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Passion and Purpose Inspires DDI Employee to Remain at Nonprofit

“As I sat in the lobby, I watched the children and teachers walking by, feeling so nervous that I didn’t have any experience with children with disabilities.  I observed a teacher and young child walking along happily and every few feet the teacher would stop and ask the child to repeat the sound “Mmm.”  She had encouraged the little boy's attempts with a smile and “That was a good try.” It was fate when they were steps away from me the child looked up and as clear as could be said, “Mmm.” Everyone within earshot erupted in cheers.  Although I didn’t know exactly what was happening, I knew it was something extraordinary, and I wanted in,” stated Jennifer Torchetti.

Back to School PhotoJennifer welcoming new students at the Ronkonkoma campus

On March 20th, 2006 Jennifer began her career at Developmental Disabilities Institute’s Early Childhood Services Center for Autism (formerly the Young Autism Program) applying the knowledge she gained while pursuing her master’s degree in clinical and industrial psychology at Adelphi University.  Within weeks, Jennifer became part of the fabric of DDI’s Ronkonkoma campus.  “I remember immediately being taken under the wing of the classroom teacher and falling in love with the students and teaching” Jennifer commented.

Mary Zinck, the mother of a DDI alumnus, shared, “Jennifer Torchetti is nothing less than a gift from God.  I know it sounds corny, but it reflects just how thankful I am that our son had her as his teacher, friend, advocate, and most importantly, his number one number fan!  His developmental success is a testament to Jennifer’s dedication and love of the work that she does and the clients that she serves.”

Jen and GraysonGrayson and Jennifer 

Committed to continuing her education with the goal of advancing the understanding of autism spectrum disorders, Jennifer decided to pursue her doctorate in clinical psychology in September 2007.  DDI supported Jennifer’s decision and offered her a part-time position in the program allowing her to focus on her academic responsibilities while maintaining a valuable role in the program.  “Jennifer has a gift of being able to teach and support all learners across the spectrum effectively," commented Christine Racca, Director of the Center for Autism.  As Jennifer’s academic program progressed, a clinical rotation would be expected, and Jennifer feared she might have to part ways with a place she had come to know and love. 

In 2010, Jennifer began her practicum at DDI’s Opti Healthcare clinic and with the support of Dr. Jeff Romano, assisted with patient care and counseling.  This experience provided the opportunity to work with adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities and confirmed for Jennifer that the field of autism spectrum disorders was her passion.  “Working as part of the clinic, I gained a working knowledge of co-occurring conditions in autism and the importance of effective diagnosis and treatment” stated Jennifer.

Jennifer again faced the fear that remaining at DDI to complete her pre-doctoral internship would be difficult.  Jennifer recalls, “When I received the call stating that both Dr. Kim James, Licensed Clinical Psychologist at the Children’s Day Program, and Dr. Denise Tuckruskye, Licensed Clinical Psychologist at the Early Childhood Program would be willing to provide the supervision, mentorship and experience I needed, I was elated.  I remain in awe of the access we have (at DDI) to superior mentors, and this motivated me to excel and become like them.” Beginning in her new role left Jennifer with mixed emotions.  The bonds that she created with students, families, and staff while in the Center for Autism left her worried that she couldn’t possibly find that type of connection again.  In less than one year into her practicum, Jennifer was offered a position in the Children’s Day Program as an Education Behavior Specialist.

In this new role, Jennifer would combine her experience as a direct teacher with her clinical knowledge and expertise to support classroom teachers in all facets of curriculum development, classroom management, and professional growth. Jennifer’s strengths expanded beyond her commitment to children and included supporting and celebrating her coworkers as well. Michelle Sciara, the associate director of the Children’s Day Program, stated, “Everyone who knows Jennifer, recognizes that she is passionate about improving the well-being of people with developmental disabilities. She has devoted her professional life to helping DDI’s children and adults lead their best lives. What’s equally notable about Jennifer is her commitment to a positive workplace environment.”

 As 2017 came to a close, Jennifer realized another tremendous accomplishment as she successfully defended her dissertation and completed the doctoral program in clinical psychology at Walden University.  For almost ten years Jennifer had been working at DDI in some capacity and focusing on her goal of completing her doctorate.  This accomplishment would stir those feelings of change once again.  DDI had offered flexibility, support, and compassion while Jennifer pursued her academic dreams but would the agency have an opportunity for another clinical psychologist?  The answer was yes. The interview process concluded with a job offer bringing her full circle back to early childhood - the roots of her journey at DDI.

Jen's graduation photoJennifer's graduation from Walden University

Denise Tuckruskye, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Early Childhood program, commented, “Jennifer has been a wonderful new addition to our Psychology Department in the Early Childhood Services Program.   Jennifer’s involvement with Early Childhood Services began several years ago as a doctoral intern in Clinical Psychology.  So we were thrilled when several years later Jennifer joined our Early Childhood team, this time as a psychologist, where once again her positive attitude and excellent clinical skills have made our program a stronger one.”

The pitter-patter of preschool children scurrying through the hallway would bring back all of those first memories to Jennifer.  Although Nicholas, who won her heart that the first day, was a teenager now, the excitement to shape and teach young children meant that Jennifer would expect her love to multiply once again, and it certainly did.

“I am so proud of Jennifer’s accomplishments over the past ten years.  Starting as a teaching assistant at DDI’s Young Autism Program, to attaining her Ph.D. in Psychology.  I am equally impressed with DDI in supporting its mantra of “People Inspired by Purpose” by recently offering Jennifer a Psychologist position, “commented Mary Zinck. Mary added, “Her choice to remain in the non-profit sector to continue the work she so passionately enjoys, speaks volumes of her commitment to helping people.”

Reflecting on her years at DDI, Jennifer thinks about the children and their families who have forever influenced her passion for understanding, growing and learning.  “I didn’t have any idea what career path I would have when I graduated with my master’s degree, but my supervisors and mentors always encouraged me, trusted me and believed in me” commented Jen.  Jill Pollacek, the parent of a student at DDI, shared “DDI has so many dedicated staff I have to come to know through the years.  Jennifer always went above and beyond to help my son Keith and our family.  Over the years, she has become part of our family, and we are truly grateful for her.”

Keith and JenKeith and Jennifer

Jennifer’s commitment to children and adults supported by DDI is no surprise when you meet her family. “I come from a family of educators, and I have been fortunate to have great family support throughout this journey.   My parents have shown me what it means to remain devoted to a career path and loyal to the people you have chosen to work with” commented Jennifer.

During her tenure at DDI Jennifer has touched the lives of over 100 children and adults supported by DDI.  Mary Zinck added, “They say it takes a village to raise a child.  When you have a child with a disability or special needs, it takes so much more that.  We were blessed with Jennifer.  She came into our lives ten years ago and made our world a better place.  She will forever remain a member of our family.”