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Finding a way back to Western New York

Local expats long for home. Friends, family, houses for a quarter of the price of other big cities, a 20-minute drive to just about anywhere, festivals every summer weekend, Sabres hockey and chicken wings, sponge candy and pierogi done right.

Trouble is, not everyone can find a job to pay the way for a move back. Many young people who have made it home and resettled here after career beginnings took them hundreds of miles away say they did it by compromising, vigilantly checking job postings, networking and getting lucky.

“It just so happened that Jamestown had a sudden opening,” said Gary Schaffer, 31, a school psychologist for the Jamestown district. “I needed my family and friends close.”

Schaffer, a North Tonawanda native, did his graduate and undergraduate work at Niagara University. After moving to Arizona for an internship, the closest job he could find was at a school district in Lansing, Mich. Still, he kept checking for local jobs at places like Indeed.com. When he saw that Jamestown was looking, he applied right away.

“It’s extremely competitive,” Schaffer said. His edge was his keen interest in his profession, unique background at out-of-town districts and patience with kids.

Schaffer was inspired to become a school psychologist because of his experience as a student.

He was diagnosed with a learning disability and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a diagnosis that sometimes leads to special-education classes. But Schaffer succeeded when teachers made adjustments so he could stay in class with his peers. Now as a school psychologist, he advocates for the same approach. In one recent case, a struggling student thrived when placed in a smaller reading group.

“It was all about catching that student up and making them able to learn with their peers. Special education is not an intervention. It is a place to send kids,” he said. “My job really entails a lot of preventative practice: working with students to prevent the learning and behavioral difficulties.”

Since he started his Jamestown job last February, he was elected to the state board of the New York Association of School Psychologists and finished a study with a graduate school mentor examining how strategies such as family support increases college success rates for ADHD kids. Even though his job includes an hour-and-40-minute commute, he is grateful for it.

“I’m a true advocate for the kids,” he said. “I’ve always had two jobs.”

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Christine Slocum, 28, an assistant research analyst at the Homeless Alliance of Western New York headquarters in downtown Buffalo, took a chance and moved east from Seattle without a job.

She grew up in a suburb of Syracuse and earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s in sociology from the University at Buffalo. While she grew disenchanted with an academic career in sociology that she was training for in the doctoral program at the University of Washington, she quit. Instead, it was a job she found helping with a housing program for homeless people that led her to a career switch she feels passionate about.

“Economic stratification is something that’s important to me,” she said. “I think that’s one of the more defining societal ills.”

She liked working at the nonprofit because she could help people more directly than she could doing academic research. But when her daughter, Alyx, was born, the job was too expensive to keep. She was making $1,800 a month and child care was $2,000. “It was going to cost me $200 a month to work, which was crazy,” she said.

After her husband’s job at an Internet start-up changed, he opted for the severance package and the couple decided to start over closer to home.

They lived with Slocum’s parents in Syracuse at first. She freelanced as a copy editor and checked Craigslist and Indeed.com. She didn’t get the program assistant job she applied for at the Homeless Alliance, but she stayed in touch.

Her current job opened up last May. Her husband found a job as a network analyst at Independent Health soon after, and they moved to Buffalo.

Slocum’s work helps local nonprofits win grants to assist the estimated 5,700 homeless in Erie and Niagara counties. Recent projects included setting up a Web program so local agencies can coordinate care clients who live outside.

“So now when they’re looking for people, they actually have the map,” said Slocum, who feels happier at her job than she was in grad school.

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After Kara Rickicki finished her MBA at St. Bonaventure University, she longed for warm weather. She landed a job as scholarship coordinator at Palm Beach State College in Flordia and joined a friend who was already living in West Palm Beach.

Within a year, she longed for home.

She missed her Olean family and the Buffalo sense of community that comes through in an abundance of festivals, including the Italian Festival, which she loves for its celebration of her heritage. “Summer in Buffalo – there’s so much going on,” she said.

After scouring local college and university sites for job openings, she took a chance and moved back without a job two years ago. She found temporary work in the admissions office of Alfred State College before spotting an online posting for an opening as graduate programs coordinator at the University at Buffalo medical school.

“I think being back helped,” she said.

Now Rickicki, 30, helps recruit students and guide them through the bureaucracy. Recent challenges included figuring out how to help when scholarship tuition didn’t get paid. When she was in charge of a party for prospective students, they lined up for the panini food truck she enlisted to supply provisions. When it was over, she was rewarded by kudos from her boss, the department chair – “ ‘You know kid, you did a great job.’ ”

“It’s not only the students that make it gratifying, it’s the people you work with, too,” said Rickicki, who earned her bachelor’s degree in history at UB. “My ultimate goal was to work at UB. Now that I’m at UB, I’m ecstatic. It’s a great place to work. There’s so many growth and work opportunities.”

email: mkearns@buffnews.com