Work with people with special needs brings Mercy Home program director huge rewards

Michael DeGrottole, right, with Larry, a resident of Mercy Home
Michael DeGrottole, right, with Larry, a resident of Mercy Home

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Michael DeGrottole
Age: 54
Who he is: Senior director of programs at Mercy Home
Lives in: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sr. Camille: Please describe what you do for Mercy Home.

DeGrottole: I am the senior director of programs, which means that I oversee all of our residential programs, respite programs, day habilitation programs, staff training, and our enrichment programs. All of these help support the lives of people with special needs.

How long have you held this position?

I've been in this position for almost 11 years.

Did you come up through the ranks?

Absolutely! I think that has given me a unique and helpful perspective over the years. I was introduced to Mercy Home and this field by a friend who watched me playing baseball with his little brother and thought I would be good at this. I then spent four years as a direct care worker at the Mercy Home Warren Residence. I learned so much in those four years, grew so much, and never really wanted to leave.

Inevitably, I took on other opportunities and challenges. I became an assistant manager and a residence manager with Mercy Home and later worked at other agencies as a program director, staff trainer, and even a clinical director. So I've been able to obtain a very wide range of experience. But if you asked me what inspired me and shaped me as a professional, I would say it was those early experiences at Mercy Home.

A population of developmentally challenged adults is different from any group of dependent children. What are the challenges and rewards of what you do?

There are challenges every day. Everyone is working hard to keep people healthy and safe. We try to teach them to make good choices in their lives. Many people in our field will tell you that we are constantly troubleshooting and putting out fires. As an administrator, I'm always dealing with regulations and requirements that can take me far away from the real meaning of the work and the reason I got here to begin with. But the rewards come when you see the accomplishments of the people we serve, when you see them living full and meaningful lives. Those rewards are huge, and the best part is that the people we serve really know how to show their gratitude. At Mercy Home, there's no shortage of hugs, high-fives, smiles and just genuine acceptance.

What drew you to Mercy Home?

I think the better question is what drew me back here after years of working elsewhere. I'm here because this is home for me. too.

What prepared you for this important work?

I think everyone you come in contact with who believes in you helps prepare you to do better things.

Have you gotten inspiration and encouragement from administrators or co-workers? Anyone whose commitment had impacted your approach?

I like this question because there are so many people who have inspired me along the way and I really enjoy getting a chance to talk about that. I think back to my friend who introduced me to this field and became not just my supervisor but a mentor to this day. Mercy Home's executive director, Sr. Kay Crumlish, is someone who always believed in me and gave me opportunities. Her work ethic and commitment is something that always amazes me.

I completely enjoy being around the people I work with now because you can feel their sincerity. But again, I go back to the beginning and those early days being trained by Jimmy Montanez. He was a direct care worker whose kindness was something special to observe.

My guess is that families of Mercy Home's residents vary in their support of the agency's work and needs. Can you give some examples of this?

This is one of those situations that can be of great benefit to the agency and the resident when it works. We have a man at our Keating Residence whose mother has been a consistent part of his life from the day he came to Mercy Home some 30 or more years ago. She visits regularly, stops in to see him at his day program and is always available to talk about his care and his life. While I would not characterize this as rare because we do have a good number of involved parents, I would say it is something special. On the other hand, we do have quite a few residents who have little to no parental contact and some who were simply left to the care of Mercy Home. Those individuals have been with us most of their lives, and in essence, we are their family.

What is Mercy Home's motto?

Our motto is “Life skills, life long.”

What does the agency hope to achieve or provide?

I think we hope to provide a meaningful life for those people who would otherwise not have a chance at such. As an administrator, I could give you lots of information about our strategic plans and agency goals, but at the heart of it all, we want our folks to be happy.

How many residences does the agency operate?

We have 14 certified OPWDD (Office for People With Developmental Disabilities) residential programs at the moment.

How many residents does it have?

We have approximately 108 residents. This does not include the people who receive case management services and the many children and adults who utilize our Saturday respite program and creative arts programs.

What is the total number of staff?

I believe we have some 250 employees.

Surely you have had work experiences that either lifted your spirits or broke your heart. Can you provide specific examples of either or both?

