of accounting,” she said. “By the time I got back to the United States, I knew I wanted to be an accountant.”

Calderone finished college at Christopher Newport University and passed the CPA exam. Looking for work was difficult for a military wife even though by then her husband had decided to leave the service. Back in the early 1980s, a woman in accounting often was unusual. She initially worked at a Hampton firm and was met with “You’re a woman!” greetings when she arrived at clients’ offices for an audit. She brushed it off and thrived, opening her own business.

“The way I was raised is you set your mind to something, and you do it,” Calderone says. “If there are obstacles, you work around them.”

The firm began in 1988 with various name changes over the years and continues today as Calderone Abbott PC.  “It’s been a real journey,” Calderone says. “I’ve loved all 45 years of my career.”

Calderone’s board experience began when she was president of the Junior League. Since then, she’s served on major boards in her community and several in the state. She’s been president of the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank Board and was appointed twice to the Newport News Planning Commission. Two governors appointed her to the Board of Accountancy, which governs the CPAs in the Commonwealth. Her time commitment for the Sentara Health Board, where she still serves, has been immense.

This is the second time she has served on VersAbility’s board, and she was instrumental in the nonprofit’s acquisition of Hired Hands, which expanded opportunities in Supported Employment.

Calderone’s board work is only interrupted by her travels. Living aboard in her 20s made her hungry to see and learn about more countries.  She’s traveled all over Europe, just returned from Egypt and will head to Australia later this year. “When you live overseas, it changes your perspective,” she said. “You go abroad and see things built hundreds and thousands of years ago and children who speak five languages.”

Differences indeed, but the similarities connect us.

Support Inclusion & VersAbility on World Autism Awareness Day

World Autism Awareness Day held annually on April 2 is one of seven official health specific days sanctioned by the United Nations.

Member states, which include the United States, are encouraged to raise awareness about autism on this day, highlighting the need to help improve the quality of life of those with autism so they can lead full and meaningful lives. VersAbility Resources operates with a similar mission of making sure people with disability lead full and productive lives of their choosing.

When you donate to VersAbility Resources, you’re contributing to making a better life to those with autism or another disability. If you have a family member or friend with autism, host a Facebook fundraiser on April 2 to support VersAbility Resources.

Autism or autism spectrum disorder refers to a broad range of lifelong conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to Autism Speaks, a nonprofit dedicated to creating an inclusive world for all individuals with autism.

If you suspect your child is on the autism spectrum, reach out to VersAbility’s Early Prevention and Intervention for Children (EPIC) program. Free developmental screenings are provided for any child living in Hampton and Newport News under the age of 3.

Blue is the color associated with World Autism Awareness Day. Wearing blue on April 2 symbolizes autism awareness and solidarity with the mission of not simply existing with autism but living life a life without limits.

While World Autism Awareness Day is only one day, appreciating differences, promoting understanding and making the world a more inclusive place is a 24/7/365 endeavor.

Sign up for Bloomin’ Bucks to Support VersAbility Resources

Shop online at Brent and Becky’s Bulbs and support VersAbility Resources.

The 28-acre farm and family owned  garden center on Daffodil Lane in Gloucester has been home to quality flower bulbs, perennials, seeds and more for generations.

Start by registering for an account if you don’t already have one.

Then visit bloominbucks.com and select VersAbility Resources from the dropdown menu.

Click Go.

From there you’ll be taken to Brent and Becky’s website where you can browse the huge selection and make your choices that will be shipped directly to you. 

When you order, 25% of your product total will go to VersAbility!

If you prefer to order by phone at 877-661-2852, remember to mention that you want to support VersAbility. Or if you have the physical catalogue, write in VersAbility Resources at the bottom of the order form.

Feel good about your purchase knowing you are making a difference in VersAbility’s mission to support people of all ages with disabilities live full and productive lives of their choosing.

VersAbility Board Member Shawn Avery a Believer in Partnerships to Drive Economic Growth

Here’s the thing about workforce development. It’s economic development, stresses Shawn Avery, President and CEO of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council and a volunteer member of VersAbility Resources’ Board of Directors.

Avery explains it this way. Growing the economy and ensuring a workforce with the desired skills is in place to move business forward supports the entire region and makes Hampton Roads a better place to live, work and play. The Council achieves that by developing programs and solutions, so employers succeed and by creating partnerships that benefit both parties.

VersAbility CEO and President Kasia Grzelkowski sits on the Council’s Board. Avery’s admiration of Grzelkowski and their shared benefits led to him joining the nonprofit’s Board.

“VersAbility’s mission is to connect people to the community and one of the ways they do that is through jobs,” Avery said. “Everybody should have an opportunity to work. I like the ability to provide a training opportunities to individuals who historically or even now don’t have those opportunities. I like that Kasia and VersAbility go above and beyond in doing that.”

Avery’s roots are all Hampton Roads. He’s never lived anywhere else, earning an undergraduate degree in business with a marketing focus from Christopher Newport University and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology. He was a fundraiser out of college for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and from there went to work in grants and fundraising for what is now Virginia Peninsula Community College.

Before joining the Council a decade ago, Avery held leadership positions with Opportunity Inc., and Peninsula Council for Workforce Development. The merger of those two organizations created the Council tasked with providing the talent employers need to grow the economy.

“I love my job,” Avery says. “One day we’re involved in veterans stuff, the next day we’re involved in community activities or working with the Navy, the shipyard and the government. Or going to the General Assembly. Often we work with educators.”

Under Avery, the Council’s budget has grown from $6 million to $37 million. The Council, initially, a small time player is today a driver of partnerships.

Two veterans employment centers have opened to support transitioning service members. The Council has aligned with the maritime industry to ensure that workforce is training for the demands of the future. The skills training includes a partnership between the Council and VersAbility aimed at preparing people with disabilities for careers.

“We are seen as a model for the state,” Avery said. “We’re not somebody that needs to be in the lead on everything. We’re really built on collaboration and supporting each other. When one wins, the other wins.”

Workforce development should not be confused with social service, Avery said. It includes positions of all scope, from entry level to doctorate level. “Social service is part of the ecosystem of workforce development, but it is not the driver,” Avery said. “Employers and the business community are the drivers.”

All the lessons the Council learned in maritime will be applied to new pathways in health care, information technology and cybersecurity. “We always want to stay on the cutting edge,” Avery said. “We’re looking at how to retain talent in the region.

In addition to the VersAbility Board, Avery serves on many others, including Hampton Roads Alliance, Future Hampton Roads and Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. He is a member of GO Virginia Regional Council, Virginia Business Roundtable for Early Education and Virginia Economic Developers Association.

Avery and his wife, Martinee, have been married 25 years. They are parents to two adult daughters, Taylor and Riley. They reside in Poquoson where Shawn actually enjoys regular yard work in addition to boating.

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