Inclusion Matters


Lives of Distinction

Deb and Cindy Kantak

Two Peas, Two Pods, and Two Incredible Journeys

Advocates employs more than 1,300 Central New Yorkers who are dedicated to bettering the lives of people with disabilities. The majority of that figure is comprised of 1:1 direct support staff (Mentors). But did you know that there is another classification of employees within Advocates who not only work one-on-one with the people we support, but also live with them at the same time? Live-in Caregivers play one of the most critical roles in the day-to-day lives of people with disabilities. 

Over time, Cindy Kantak (right) and her sister, Deb, have utilized many of the supports and services Advocates has to offer. The unique situations of these women – and their reliance on staff – are a prime illustration of the crucial nature of Live-in Caregivers. From simple everyday accomplishments to achieved long-term goals, the Kantaks’ individual successes are a testament not only to their own growth and abilities, but also the monumental efforts of their support teams, starting with their Live-in Caregivers.

“The Kantaks have an amazing, well-oiled machine of a team which starts with their parents,” said their Advocates Support Broker of five years, Michelle Bellemare. “And because the sisters are so different from one another, their support teams deserve even more credit.” 

“The girls are complete opposites in many ways,” said their mother, Cheryl Kantak. “Even though they’re sisters and they love each other, they are two entirely different people and are not a good match to live together.” For this reason, Cindy and Deb live in their own homes, and are both very content with their respective living arrangements. And though different in many ways, it is through their unique personas and similar abilities to instill joy in others that has led to their deep connection to their Live-in Caregivers.

“For someone with the issues Deb has had and for her to still live so happily despite those issues,” began Deb’s Live-in Caregiver of ten years, Kim Cowan (pictured right), before pausing to find the right words. “She brightens the darkest of days and can put a smile on your face even when you’re experiencing rough times.” Deb’s sister is equally inspiring to those who know and care about her. “Cindy has overcome so much in her life,” said Cheryl. “From day one, I watched her fight, and I said to myself, ‘If she can do this, I can do this.’ Cindy was the inspiration for me to be an advocate for others.” 

Since birth, Cindy and Deb have required strong advocacy, as their respective disabilities were limiting. Cindy was born with a host of medical issues that unfortunately went misdiagnosed for years, including that she was deaf. She spent two of her earliest years in and out of the hospital, and her survival very much hung in the balance. A lack of support and understanding from the community only exacerbated her issues. Cheryl recalled battling with the school district to gain equal rights for her daughter. Cindy attended a school for the deaf in Buffalo, NY for eight years because no local program would accept her. “The education system just wasn’t there at the time,” Cheryl said. Although the school for the deaf was academically excellent, it was still segregated and did not prepare Cindy for life after school, so she came home to her local high school. Cindy’s limited communication skills and other’s lack of understanding caused Cindy to become frustrated and act out, and still does to this day.

Deb is also nonverbal, which makes communication a challenge for her. And unlike Cindy, she has limited mobility, which makes ambulating difficult and fatiguing. Because of Deb’s challenges – specifically her inability to express herself verbally – she, too, can exhibit frustrations just like her sister. Deb’s team has developed strategies to mitigate these challenges in an overall attempt to help her live a manageable, fulfilling life. “Deb feels all the same emotions we do,” said Kim. “She is incredibly bright and has a knack for sensing nuances and mood, and so it’s important to keep things positive around her.”

Because services looked drastically different decades ago, the community once seemed more inclined to paint bleak pictures of the sisters’ futures as opposed to devise successful game plans for them. “We weren’t always happy with the services we’d received over time,” Cheryl admitted. “We saw other agencies veer away from a person-centered approach, and that’s partially what separates Advocates from everyone else. Advocates has shown a level of support and a concern to help meet our needs unlike any other provider we’ve had.” That level of support, according to Michelle Bellemare, wouldn’t be possible without every piece of the Kantaks’ teams, including their Mentors, Cassandra Merritt, Karen Barney, Jennifer Elmer, and Kristie Debeer. “I can’t say enough about these women or the jobs they do,” she said. “Every team member is person-centered and allows the women to live their own distinct lives.” 

“I’m careful not to over-push with goals and I play to Cindy’s strengths,” said her Mentor, Cassandra. “She is an amazing human being, and working with her has helped me tremendously with raising my own children,” she continued, noting that two of her kids are being evaluated for special needs.

Kristie agreed – not only with the positive impact the women have made on her life, but also with the supportive nature of Advocates and its team-focused approach. “I love working with these women, and it’s relieving having the support of the rest of the team whenever I need it,” Kristie said.

“We can always rely on Michelle, as well!” Cheryl Kantak exclaimed, assuring everyone receives their due acclaim. “When we need you, you’re there for us at a moment’s notice,” Kim added in Michelle’s direction.

“The overall communication within the team is amazing,” Michelle replied humbly. “It amazes me how it all flows so smoothly, and I attribute that to everyone’s top-notch communication.” With this “well-oiled machine” of a team, it’s no wonder that the Kantaks live productive, fulfilling, and active lives. 

Cindy takes pride in maintaining a tidy living space and assists with much of the home’s upkeep. She also finds satisfaction in cooking and baking with the assistance of her Mentors. “She’s come so far with a lot of these things,” said her Live-in Caregiver of 12 years, Cheryl Brown. In her down time, Cindy enjoys swimming, traveling, going out to eat, being around dogs, arts and crafts, and painting. She also has an affinity for horses, and looks forward to driving a horse-drawn cart at ARISE at the Farm each week. 

