A Testimonial for Community Living: Teall Family

Lauren Teall was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, seizure disorder and severe cognitive impairments at age 2.  She received early intervention services in Chesapeake, until the family moved to Michigan when she was 9-years-old.  Lauren attended a year round special education program for severely disabled in Flushing, Michigan.  In 2013, her mother, Mary Jane Teall, began searching for disability services in Hampton Roads for a planned move back to Hampton Roads area.  

Because services vary in each state, she looked for day programs and had no plans for group home placement for Lauren. 

She found Versability Resources and was referred to Linda Kerns, Community Living Director, who arranged a tour of Envisions Day Support and Hilton House, a home that provides 24/7/365 care for people with cognitive and physical disabilities. 

Versability Resources operates the homes in conjunction with Envisions Day Support and other community services.  

Lauren was offered a trial weekend stay at Hilton House, which went well, and she was admitted In January 2014.  

“As a former home hospice nurse, I have been in numerous group homes, assisted living and nursing homes in Michigan and Virginia,” Mary Jane said. “The cleanliness, ancillary services and caring staff at Hilton House and Envisions are ideal.”  

Mary Jane Teall sits on the arm of a couch while holding the hand of her daughter, Lauren, who is seated next to her in a wheelchair

The transition to leaving home was a challenge for Lauren and her family in the first year.  Any issues that arose were quickly addressed by Hilton staff, the nurses or Linda Kerns. 

Today as a resident at Hilton House, Lauren enjoys her home, outings, music and TV and her Hilton House “family” of staff and housemates.  

“It’s a home-like setting,” Mary Jane said. “It’s enhanced her life. Despite her limitations, she can be on her own, so to speak. She’s 34, though cognitively she’s a much younger age. Having her at Hilton House has given my husband and me the opportunity to have some time for us with the accessibility of being able to see Lauren easily. As a nervous mom, I was over there every weekend at first but now I feel more relaxed knowing she is in good care and she is in her own home, so to speak.”

She receives weekly physical therapy/walking sessions with Glen East, a physical therapist at Envisions, and her medical care is supervised by Hilton House nurse Sharday Harrison.  Hilton House manager Ona Heckstall and staff provide personable care for Lauren and her housemates.  Lauren smiles and loves hugs with staff.  Her parents are able to visit Lauren anytime and have her home for weekend and holidays.

“We are so thankful for the dedicated care, communication from Linda, Ona  and staff at Envisions Day program,” Mary Jane said. “And most of all, for the peace of mind that Lauren is well cared for, safe and happy!”

Ability Am 2024 a Success!

Thanks to our incredible group of sponsors, players and a supportive community, our signature summer fundraiser – the Ability Am – raised $87,625 in 2024!

The 85 golfers on 21 teams and 14 sponsors made it possible for us to do even more good work to help ALL abilities shine!

VersAbility Resources Celebrates 70 Years of Service and Counting

VersAbility Resources released its 2023 annual report, celebrating 70 years of service for the innovative nonprofit that believes people with disabilities have no limits.

“It’s been a banner year for VersAbility reinforcing our commitment to ensuring people with disabilities thrive in whatever area of life they choose,” said Kasia Grzelkowski, in her 18th year of being the organization’s President and CEO. “We’ve been able to offer more thanks to the generous support of our business partners, the growth of our federal contracts program and the tireless work ethic of our team, and people always looking for new ways to develop more inclusive activities and events for those who we serve.”

VersAbility, headquartered in Hampton, offers Day Support programs at sites in Hampton and Gloucester. Its eight residential homes that provide 24/7/365 care and support also include regular recreational and educational opportunities.

