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donna sasnowski

Geneseean of the Year thrives on helping people become all they can be

By Billie Owens

This is the final story in a series about the 2011 award winners of the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce.

One of the most satisfying meals Donna Saskowski ever had was simple fare -- pork chops, Tater Tots and corn. It's one she has never forgotten although it was 20 years ago. A gentleman named Curtis cooked the food at his apartment for his special guest, the lady who worked at Genesee County ARC, and who still does, now as the executive director.

Saskowski, who is the chamber of commerce 2011 Geneseean of the Year, could sense the great pride Curtis had for his accomplishment -- from setting the table and serving the food, to having a pleasant conversation and saying a fond farewell. Guest and host became friends. And Curtis, who is still served by ARC, remains Donna's friend.

Seeing people like Curtis, who is developmentally disabled, accomplish new things, learn a skill or develop a hidden talent gives meaning to Donna's work, helps motivate her and keeps her grounded.

Her inclination to help others improve their lives was fostered in no small part by her mother, the late Helen A. Trowbridge, who was a full-time registered nurse, mother of nine children, working farmer, community volunteer and a graduate of Clown Alley. Yes, Helen attended clown school in her 50s and loved entertaining people, for free, at the ARC, nursing homes, hospitals, etc. With her loud suits and zany bag of tricks, "Gorgible" the Clown made a big impression on her big family to do for others.

Donna grew up in Corfu on the family farm, which is still operated by family members today. Both her parents held full-time outside jobs and also raised crops, chickens, dairy cows and black angus cattle. In other words, "all the things my parents needed to keep nine kids fed and give us activities. It was good," she said.

After graduating from high school, Donna went to college to become a social worker and was briefly employed after getting married. But she decided to stay home and raise two daughters until they entered school. Then she looked for part-time work and landed a job as a residential assistant at ARC after "cold calling" the facility seeking an application.

It was, as they say, a good fit.

"They help me, they give me a lot of inspiration and make me feel good about myself," Saskowski said.

When the people in the ARC community get the support and services they need, they often have new experiences that are life-changing.

"Suddenly, they realize -- maybe because they haven't had other opportunities in their life -- the level of skill they have, how much of a contributing part of the community they can be.

"Sometimes people with developmental disabilities aren't given those opportunities and so they kind of lack confidence or the courage to step up. They know they can do it, but I don't think -- because we often don't have faith in them -- that they want to express it."

When they do, the results can be amazing. Donna has a couple of art works in her office, and there are others displayed elsewhere in the facility on Walnut Street, that show real talent, and certainly beauty.

Events like the Challenger Dance and the Sprout Film Festival also give her clients a chance to blossom.

And that helps her stay energized and focused so she can advocate for them effectively.

In addition to her work at ARC, Donna is active in the community. She is currently serving as secretary for the Batavia Rotary Club, which she joined in 2004, and is a board member of the Regional Action Phone Network.

In 2006, she was named a Leadership Fellow at the Community Health Foundation of Western New York and that was a tremendous experience for her. It enabled her to meet leaders from throughout the region and engage them in a dialogue about the state of health care and health in general.

She has also been a Girl Scout leader and served on the board of the YWCA. She is a member of Leadership Genesee's Class of 2005.

She holds a bachelor's and master's degree in Social Work from the University of Buffalo and was named Social Worker of the Year in 2010 by the Western Division of the New York State Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Donna is highly regarded for her leadership, exceptional ability to work collaboratively, and her commitment to community development.

She lives in Darien with her husband, Paul.

As for being named Geneseean of the Year, Donna is most pleased.

"I have a great support system or else I wouldn't be able to do the things I do -- my staff here, but especially my family, my husband. If he didn't cook all those meals and do all those things when I was in graduate school, and raise the kids for three and a half years, it would have been a tough go. And he did that."

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