When Chris first started his internship at the College of Staten Island Bookstore, he didn’t exactly take his new position very seriously. He would joke around while on the job and occasionally act out.
As a student with disabilities, Chris faced additional challenges in the working world — challenges that the bookstore staff was willing to take on. “I wrote up a list of responsibilities for the job, and Chris and his program mentor reviewed and discussed it,” says Bookstore Manager Carmela Balestrieri, who has been with the bookstore for 37 years. “We provided guidelines on how to behave and how to dress. Now, he takes his job much more seriously. I’m training him on the register because he’s graduating from the program and getting ready to look for a job.”
The program Balestrieri is referring to is the Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program at the College of Staten Island of The City University of New York, which prepares young adults with intellectual disabilities to be competitively employed and earn higher wages. The program, which is run by AHRC New York City, provides students with the same opportunities for personal growth as other young adults who attend college through coursework, career preparation, and self-awareness and socialization. “I have learned to help customers, stock the shelves, and clean the store. And now I am being trained to use the register,” Chris says. “My goal is to work in the bookstore or anywhere else when I graduate. Working in the bookstore has helped me to be able to [look for] a job.” Skills such as using the cash register can be invaluable to someone like Chris as many retail positions require it, according to Rachel Rippey, Community Support Supervisor at AHRC. “Carmela has taken the initiative to train them well — and it’s so helpful,” she says.
According to Balestrieri, the bookstore has provided internships for program participants for five years, and the staff has witnessed tremendous growth in many of the program’s students. “One of our interns is now an employee at the Wagner College Bookstore. Another is working in the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden,” she explains. “We try to introduce them to the skills needed to be employed in the workplace and appropriate professional behavior to maintain employment.”
Balestrieri has worked with other interns, including Jason, who was loud and boisterous when he initially began working at the bookstore. His training included learning to modulate his voice. Another intern, Edward, was extremely shy and had difficulty speaking to customers. “He didn’t like to talk to people, but we hired him on faith,” Balestrieri recalls. “With help, he grew into the job and became more social — and was able to talk to customers and other staff.”
According to Rippey, the bookstore is a wonderful place to put the soft skills that students with disabilities learn through her agency into practice. “While we teach certain workplace skills in a structured way, the bookstore offers an opportunity to finesse them,” she says. “We’re so grateful to have internship positions right on campus, too, so the student doesn’t have to travel far to get to work.”
The program’s namesake, Melissa Riggio, was the niece of Barnes & Noble founder Len Riggio and the daughter of former Barnes & Noble CEO, Steven Riggio. Born with Down Syndrome, she passed away in 2008 at the age of 20 after a courageous battle with leukemia. Despite her disability, the extraordinary young woman lived a very full life, working at her local YMCA and embracing her passion for reading, music and writing. Before her untimely passing, Melissa had plans to enter a postsecondary program, with hopes of eventually becoming a counselor where she worked. Her legacy inspired the creation of the program that now bears her name and is helping others with intellectual disabilities achieve their dreams and independence.
According to Balestrieri, when young adults with disabilities graduate high school, it is often difficult for them to acquire work experience. However, through the Melissa Riggio program, they can take both higher-education classes as well as earn significant hands-on work skills. “I’m frequently amazed by what our interns can achieve,” Balestrieri says. “I watch them learn and help them build on that, giving them the skills to eventually find jobs. I’m very proud that Barnes & Noble College is so supportive of this program.”