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Rhonda Frederick has had a lot to marvel about in her 34 years at People Inc., starting with the receptionist who has greeted the general public at the nonprofit agency’s headquarters in Amherst for the last 16 years.

Jill Turchiarelli – who has cerebral palsy – deals deftly with the public, in person and by phone.

“Jill has a great story,” said Frederick, chief operating officer at People Inc. “She lives in one of our apartment buildings on Amherst Street. She has the most active social life of anyone I know. She uses paratransit and can get anywhere. I’ve met her more places for dinner. She likes to go shopping. She has season tickets for the Sabres and she likes to go to Shea’s. She’s got a lot of friends who she’s kept in contact with for all these years.

“There’s hundreds of stories like hers. That’s why I stay here and why I love it here so much.”

Frederick, 56, a Town of Tonawanda native who lives in Eggertsville, has been COO with People Inc. since 2004. The Kenmore East High School alumna has a bachelor’s in social work from Rochester Institute of Technology and a master’s in public administration from Canisius College.

She started at People Inc. after she graduated from RIT. “I was having a difficult time finding a job and was going to do this until a job working with children came along, but I fell in love with the field, with the individuals that I worked with.”

That includes Turchiarelli. “I love my job,” she said, “and Rhonda is just a joy.”

Frederick believes Turchiarelli symbolizes the mission of the nonprofit agency as a place that puts the needs and dreams of those it serves first. She also believes Western New York has become more welcoming in the last generation to include people with developmental disabilities and low-income senior citizens in their neighborhoods, schools and businesses. She has helped shape many of the agency’s programs and projects during that time – including controversial ones in Newstead and the Southtowns – and aims to be a key player as health care reform continues to shape her field.

How many different hats have you worn here? Can you take us on a quick trip over the years?

When I came in 1980, there were 200 employees; now, there’s more than 3,000. We’ve come a ways. I started in a group home and I worked there overnight, a 48-hour shift, every other weekend. Then I got a full-time job at a group home. From there, I went to a day program where I was a social worker. It was an activities center. We were training folks in pre-vocational skills. There was a lot of PT, OT, speech. I worked with families helping people get benefits, helping families make really, really hard decisions about when it was time to look for placement outside of their family home. Then I became the administrator there in Central Park Plaza. We had 150 individuals in the day program …

After the day program, I became the director of new program development and I spent a couple years working on senior housing, which was a whole new world for the agency. It was a great opportunity working with (Housing and Urban Development) and working with senior providers in Western New York. Our first senior housing project opened in 1991. HUD approached us. We had gotten some HUD money to do some group homes and they knew we knew housing development and thought this might be an arena that we would be interested in.

We also did a respite center. We did some skills training … and a lot of family support services.

The job morphed into the chief operating officer as the responsibilities grew?

At this time, we are constructing our 19th senior housing project. That is in West Seneca on Union Road. It was a little challenging, but we’re under construction there. We’re really happy to be. The wait lists at the current 18 sites are unreal.

People really love them. You meet people age 62 and over with all kinds of backgrounds and stories. It’s safe, it’s affordable. They have companionship. It’s independent living. It’s not program-based, like a lot of our other services. People get comfort from one another in similar situations. It’s a wonderful little enclave for folks.

We now have 111 group homes for people with disabilities. … There’s been a big push for more individuals to be more independent in the community, less in 24/7 group communities; more people into their own apartments, with us bringing in some support periodically.

There will always, always be people who need 24-hour care. Whether we’ve got the supply we need, the industry doesn’t think so and I would concur with that. We continue to have a wait list for group homes of about 1,000 people in Western New York’s eight counties.

You say we have a growing, aging population when it comes to people with disabilities.

Some have been to hospice. These are people, too, and you don’t want to go to a nursing home for the last two months of your life, go to a hospital. We had a gentleman who was in the hospital for so long, went to rehab. We knew he was dying. All he wanted was to get to his home, his room, his friends. We got him home on a Friday; Sunday he passed. As sad as that story was, I was so proud of our staff and our teams for putting that together, giving him his last wish.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

On the Web: Read about what Rhonda Frederick has to say about People Inc. projects in Newstead, Orchard Park and West Seneca at blogs.buffalonews.com/refresh