Cambria's work ethic gives promise to persons with disabilities

University Park, Pa. — Rocco Cambria learned his strong work ethic from two sources: his parents, and the friends he made at a work activities training center for persons with cognitive disabilities.

Cambria was born and raised in the blue-collar region of Reading, Pa. His father, Carmelo, worked in the area’s factories and steel mills. His mom, Jennie, did knitting millwork in the family’s home while taking care of the children. Later, Carmelo and Jennie opened a luncheonette and several successful sandwich shops.

As a high school student, Cambria spent many nights working in those eateries. Later, during the summers of his college years, he labored in Reading’s sweltering steel mills and machine shops. “It was hard work, but my father insisted that our summer work be of this nature,” stated Cambria. “I’m sure he had a good reason for insisting on hard manual labor. Any success I have achieved is a direct result of the encouragement and sacrifices my parents made for their children.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1972 at Penn State, Cambria was hired at a work activities training center in Berks County. “It was in this program that I formed some of my strongest relationships with individuals who had cognitive disabilities,” said Cambria. “What impressed me most was their work ethic, despite the level of work activity that they had available to do at the time.”

Cambria saw a need for the center to improve its approach to preparing developmentally challenged individuals. “A quick look around at the work that the people were performing clearly did not resemble any work that I could conceive of being performed outside of the facility,” remembered Cambria. “I felt strongly that many of the individuals working in the center were capable of working for others. Common sense told me that if we were to be successful at moving anyone out of the facility, the nature of the work had to drastically change.”

After a year, Cambria became director of the work program. “I proposed changing the name of the facility to something less labeling of individuals with disabilities — something more reflective of productivity,” he said.

But he was met with resistance from parents and others. He decided to return to college to learn more about the field, pursuing his master’s degree in counseling psychology with an emphasis in rehabilitation counseling. “I soon learned that I was indeed on the right path,” he said. “I just needed to look for another way. That would later translate into my work of placing individuals directly on the job and training them in real-work situations, as opposed to simulated work in segregated settings.”

After receiving his M.Ed., Cambria helped form and later became president of AHEDD, a not-for-profit central Pennsylvania-based agency that provides various employment and training services to persons with disabilities. AHEDD’s services include job-search assistance, resume preparation, interviewing tips, on-the-job training, and benefits counseling. The agency is based in Camp Hill, Pa., with offices stretched across the Commonwealth and Delaware. Cambria remains president to this day.

Cambria lives with his wife, Janet, and their son, Ben, in New Cumberland, just across the river from Harrisburg. Janet is employed by the Tuscarora Intermediate Unit and works as a consultant for the Department of Public Welfare. Ben, a senior at Trinity High School in Camp Hill, soon will be heading to college.

During his AHEDD tenure, Rocco Cambria has observed steady, positive changes in business and industry’s acceptance of persons with disabilities. “Most businesses want to do right by the communities in which they exist, but they also need to get their work accomplished in the most cost-effective manner possible,” he said. “If AHEDD can demonstrate that our candidates bring value to the job, the businesses are more than willing to make the opportunities available.”

As employers see the gains made by other employers who have hired individuals with disabilities, they in turn will try. “At that point, the ball is in our court,” he said. “We get to show that rehabilitation programs like AHEDD represent true partnerships in achieving shared goals. Let’s face it, we all want the same thing—it’s just a matter of trust and execution.”

Each time AHEDD successfully places a client, Cambria and his staff feel tremendous satisfaction. “Participants that we placed over 20 years ago continue to call and tell me how much they love their jobs,” he said. “How many people can say the same about their jobs?”

There have been plenty of success stories over the years. Cambria points to a young man named Jim who was referred to AHEDD several decades ago. “Jim had been kicked out of every training program in which he had been placed,” said Cambria. “He was essentially nonverbal and needed a lot of support. We knew of an outdoor maintenance position at a local YMCA. The supervisor there was gruff and salty, the most unlikely individual to be matched with the needs that Jim presented.”

But an AHEDD employment specialist saw something special in the blend of these two very different personalities. “That was that they both needed each other,” said Cambria.

“A bestselling movie could be made about the relationship that grew between them,” added Cambria. “With the job-coaching help of the employment specialist through the many—and there were many—challenges, Jim conquered the various job duties and continued to grow, both personally and professionally. His physical appearance also changed as his supervisor engaged him in strength training during off hours.”

But one change was particularly dramatic: Jim started talking, with the encouragement of his supervisor, who ended up becoming his best friend.

At 59, Cambria still enjoys his work. He has no imminent retirement plans. “The talented people around me are the best,” he bragged. “As long as I can make a contribution, I’ll always be involved in some aspect of this field.”

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Last Updated November 18, 2010