When you hear the letters ‘OLV,’ I’m sure a lot of things come to mind – the National Shrine and Basilica, OLV hospital, maybe Holy Mary herself. What I find often surprises people, is that while OLV Human Services shares so much history with the Basilica and is located on the same block as the former hospital and infant home, this organization is much more diverse than people understand.
For example, did you know that OLVHS is a hub for community resources? Our newly renovated accessible front entrance at 790 Ridge Road features a welcoming café where building guests can access our full service dental center or outpatient clinic while taking in the incredible historical photos that line our hallways. Some may be surprised to know that we also offer emergency foster care, that we bought a bakery, and that we operate six schools, encompassing students from pre-K through 12th grade. Even more astonishing, OLV Human Services works with thousands of clients each year, employing nearly 900 staff – and yes, we’re definitely hiring.
Now I'm going to let you in on a secret… OLV Human Services was formerly known as Baker Victory Services, or "Father Baker's". That's right, THE Father Baker. I know what you're thinking. Like many other Buffalo natives who were raised with the threat of being dropped off at Father Baker's, as I started my career here, I couldn’t help but wonder, "what did I get myself into?"
Did I just sign myself up to work with kids that had been so ‘bad’ at home, that they were forced to come live here? As after all, that certainly became the reputation that surrounded 790 Ridge Road and all its campus counterparts. As I started my career at what was Baker Victory Services, I realized that this institution was significantly more than the perception that it had become synonymous with – this place was about inclusion, providing opportunities, and finding solutions to the everyday barriers people face. It truly was an agency trying to follow Father Baker’s mission – taking the lead from the man that is known to have positively impacted hundreds of thousands of homeless, abandoned, and orphaned children during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Today, Father Nelson Baker’s ministries – and his City of Charity - continue through OLV Human Services, as the agency works to address as many community needs as they can – vocational and educational supports, residential housing, and care coordination to name a few.
Now, almost six years into my employment with the WAY Program at OLV Human Services, I consider myself to be extremely lucky – lucky to work in a supportive and rewarding environment; lucky to work with people that are equally motivated to effect change; and lucky to have the opportunity to carry on Father Baker’s mission with the students and clients we serve today.
The WAY, or Work Appreciation for Youth program provides opportunities and experiences for youth and young adults with developing their vocational path. My role with the agency is to oversee the Work Based Learning & Transition programming for all our high school students, scheduling them to attend regular worksites with community employers (such as 7eleven, Crunch Fitness, and the Foundry). Students participate in hands on learning in a work environment during their school day, to address barriers to employment, develop 21st century skills, and navigate the world of work.
This program was a catalyst behind the acquisition of Mazurek’s Bakery in the Old First Ward; OLV Human Services is able to provide real life work experiences in disciplines such as food service, customer service, small business ownership, and beyond at this unique site. To date, the bakery has employed nine current and former students/clients for either temporary or part time employment. The goal is to prepare, support, and empower those we serve through the development of necessary vocational skills to enter today’s workforce. Both community clients and students within our own educational programs participate in work based learning and additional services at Mazurek’s, however the bakery was purchased with the dream of serving the specific population of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Within the last six years, OLVHS developed the Statewide recognized ITP (Intensive Treatment Program), which offers specialized educational services for eligible youth ages 12-21, providing structured, individualized academia in self-contained classrooms. Our unique cross-system program provides an elevated level of care to individuals diagnosed with autism or intellectual disabilities along with a mental health diagnosis by bridging the gap between treatment and education. ITP has broadened the scope of what OLVHS can provide, being the only provider in the state offering a program of this nature.
As you can imagine, we encounter varied and diverse individuals working at OLVHS. And yet, unfortunately, those we serve still face the unkind reputation that people associate with ‘Father Baker’s’ or alternative education, and because of that, they don’t always get a fair chance. What many don’t know, is that most of our high school aged students (whether they attend Baker Hall, ITP, or our Residential Treatment School) participate in work-based learning so frequently, that they earn upwards of 200 hours of work experience, awarding them with a CDOS (Career Development and Occupational Studies) Commencement Credential. Some of our students even go so far as to take the ACT WorkKeys, a nationally recognized work readiness credential.
OLVHS believes that different individuals need varied opportunities to learn and grow. The WAY Program is so grateful for those employers and community organizations that have ‘taken a chance’ on our students and clients, including 26 Shirts (a worksite collaborator), and for those advocates that help level the playing field for those with disabilities and barriers to employment in WNY.
I was advised early on in my time with OLVHS to not judge a book by its cover; get to know that student personally, develop a relationship with them that isn’t clouded by dated reports or appearances. As if making assumptions about someone based on their appearance isn’t bad enough, I find the opposite is worse; when a person has a diagnosis of a hidden disability, and people set expectations before knowing that individual at all.
Individuals with a hidden disability often face barriers that affect everyday life, including lack of understanding and a negative response from peers. Invisible disabilities can include autism, learning disabilities, mental health conditions, etc. Heathrow Airport implemented the use of a sunflower lanyard to recognize those travelers with a hidden or invisible disability; they recognized that although you may not be able to see these impairments or conditions, they’re still there, and wearing a sunflower lanyard discreetly identifies that a person may need additional support or assistance in public spaces. Patience is a virtue, but unfortunately not a right provided to everyone we encounter. The administration and staff at Heathrow have actively demonstrated initiative and understanding, entitling all humans to a little patience, something that we at OLVHS hope catches on in our own community.
Through purchasing this T-shirt, you are supporting access to free workshops for children and families in our community, including but not limited to families living with ASD. By wearing this T-shirt, which incorporates hope and the sunflower within the Buffalo, we ask that all facing challenges – seen or unseen – will be met with patience and respect. A little patience goes a long way … something Father Baker taught us a long time ago, and we are still practicing at OLV Human Services today.