Aspire of WNY Expands Training Academy and Opens ADAPT Fashions! Store


When astronauts prepare to enter space, they spend months at the bottom of a pool. Why? Because water creates an antigravitational effect that simulates the space experience. On Earth, astronauts can learn how to make repairs, cook breakfast, and work together in an environment close to what they will experience after blast off.

At Aspire of WNY, we’re doing the same thing. Welcome to the Training Academy.

In a small, unobtrusive building set behind Aspire of WNY’s Getzville headquarters, real-life situations and in-person training are taking place to prepare team members who support individuals with disabilities.“This home used to be utilized for respite services, but it was shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Carrie Spence, Vice President of Community & Independent Living Supports (CILS). “We knew there was a way we could repurpose the space and do something innovative.”

Around the same time, Toni Sullivan, Director of Vocational Services and Adaptive Community Living at Aspire of WNY, saw a need for individuals to have professional outfits when going on job interviews. But there was no inventory of items for them to select from, nor was there a way to customize clothing to fit everyone’s individual bodies, depending on their needs.

Simultaneously, the Human Resources and Workforce Training & Development teams were looking for a way to bring new staff back to in-person training.

“We started to notice that new staff members needed help learning tasks like cooking and cleaning,” said Melissa Roth, Chief Human Resources Officer. “We can’t take for granted that people are coming to us with these skills; it is our responsibility to train them, not only to cook and clean, but also in every skill needed to support the individuals we serve.”

As conversations bubbled up, a common a theme emerged: an in-person space where new hires, individuals, and staff could come together and learn in an environment that mirrored the real-life situations they would encounter on the job, in the community, or during the workday. And the Training Academy was born.

Now, the former respite (support) home is the setting for hands-on training, a community closet for ADAPT Fashions!, and headquarters for Aspire of WNY’s new Community BRIDGES program, where individuals take their social and vocational skills to the next level, becoming more and more independent with every day of participation.

ADAPT Fashions! where individuals can come and select professional outfits as they venture to job interviews, are open every other Friday and is managed by Jenna and Brandi, two individuals
supported by Aspire of WNY’s Community-Based Prevocational Services. Jennifer Young, their support staff, assists them in helping pick out outfits for customers, managing inventory, and helping get custom tailoring done, if required, for garments to fit correctly.

“We love helping people look their best,” said Brandi. “If someone loves an outfit, we cheer them on. If they need our help to look the best, we get them to feel confident in their new clothes. It is awesome.” 

Jennifer Young, a Senior Employment Specialist at Aspire of WNY, works with Brandi to help support her career goals and personal dreams. “Both Jenna and Brandi work together to manage the ADAPT Fashions! Store, just like any other store. Their work experience applies to any other retailer in our community and shows the amazing skills that can be learned in the right environment.”

Today, the Training Academy is operating in full force. New staff work in situations that may happen when they enter group homes or day habilitation environments.

“We have a “what’s wrong with this room?” test where we place items in the wrong area on purpose to help the team learn to identify the correct way to keep spaces safe and comfortable for the individuals we support,” said Melissa Roth.

In 2022, at the Cerebral Palsy Associations of NY State (CP State) the conference, the Training Academy and Aspire of WNY won the Innovation Award. “The recognition by our peers and CP State cement in our mind that the Training Academy is one stepping stone in our innovative future of supporting individuals with disabilities,” said Renee Filip, President & CEO of Aspire of WNY. “Getting new staff and individuals into a working environment that exemplifies real-life scenarios makes our team that much better. And it provides wonderful opportunities for skills and collaboration across the agency. I couldn’t be prouder of the team!”

“The Training Academy is the epitome of innovation. We had the idea, created the vision, and put it into action. We’re doing the work where the work will happen. And that is so important,” said Toni Sullivan.

The Training Academy continues to tweak and improve its function within the agency. It looks forward to hosting an open house shortly—welcoming the community to see the innovative environment firsthand. And, of course, if NASA wants to come and take some notes, we’re happy to let them know what Aspire of WNY is up to.