A few highlights from 2023 include:

  • Serving nearly 500 individuals with disabilities through the expanded reach of VersAbility’s Supported Employment programs that include Future of Work. The Supportive Employment program relies on the support of businesses across Hampton Roads to employ people with disabilities who receive training and mentoring from skilled Employment Specialists provided at no cost to the employer. The Future of Work program strives to eliminate barriers to employment by providing wraparound support services to participants. High school graduates, career-switchers and veterans receive training and credentialing in welding and culinary arts. New Horizons Regional Education Centers became a partner for the onsite instruction for welding, an in-demand trade that opens the door to career opportunities.
  • VersAbility’s Day Support program, distinguished by its numerous opportunities for engagement, added another in the Able Acres Community Market Garden. Adults with disabilities and an interest in gardening and plants built six raised beds and filled them with young vegetable plants. Many of the vegetables grown at the Able Acres Community Garden were donated to THRIVE Peninsula. Seedlings, young plants and pumpkins in October were provided at a weekly farmers market where donations were accepted.
  • VersAbility remains a federal leader in creating job options for the greatest untapped pool in the nation — people with disabilities. In 2023, its Government Contracts program generated jobs to more than 300 people. Last January, VersAbility landed a $141.7 million contract over 10 years to assist the Air Force in handling mail and postal services, creating jobs at nationwide Air Force installations.

The nonprofit, founded in 1953 by a group of parents, serves more than 1,500 people with disabilities and their families.

For a full copy of the annual report, go here.

Wings for All Success in 2024

VersAbility Resources, The Arc US and Norfolk International Airport co-hosted 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.

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.”

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.

Hampton Moose Lodge EPIC Toy Donation Will Help Children Reach Developmental Milestones

An EPIC (pun intended) donation by the Hampton Moose Lodge will make a difference for families and children served by VersAbility Resources.

The local lodge donated $2,000 to purchase new toys for the nonprofit’s EPIC program, which stands for Early Prevention and Intervention for Children Program. EPIC supports families with infants or toddlers experiencing developmental delays by coordinating tailored therapy to help every child reach his or her potential.

EPIC offers free developmental screenings for any child living in Hampton and Newport News under the age of 3. Referrals come from Infant and Toddler Connection of Virginia when a child may not be reaching developmental milestones. Parents can seek an assessment for a multitude of reasons; it’s never too early for intervention. All it takes is a 25% delay in one developmental area to qualify a child for services. A child can also qualify due to a diagnosed condition that could lead to a developmental delay in the future or atypical development which is the quality of how a developmental skill is being performed.

If a delay is found, therapists from the EPIC program work with children one-on-one in their homes, parks, Grandma’s house or wherever the child spends time. EPIC empowers parents and caregivers to take the lead, so progress is made between appointments. The child will be gifted one or more toys that target the specific area needed for development.

The assortment of toys include stacking rings, potato heads, contrast books and blocks, shape sorters and educational ones from LeapFrog and VTech.

Stacks of new unopened toys sitting on tables from the Hampton Moose Lodge toy donation

“These toys are going to be such a blessing for the families who receive them,” said Robin Drummond, Manager of the EPIC program. “Some of them help promote imaginary play and hand-eye coordination. Some promote problem-solving skills, manipulating small objects and motor and sensory development.”

Black, white and red visual contrast books will help children who are experiencing visual delays. These books will help newborns and infants develop focus, attention span and concentration. The toys that make sounds promote interaction, which is a pathway to developing communication skill. Some toys promote crawling and others, walking.

Typically, EPIC Support Coordinators work with what a family already has at home.

“These are going to mean so much to the families who receive them,” Drummond said.

The donation idea stems from Renee’ Rose, Chief Operations Officer at VersAbility, talking with her longtime partner, Ed Frankiewicz, Administrator of the Hampton Moose Lodge. He suggested to the members of the lodge that they donate money for the toy purchase. Newport News Moose Lodge will also donate $1,250 in toys.

Added Drummond, “We’re so appreciative.”

An EPIC Night of Basketball Courtesy of Chartway Promise Foundation

It was a night for Love & Basketball on Feb. 22 at Chartway Arena courtesy of the Chartway Promise Foundation.

Chartway Promise Foundation is the charitable arm of Chartway Credit Union.

Earlier this winter, the Foundation awarded a $5,000 grant to support VersAbility Resources’ Early Prevention and Intervention for Children program (EPIC), which supports young children with developmental delays and their parents. As part of “Promise Night,” all grantees received basketball tickets to an Old Dominion University men’s game.