Well, the most heartbreaking thing that we have to endure is when one of our individuals passes away. Like with any family member you have loved and cared for over the years, it pains us deeply, and we feel it throughout the agency. Some are even hard for me to speak about to this day. Presently, we are dealing with an aging population and some people who are struggling to remain in our residences. This is also emotional for us because we want to give people the dignity of living their whole life in a comfortable home.

Of course, many more times, this work proves to lift your spirits in the simplest and most pure ways. Visiting the Warren Residence for me is always a boost because I get to go to the corner store to grab a coffee with Larry. Larry is someone who has Down syndrome and was once housed at a large institution before coming to Mercy Home. He's been a personal friend of mine since I met him some 30 years ago. Ryan is another friend of mine who I helped move into a new residence in Queens way back in 1985. He was a young boy with neurological disorders that affected his speech and learning abilities. But he was very socially aware and was longing for attention and recognition when I first met him. These days, I get to take Ryan out to lunch, and that usually makes his week, and coincidentally, mine, too. Just a couple of old friends spending time together.

Can you cite any resident who you consider to be thriving in the agency?

About a year or so ago, we opened our first residence in Long Island. Not only was it a big departure from our Brooklyn comfort zone, but we committed to serve a group of young ladies with some very challenging emotional issues that no other agency was willing to take on. I don't think any of us thought that this would come together for quite a few years. Well, I'm happy to say that these young ladies are thriving and have become part of our family in a very short time.

Where and with whom did you grow up?

I was born in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and spent my first 12 years on a street that was full of friends and families. Everybody was your aunt or uncle, and every friend was like a brother or sister. It really was a special time. There were many fewer coffee shops and Internet cafés back then. I moved to Flushing, Queens, in the early '70s and was lucky enough to fall into the right friendships. My cousins who had lived upstairs from me in Williamsburg also moved to Flushing at the same time, and that was a huge help.

Did you have role models or personal heroes?

My mom was a big influence on my life. She was an extremely kind and patient person. She was easy to make laugh and really enjoyed the company of others.

When I moved to Flushing, I met my first friend in school who invited me to his house, and it seems I never left. I was sort of adopted by his mom, who was also someone who believed in me in the same way she believed in her own kids. I'm happy to say that I still have her here today.

But sadly, I lost a great friend and mentor in Bishop Ignatius Catanello (Bishop Iggy), who gave me genuine friendship and guidance for the past 25 years. Those have been superheroes for me.

Where were you educated?

I went to Queens College and studied American literature. About 10 years later, I went to NYU and received a Master's degree in music therapy.

Can you cite any outstanding teacher?

At the beginning it was a sixh-grade teacher named Mr. Gerry Hirshfeld, an easy-going guy who helped me adjust to a new school. Queens College gave me Dr. Stephen Stepanchev, who told me I could be a writer. In graduate school, I met Dr. Alan Turrey, an amazingly gifted musician and therapist who showed me that we weren't very different from the people we are trying to help.

Please describe your current family.

I am a lucky person. I have an amazingly smart and talented wife, Yuzuko, who is passionate about everything she does and is committed to our family. My wife and I are also fortunate enough to have a beautiful and healthy 4-year-old daughter who gives purpose to everything we do. Her name is Liliana Grace, and she was given her middle name as a tribute to the women I mentioned earlier who welcomed me into her home and became a second mom to me. We love traveling together, and we often joke that Lili has been to more places in four years than we have in our entire life. I feel like my family is an enormous blessing to me and something to be celebrated every day.

Do you belong to any parish?

Our daughter was baptized at Holy Family in Flushing, but we now live closer to St. Luke's in Whitestone.

What do you get from practicing your faith?

I will admit that I have so much more to do, but when I am truly in those moments, I feel a spiritual fullness, a comfort, and a place of safety in a very challenging world.

What do you think God is asking of you?

To help and to be kind to others. To honor your family and those around you. To believe.

Is there anything else you would like us to know?

In 2014, I had some significant health struggles, the kind that many people go through, some of which are even more challenging than mine. But I am feeling a good deal better now. In this new year, I am reminding myself to slow down, don't rush to the finish line -- because when you get there, you're finished! And there's plenty more to do.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

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