Deb also loves being out and about but enjoys a host of activities that differ from her sister’s. Just some of her interests include getting her hair done, going bowling with her friends, being around water, magazines, and perhaps her favorite hobby of all, listening to music. And while Deb does not like dogs the way Cindy does, she generally enjoys animals, as is evidenced by her regular trips to Fort Rickey Discovery Zoo.

Many who know Cindy and Deb can’t help but acknowledge the differences between the two sisters. However, in actuality, they may have more in common than meets the eye. Both have a mother who wasn’t going to allow their destinies to be darkly predetermined. Both women have defied incredible odds, made immense progress along the way, and are very happy with their places in life. Both have an uncanny knack of educating and inspiring others in ways most people would never imagine. And both have left a profound impact on those who support them, and in turn, exhibit just how valuable Live-in Caregivers are to the people they support.

“These women teach people every day how they overcome their disabilities,” Michelle said. “And as inspiring as that is, their Live-in Caregivers devote more than just themselves in the workplace…in many ways, they are devoting their entire lives.”

If you have a caring family member or friend who is looking for meaningful work and the opportunity to support someone as inspirational as the Kantak sisters, please encourage them to apply on our website. We look forward to meeting them!

Upcoming Events

Advocates Trainings

Specially Designed Instruction:

A Guide for Families and Caregivers

Presented by: Kristine O'Brien | SA-FACE

October 18th @ 6:00pm | Virtual event

Participants will increase their understanding of specially designed instruction and the positive impact it has on your child’s learning and progress. Participants will receive helpful checklists and resources to guide collaboration with teachers and gather information about strategies that work for their child.

Estate Planning

Presented by: Tim Doolittle, Esq. | Wladis Law Firm

October 24th @ 6pm | In-person event

This presentation will focus on Estate Planning and strategies for people with disabilities. Learn about the roles and importance of trusts, wills, powers of attorney and health care proxies.

Communication Exists in Various Forms: Learn about a journey to communication for those who are non-speaking

Presented by: Sheree & Srilata with typer-trainers, Jamie & Sujit | SU's Initiative for Communication & Inclusion (ICI)

November 6th @ 6pm | Virtual Event

This presentation will address the connection between communication, movement, initiation, sensory and the key elements of support, all grounded in a presumption of competence. We will provide an overview of Supported Typing as a form of AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication), Communication Applications and Assistive Technology.

Click here to register for our trainings

Advocates John Wolford Coffee House

Our next John Wolford Coffee House will be held on Friday, Oct. 20th from 6:30-8:30 PM. Space is limited to allow for the first 120 adults receiving services from Advocates. Please note the location:

Pope John XXIII Church

8290 Soule Road, Liverpool, NY 13090

Please bring your favorite snack to pass and join us for an evening of music, dancing, food, and friendship!

Attendees are encouraged to wear their Halloween costumes!

Click here to register for this event

Enjoy Trick-or-Treating With Your Friends at Advocates!

Dine for Dollar$

Mark your calendars!

Our Dine for Dollar$ fundraisers for Advocates continue to be a success, as each month we welcome families, employees, and friends to a variety of restaurants throughout Central New York. Thank you to everyone that has joined us by coming out to support Advocates!

October - Red Robin

Our next Dine for Dollar$ is scheduled for October 19th from 4-8pm at Red Robin, which is conveniently located at 160 Township Blvd, Camillus, NY 13031.

Specializing in “outrageously delicious burgers with the always Bottomless Steak Fries,” you and your family will appreciate the friendly atmosphere and delicious food. Enjoy an evening out while making a difference for the individuals who receive services from Advocates. Red Robin will donate back 10% of all pre-tax sales to Advocates.

Advocates would like to give a shout-out to our host, Nicholas Courgi, who will be available to provide you with a code at the door for dine in or take out meals. We thank you, Nicholas!

Check out Red Robin's menu!

November - Chipotle

Specializing in bowls, quesadillas, tacos, scrumptious salads, and burritos - all made to order - your party will be delightfully satisfied with a nutritious and delicious Mexican dinner.

Our host, Nicholas Courgi, will be on hand to welcome you to Chipotle on Monday, Nov 13th. Chipotle will donate a generous 33% of the proceeds back to Advocates! So, take a night off from cooking and join us to help make a difference for people with disabilities!

Please note, this will be our last Dine for Dollar$ until 2024. You don't want to miss it!

Click here for Chipotle's menu!
Agency Updates

Disabilities Resource Fair

Advocates was proud to have participated in a Disabilities Resource Fair on Sept 12th, hosted by Senator John W. Mannion and the North Syracuse Community Center. 

As Chair of the Standing Committee on Disabilities, Senator Mannion assembled an incredible group of vendors and government agencies that provide services and resources for individuals with disabilities.

We appreciate the opportunity to provide information on the supports and services Advocates has to offer. We are especially grateful for Senator Mannion's commitment to help improve the quality of life for countless people with disabilities in our area!

Advocates 18th Annual

Golf Tournament

We send our heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped make Advocates' 18th Annual Golf Tournament a success! We would like to express gratitude to our Presenting Sponsors, TOMRA, Ryder Transportation, and Schupan, in addition to all of our generous community supporters and donors.

Advocates is beyond appreciative of

all its supporters, whose generous contributions will directly benefit children with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. We thank you! We also share our deep appreciation to our volunteers for their efforts!

Click here to view photos from this year's event

Inclusion Matters - The Podcast

Check this out!

Advocates' Executive Director, Amy Dugliss, and Self-Advocate, Nicholas Courgi, are collaborating to bring you a new, Advocates-themed podcast! The Inclusion Matters Podcast can be found on Amazon Music and Spotify.

We hope you'll tune in to hear them share inspirational stories and share the upcoming events that Advocates has to offer!

Click here to listen to this month's podcast!