One family receiving EPIC support attended the game along with Marissa Canty, Assistant Manager of the EPIC program, and VersAbility Executive Administrator Jennifer Plude. This is the first time the EPIC program has received funding from Chartway Promise Foundation.

EPIC is a family-oriented program for infants and toddlers under the age of 3 who live in Hampton and Newport News. VersAbility offers free screenings that assess a child’s needs. If a disability or delay is found, families and caregivers can receive support and training through tailored therapy programs to help children reach developmental milestones. A VersAbility service coordinator, assigned during the intake process, works closely with the family to create an individualized family service plan for the child.

Discover the Many Facets to VersAbility Board Member Jeff Tanner

Jeff Tanner values connections.

The retired Dean of the Strome College of Business at Old Dominion University was less jazzed about research as an academician, gravitating to the practical tools students need to succeed when they graduate. Part of his legacy at ODU is securing an endowment for a sales school and building a teaching lab. He was also instrumental in creating the Institute for Women in Business, which promotes females in business, and the Hudgins Transformational Entrepreneurship Lab, which serves disadvantaged communities and veterans.

“All three of these programs are heavily involved in the community,” Tanner said. “I wanted our entrepreneurship program to be different and be in an area where we could have the greatest impact. That’s with traditionally underserved populations — refugees, women, and transitioning military.”

Tanner connected with Kasia Grzelkowski, President and CEO of VersAbility Resources when the two served on a commission examining regional leadership programs. The mission of the Hampton nonprofit — people with disabilities should lead full and productive lives of their choosing — resonated with him.

“I was so impressed by Kasia,” he said. “One of the issues that entrepreneurs face is scaling their manufacturing capacity. I saw the link between what VersAbility was doing as a contract manufacturer and the need for those kinds of services for entrepreneurs.”

VersAbility supports three contracts that are national in scope and is the prime contractor for loading food on ships for the Navy, which amounts to more than 300 jobs for people with disabilities. More than 200 individuals with disabilities fulfill the organization’s contracts at Naval Station Norfolk, Pearl Harbor and Naval Station San Diego. A contract with the U.S. Air Force provides the workforce to deliver official military mail at 42 bases nationwide.

“The work I did at ODU was really about social mobility and providing an education so people can realize their potential,” Tanner said. “VersAbility is the same way — giving people an opportunity to thrive no matter their level of ability.”

Tanner was also drawn to VersAbility’s Early Prevention and Intervention for Children program (EPIC), which takes a family-based approach to providing support and training for parents and caregivers of infants and toddlers experiencing developmental delays.

“My wife and I really like to support programs that support children,” he said.

A native Texan, Tanner was a young entrepreneur who earned cash selling Christmas cards door to door. He was 10 years old, motivated to earn enough to buy a tethered P-51 Mustang gas-powered model airplane. He liked sales but playing saxophone in the band was such a kick that he thought he might pursue that career path. As a senior in high school, Tanner was a substitute teacher for a beginning band class for seventh graders, gave private lessons, and conducted the high school band.

VersAbility is the same way — giving people an opportunity to thrive no matter their level of ability.

“That taught me that I didn’t want to do that,” he said.

Tanner originally studied music at West Texas State, where he changed his major seven times by the end of his freshman year. Law? No. Economics? Nah. Marketing? Yes, and he took a class in sales. He transferred to North Texas University to be closer to his girlfriend, Karen, today his wife of 44 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in marketing and followed that up with a master’s in business. In the master’s program, a professor noticed Tanner’s interest in teaching and research.

“Why don’t you get your PhD?” he suggested.

By then the Tanners had a second child and getting a doctorate was financially daunting. He worked in industry before seeking out programs in sales, which at the time wasn’t considered an academic field by most universities. But he found a fit at the University of Georgia, the alma mater of his grandfather.

“We moved to Athens, and I began studying for my PhD,” he said.

Doctorate in hand, Tanner spent 20 years at Baylor University, where he founded the Baylor Business Collaboratory and served as its Executive Director. His focus was securing funds and opportunities for collaborative research with area businesses. Tanner was Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs and later, Associate Dean for Faculty Development. “One of the things I’m most proud of is how we successfully navigated that balance between teaching and research,” he said.

