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Bill Smeal is proud of his paycheck. At $2.58 an hour, it's not a big check, but earning it is a big deal.

The 37-year-old Niagara Falls resident suffered brain damage at birth that left him with mental retardation and unable to read or write.

Jennifer Stuart, 26, of Youngstown, was born with Down syndrome.

For people like Smeal and Stuart, the job market is more than tough. It's practically impossible to find work.

Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara has been trying to change that for 50 years.

And so, too, has DiCamillo Baking Co., the landmark Niagara Falls establishment known for its Italian biscotti cookies, bread, cakes, doughnuts and a variety of confections.

DiCamillo Bakery has provided steady work for people with disabilities for 20 years.

"Years ago, Billy would've been sent to an institution," said his mother, Carolyn. "But Opportunities Unlimited gave him a life. Through the program he has learned to become a useful member of society."

About half of the 125 people with physical or mental disabilities -- Opportunities Unlimited calls them consumers -- who are employed in the agency's vocational training center in Niagara Falls package and label DiCamillo products.

The bakery received the 2002 Customer of the Year award from Opportunities Unlimited at the agency's annual awards dinner Friday at Niagara County Community College.

"Opportunities Unlimited has meant everything to Bill," said his mother, who received the agency's Volunteer of the Year award for her 32 years of service on the board of directors. "And it's taken a huge weight off my shoulders."

Carolyn Smeal's daughter, Stacey, who was also diagnosed with mental retardation at an early age, was employed in the Opportunities Unlimited workshop until her death in 1992 at age 33. Five years later, Smeal's husband, William, died.

Two years ago, her son moved into an Opportunities Unlimited group home on Buffalo Avenue in Niagara Falls. He cannot read or write, but he loves music, his mother said. He spends most of his paycheck on CDs,
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listening to music on headphones and strumming along with the tunes on his guitar.

Once dangerously overweight at 310 pounds, he has lost 130 pounds with the group home's exercise and a healthy eating program.

"Our goal is to help consumers progress to jobs in the community," said Jill Bacon, vice president of communications for Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara. "Once they make that transition, we continue to coach them in their jobs."

Most are employed at the workshop at 1555 Factory Outlet Blvd. Another 80 people with physical or mental disabilities are employed at the agency's Lockport facility at 107 Heath St.

Opportunities Unlimited employees get paid for doing contract work for a dozen local and regional companies, everything from sorting kitchen sponges to installing dime-size washers in products.

"There's always some job for them," said Ellen Miller of Niagara Falls, a supervising specialist who has been with Opportunities Unlimited for 25 years. "If they can't do certain things, we find something else for them."

Opportunities Unlimited staff members pick up the baked goods from DiCamillo's kitchen at 811 Linwood Ave. and take them back to the work area at the training center, where the disabled workers pack the products into cookie tins and boxes, label them and cut ribbons for gift packages.

"They do a very good job," Miller said of the workers in the Factory Outlet Boulevard center. "They're highly trained for what they do."

The work is concentrated during October and December at the peak of DiCamillo's Christmas season.

"Opportunities Unlimited is a good resource for us," said David DiCamillo, who runs the bakery with his three brothers, Thomas, Frances "Skip" and Michael. "They do quality work and at a reasonable rate. It's a win-win situation."

The bakery also has contracted work out to state facilities that rehabilitate juvenile offenders.

"It's good business," said Michael DiCamillo, vice president of marketing, "and we're happy to help these people get their lives back on track."

The brothers' grandparents, Tomaso and Addolorata DiCamillo, opened the original bakery on 14th Street in 1920.

Customers entering the Linwood Avenue bakery shop are greeted by the sweet aroma of freshly baked cookies, cake, doughnuts and bread. Overhead is a large blow-up of a photograph taken in 1929 of a DiCamillo delivery truck outside the first shop.

"This is a wonderful place to work," said Kari Clifton of Niagara Falls, a student nurse who has worked behind the counter for three years.

The DiCamillos are keeping the family tradition going. Thomas DiCamillo's daughter Margaret helps run the shop at 7927 Niagara Falls Blvd., making it a fourth-generation family business. The other two shops are at 1700 Pine Ave. in Niagara Falls and 535 Center St. in Lewiston.

The DiCamillo Bakery was among several firms and individuals honored by Opportunities Unlimited at the agency's awards dinner emceed by State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda.

Speaking of Carolyn Smeal's award, Connie S. Brown, president of the agency, said, "Carolyn deserves to be recognized for her countless hours of service and dedication ensuring that people with disabilities have the opportunity to lead a more productive life."

Although she retired from the board last year, Smeal headed the 2003 membership campaign, using her children's accomplishments at the agency as testimony to what can be achieved there.

Opportunities Unlimited was founded by concerned parents in 1955 as the Niagara County Chapter of the New York State Association for Retarded Children. It is now the county's largest not-for-profit human services agency, providing rehabilitation programs and supportive services annually to more than 1,400 people with mental or developmental disabilities.

In addition to the vocational training centers in Niagara Falls and Lockport, Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara operates a Day Treatment Center at 2510 Niagara Falls Blvd. in Wheatfield. That facility recently opened a nature trail as part of the agency's therapy to nurture damaged minds and bodies.


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