Working their way up
Jorgen Gulliksen/Register
Executive Director Beth Atton of Napa Valley Support Services, middle, tries to coax a smile out of Courtney Reedy, left, for a portrait with Jackie Burnside, top, and Annie McClafferty. Alton is celebrating 30 years with NVSS, which helps developmentally disabled adults find local jobs. “The staff here is an awesome team. It’s like family here,” said Atton.

Beth Atton and Napa Valley Support Services have something to celebrate this year — Atton’s 30 years with the organization on the front lines of helping hundreds of developmentally disabled individuals find employment in Napa Valley.

Both NVSS and Atton, its executive director, had humble beginnings — Atton started at the organization as an instructor’s assistant in June 1976. NVSS, originally called Sunny Day School, was created in the 1950s by a small group of parents of developmentally disabled children at a time when special education didn’t exist in the public schools.

In those days, parents were encouraged to place developmentally disabled children in large institutions and abandon any hope of seeing them have normal lives. Today, thanks to NVSS and other organizations, developmentally disabled people are increasingly working in the mainstream of society.

As NVSS expanded its services and added clients, Atton grew with the organization, becoming executive director in July 2003.

During the 1970s, the organization became the Napa Valley Activity Center; it taught reading and writing skills. Today, NVSS has a staff of 50 and its clients include married and single people, those living in group homes, with their families, and those who have spent part of their life in institutions.

Walt Hampe, NVSS vice president and board member, said he was on the team that interviewed Atton for her job.

“The single word that describes her best is ‘dynamo,’ and she always comes up with new ideas. She doesn’t take herself too seriously and is open to suggestions. We’re very pleased with her and it’s been a great experience having her,” he said.

Arty Reyes, an NVSS employment specialist, said Atton has surrounded herself with a great staff. “Beth took over and has done a great job. She had big shoes to fill,” Reyes said, referring to former executive director Isabel Harris.

Sue Nissen, administrative manager, said Atton has helped the organization maintain its warmth and friendly attitude in spite of its growth. “She knows all the clients and staff and goes to each program — everyone knows her by name,” she said.

Napa Valley Support Services offers three major programs: Imperial Way, Brown Street Gallery Artists and Napa Personnel Systems. Individuals in these programs must be over 18 years of age.

Imperial Way

Dave Sumbardo, a job coach, said the Imperial Way program serves people with disabilities by teaching work skills. At the day program, workers get vocational training and enjoy a variety of classes, where there is one instructor for every three to four people. Sumbardo said the program serves about 90 people. Housekeeping, groundskeeping, office work and other jobs are among employment opportunities for workers in the Imperial Way program.

Brown Street Gallery Artists

The Brown Street program, headed by Emmy Lesko, enables people with disabilities to create, show and sell their artwork. About 23 people are enrolled in the program, nearly double the number of participants at the program’s inception in 1996. The Brown Street program holds six art shows each year, and is also included in the Napa Valley Artists’ Open Studio tours.

Napa Personnel Systems

Napa Personnel Systems finds jobs for people with disabilities, and assists 35 higher-functioning individuals, according to Sumbardo. The program offers job coaching, finds employment for crews and individuals and trains potential workers. Workers are hired by employers and Napa Personnel Systems acts as an interface, similar to other employment agencies. Sumbardo said NPS gets referrals from the California Department of Rehabilitation, then assesses potential employees, and a job coach works with employees for one to two months. Job coaches assist employees less with time, until they’re only accompanied about a dozen hours each month.

The programs offered at NVSS have helped many developmentally disabled adults reach their potential and achieve personal goals. The organization matched Carrie Hampe, 44, with a job she has held for 10 years. Hampe said she works as an office assistant at North Bay Regional Center. The Napa native assists staff members and takes inventory of office supplies there; she said there are about 70 people in her building, where she works six hours per day. “I like the people and the environment there,” she said.

Although NVSS boasts many success stories like Hampe’s, Sumbardo, Atton and other staff members want to find a wider variety of jobs for workers. Sumbardo said the best way to accomplish this is to call on Napa businesses and inform employers about what the organization does. Some NVSS employers include Albertsons, Safeway, Vallerga’s, Wal-Mart and Silverado Resort — Sumbardo said many of these contacts were made because of Atton’s knowledge of the community.

Nissen said other goals for NVSS include creating more programs for autistic individuals and adding satellite programs. The organization is funded by the North Bay Regional Center, Napa Valley College, private donations, the Department of Rehabilitation and other state and federal agencies.

NVSS, which is hiring, is licensed by Community Care Licensing. Program Director Greg Battaglia said all employees must be fingerprinted and pass a background check and drug screen. Battaglia said that NVSS staff members also must be energetic and have a capacity for empathy and compassion.

Atton said “seeing all the success” is one of the most rewarding things about her job as executive director at NVSS. “I like working with the staff and community, and the fact that it’s always changing. The community has allowed us to help,” she said. Atton, who just hired new development director James Orlando, is focused on branching out into the community and providing more work opportunities for clients. Interested businesses may call NVSS at 253-7490 to arrange for a representative to visit their work site.

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