Tanner led the way in legitimizing sales as a field of study. When he initially searched for doctoral programs, he found only three. Today close to 40 schools offer sales-centered graduate degrees and he was integral in establishing sales programs at 16 HBCUs.

He’s also author or co-author of more than 80 scientific journal publications and 15 books.

It was another of Tanner’s interests, promotion of responsible behaviors by at-risk adolescents, that brought him to Hampton Roads to evaluate a grant opportunity for his side business, JK Tanner. The organization evaluates federally funded programs that promote healthy lifestyles. Tanner fell in love with coastal Virginia and was thrilled to accept the position as Dean of the Strome College of Business in May 2015.

Though Tanner retired from ODU in 2022, he is far from idle. In addition to serving on the volunteer VersAbility Board, he is an active consultant and a writer of fiction, something he never had the headspace for previously. He has loved horse racing most of his life and previously operated his own farm in Texas. Tanner recently was elected Vice Chair of the State Racing Commission and has partial ownership in the filly Girvinized. Tanner keeps two retired brood mares close to his home on the Eastern Shore and enjoys traveling with Karen to visit family that includes four children, three granddaughters and a new grandson.

A Hand-in-Glove Fit: New Horizons Executive Director & VersAbility Board of Directors

His roots are in education. So is his heart.

Casey Roberts is the Executive Director of New Horizons Regional Education Centers, the largest of nine regional centers in the Commonwealth of Virginia in both size and scope of service. He also serves as Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for VersAbility Resources, a community partner with New Horizons for its newest workforce development program, Future of Work. Students enrolled in Future of Work’s welding cohort attend New Horizons twice a week for nighttime classes while simultaneously receiving support from VersAbility’s Job Coaches.   

“It’s a natural fit,” Roberts said. “At New Horizons, we have experience working with students with disabilities. We have the equipment, lab space, and instructors; it has become a hand-in-glove type partnership.”

Roberts hails from a family of educators, starting with his great-great-grandmother, Mary Todd Park, among the first African Americans in Surry County, Virginia, to teach formerly enslaved people how to read and write. She, in turn, taught her husband (Goodman Brown), enabling him to become one of the first African American men to serve as a delegate in the Virginia General Assembly after the Civil War. Both of his parents and grandmother were also educators.

“I wanted to be a military pilot,” Roberts said. “The one thing I was never going to become was an educator!”

Yet after completing Air Force JROTC in high school and Corps of Cadets at Virginia Tech, Roberts realized he had a knack for instruction. “I had experience instructing cadets both in high school and college and discovered I was generally good with teaching high school students,” he said. “When you’ve been trained to be a leader, you automatically acquire the skill set of influence and how to guide and manage a process, whether through teaching, delivering instruction or designing curriculums.”

Roberts holds a bachelor’s in history with a minor in leadership studies from Virginia Tech and a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Regent University. He earned an education specialist degree in educational leadership and administration from The George Washington University, where he is nearing completion of a doctorate in educational administration and policy studies.

He started with Hampton City Schools, where he served as a social studies teacher. By age 30, Roberts was appointed principal at Smithfield High School. During the summer of 2018, he accepted his current position at New Horizons Regional Education Centers.

“I may not be fighting on the frontlines or be deployed around the world flying fighter jets and defending freedom,” he said. “But I’m helping to educate and develop the next generation, and that mission is worthwhile.”

When you’ve been trained to be a leader, you automatically acquire the skill set of influence and how to guide and manage a process, whether through teaching, delivering instruction or designing curriculums.

New Horizons trains and educates students of all ages from the six Greater Peninsula School Divisions. Many of those students are juniors and seniors seeking to earn a ready-to-learn entry-level credential for a skilled trade. Others earning college credit in high-level math and science to pursue a STEM-related career field will matriculate to a local or nationally prestigious university. Some students with Autism and intellectual and emotional disabilities receive community readiness skills training and credentialing. New Horizons is where many since 1965 have started their journey toward their dreams.

Roberts grew up just down the street from VersAbility Resources’ Hampton headquarters. Back then, he didn’t know the mission that today he terms “phenomenal.” VersAbility connects individuals with disabilities to dignity with a full and productive life of their choosing.

Roberts’ second cousin, Jana Bradby, affectionately called “Bae,” had a disability, and he watched her live well into her 50s, far longer than what doctors indicated.

“She had a heart of gold,” he said. “She was an integral part of our family, and everyone loved her to death. I was raised to treat everybody with kindness and respect. And from my perspective, her disability made her unique, and we loved her just the way she was.”

When Roberts was asked to join VersAbility’s volunteer Board, he saw it as an opportunity to connect the dots. He advocates for the organization on various Hampton Roads committees and councils he sits on, noting, “VersAbility Resources is a key leader in many regional discussions and serves as a resource for many and a pathway to success.”

Roberts is married and has two children, an 11-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. He’s a huge Star Trek fan (“Trekkie”), in addition to hobbies that include reading historical biographies, cooking Italian and Indian foods and traveling. He has visited several countries and regions and looks forward to another trip to Trinidad and Tobago this summer, the native country of his wife’s family.

Towuanna Porter Brannon: A President With a Purpose

Towuanna Porter Brannon realized early in life that if you don’t work, you don’t eat.

The President of Virginia Peninsula Community College (VPCC) who serves on the Board of Directors for VersAbility Resources was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of a single mother from Jamaica who modeled to her children that achieving resiliency starts with education.

“You could always get lucky like my grandmother who won the Jamaican lottery,” Porter Brannon said. “That was wild and wonderful, but even then, if you don’t know what to do with the money, you lose it! That guidance meant that education is the only absolute to change your life. It ensures continuous improvements for the generations who come after you. My family grew up sacrificing any comfort in order to pursue advanced education.”

Porter Brannon’s mother immigrated to the United States at 19, graduated from college late in life and opened up a bakery that evolved into a thriving catering business and restaurant in New York City. Among the lessons she passed to her daughter: Never be afraid to do the things that can positively change your life. Take a risk on yourself.

Porter Brannon earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from St. John’s University and a doctorate from Fordham University. Early in her career, she resigned from a Fortune 500 company, resulting in a significant pay decrease, to teach information technology to faculty at St. John’s. Working on Wall Street didn’t appeal to her. Advancing in higher education did after growing up in a family she describes as the working poor. They had a home and food but went without health insurance, meaning no preventative care. Porter Brannon never saw a dentist as a kid, and dinners weren’t overly healthy. The family did not take vacations. Porter Brannon held her first job at 8 years old.

“My purpose has always been to provide opportunities for folks who grew up the way I did,” she said.

Porter Brannon counts herself lucky for the teachers and counselors, positive influencers, who not only encouraged her, they showed her a path to success. “I realized as an adult, not everybody has that. It would be difficult to manage life’s adult challenges if you did not have the kind of guidance and the social capital that I had. I knew that a better life was possible.”

In her early career as an academic advisor, it was gratifying for Porter Brannon to know she was impacting the lives of every one of the 300 students in her caseload. Every new career position she’s held since has been about expanding that ability to teach others how education can be a pathway out of poverty. Before becoming the ninth president at VPCC in 2021, she was Vice President of Student Services at Mitchell Community College in North Carolina. That position reinforced how critical earning a credential, skill or degree is for certain students to survive.

“If a job didn’t work out for me, in the back of my mind I knew I could go back and work for my mother,” Porter Brannon said. “These students don’t have that option. Strategically I started to pursue positions that would allow me to have the greatest impact possible. Now as a college president, I am in a position where I can have impact on an entire community.”

My purpose has always been to provide opportunities for folks who grew up the way I did.

Porter Brannon embraces the mission at VersAbility, which she said aligns with that of the community college. The Hampton nonprofit envisions a world where people with disabilities can live full and productive lives of their choosing.

“When you look at some of the work that VersAbility prepares its students to do, it’s very much aligned with our training programs,” she said. “They provide training for many of those entry-level positions that are needed and some of the frontline support services. The welding classes they offer through Future of Work at New Horizons are a gateway to getting someone into the workforce. You can remain in an entry-level position or those who are able can take advanced training courses to create stackable credentials to expand their skill set and marketability in the workplace.”

VersAbility’s commitment to what Porter Brannon refers to as “invisible communities” is also similar to the community college working with historically disadvantaged communities. “VersAbility is seeking to take a population of folks who have been historically underserved or just invisible and teach them skills related to being successfully independent,” Porter Brannon said.

Both the community college and VersAbility are integral to filling the talent shortage in the region, providing training to create the workforce needed by many of the in-demand industries, manufacturing and ship repair among them. “The work VersAbility does very much aligns with my purpose,” Porter Brannon said. “We’re both giving those communities an opportunity to be resilient.”

Under her leadership, VPCC has seen a 30% growth in workforce programs and dual enrollment. Porter Brannon is pleased that so many of the graduates who receive career and technical training through VPCC have chosen to live and work in the region. She is also proud that the college has expanded its footprint to include James City County. Another satellite center is being built in a developing section of Newport News.

Porter Brannon’s daughter, Rebecca, contributed to that rise, having recently completed VPCC’s dual enrollment program before transferring to work toward her undergraduate degree at George Mason University.

The family, which includes Porter Brannon’s husband, David, recently returned from a Christmas holiday in Europe where they celebrated Rebecca’s birthday and continued their tradition of visiting as many escape rooms as possible. That’s an easy hobby for Porter Brannon, a natural problem solver.

“Being a college president is only relevant to me because it increases my ability to have a broad impact on people who need it the most,” she said. “I’m in a position to improve the economic mobility of those  who might never know me, but their lives could be better because I had a seat at  the table and I was their advocate.”

VersAbility Board Chair Committed to Community Success

If you want to work, you should be able to. That’s a simple concept, yet for people with disabilities, it’s a challenge. VersAbility Resources strives to change that, believing that people with disabilities should lead full and productive lives of their choosing. 

The nonprofit’s mission resonates with Joycelyn Spight Roache, a longtime member of VersAbility’s Board of Directors and Chair of the Board for 2024. She represents Old Point National Bank, a 100-year-old, Hampton-headquartered company that has kept its same name for a century and is intentional in being a full partner in the growth and development of the Hampton Roads community. 

“We all work well together as a team to ensure that we serve our business community and meet their needs,” said Spight Roache, Senior Vice President and Credit Underwriter Manager. “I enjoy working with businesses and helping them determine how they can meet their goals — how to best structure their requests for financing and review their entire financial picture. I am in the background working with lenders to determine how we get the requests approved.” 

Spight Roache was born in Chicago and does not miss those cold temperatures, though is happy to return to her native city whenever she can. She earned her undergraduate degree in Business with a concentration in Finance while studying at Florida International University. A mentor encouraged her to work in banking, and for an admitted numbers geek, it ended up being a perfect fit. 

I enjoy working with businesses and helping them determine how they can meet their goals.

Spight Roache continued her education at Hampton University, completing a Master of Science in Management. She has been with Old Point for nearly 13 years. Old Point has been a longtime supportive sponsor of VersAbility events and that’s where Spight Roache met VersAbility CEO and President Kasia Grzelkowski, who invited her on a business tour.  

“I was fascinated by the work they were doing,” Spight Roache said. “I feel like every person, whether differently-abled or not, if they have the desire to work in this community, they should be able to do that. VersAbility provides some very strong outlets to that end.” 

In addition to the VersAbility Board, Spight Roache serves on the board for the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC) and only recently stepped down from the board of the Peninsula Industrial Finance Corporation. She won VCIC’s Humanitarian Award in 2021 and was named a Women in Business honoree by Inside Business in 2020. 

Spight Roache and her husband, Jon, often combine their love of music and travel and recently returned from Cuba where they attended the Havana Jazz Festival. They regularly travel to Tennessee to visit family and enjoy meeting friends in Napa Valley each year. They especially enjoyed meeting with the VersAbility team of workers at Pearl Harbor during their 2023 trip to the Hawaiian Islands.  

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