RYE BEACH — Collette Divitto loves baking and being an independent, productive member of society, but on her way to becoming an award-winning entrepreneur, this successful woman had to overcome society’s biases.
Born with Down syndrome in 1990, Divitto, founder of Collettey's Cookies, was Thursday night’s inspiring keynote speaker at One Sky Community Services’ 35th anniversary “Move to Include” celebration at Abenaqui Country Club.
Many of those who listened understood Divitto’s journey too well. They know the hurdles she faces as a person with developmental disabilities because they live with the same challenges or assist those who do. What brought them to their feet after she spoke, however, was how Divitto overcame obstacles to become a business owner who’s sold hundreds of thousands of cookies, with 13 employees, many with disabilities.
“No matter who you are,” Divitto told those in the audience, “you can make a difference in this world.”
Divitto’s journey from rejection to successful business owner offers a perfect example of One’s Sky’s belief that the sky is the limit for adults with acquired brain disorders and developmental disabilities. Serving 24 cities and towns in Rockingham County as a private, nonprofit since 1983, One Sky’s mission is working to ensure adults with developmental disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to live happy, fulfilling independent lives.
“What our clients want is a chance to make a lasting impression on their communities,” said One Sky Executive Director Chris Muns.
One Sky is one of 10 state-designated organizations working with those age 21 and older with developmental disabilities, according to Muns. Its focus is providing support and services to its 1,100 clients so they can reach their potential and become independent, contributing citizens. That means having a place to live and a job to pay for life’s necessities.
“That’s what we all want, isn’t it?” Muns said. “To have a place to live and a job to pay our way. Over the past 35 years, we’ve had great successes. The big thing we’re focusing on now is helping people with developmental disabilities find jobs to give them the opportunity to be independent.”
At Thursday’s event, One Sky honored those who’ve made a difference this year. The Circle of Caring award went to Seacoast Media Group and was accepted by Howard Altschiller, executive editor and general manager. To draw the public’s attention to the strides made by those with developmental disabilities, Muns said, Seacoast Media Group publishes monthly stories written by Jeff Symes in SMG newspapers and websites spotlighting One Sky and its clients.
Three of those clients – Christopher Chiampa, Kyle Fowler and Sarah Portrie – were also honored for the strides they made.
After overcoming hurdles, Chiampa has three part-time jobs, at Target, Portsmouth Pretzel Company and TJ Max. And he still finds time to volunteer at a local soup kitchen and work with the NHSPCA.
Fowler, has a new part-time job working in the janitorial department at the University of New Hampshire, and also changed his diet and exercise habits, losing 52 pounds in the past year.
Portrie, an employee at Hampton’s Hannaford’s Supermarket, is a regular at the First Congregational Church, volunteering for the Baby Closet program, raising more than $20,000 for the charity through a benefit she and her family champion.
As Divitto watched Chiampa, Fowler and Portrie get their awards, she smiled. She identifies with their successes.
Raised in Ridgefield, Connecticut, Divitto acquired her love of baking in high school cooking classes, and perfected a recipe for a standout chocolate chip cookie with just the right touch of cinnamon.
Upon graduation, Divitto completed the LIFE program at South Carolina’s Clemson University, then moved to Boston to find work. Unfortunately, instead of a job, she found rejection from employers who saw only her limitations rather than her capabilities.
“I spent three years applying for jobs and going on interviews,” she said. “Eventually, I’d get an email or a letter that said, ‘Thank you for coming in, Collette, but at this time we feel you are not a good fit for our company.’ But I was determined to get a good paying job and live independently.”
As potential employers closed doors, Divitto’s talent and determination opened a window. Since those who’d eaten her cinnamon/chocolate chip cookie often told her they were good enough to sell, Divitto went into the kitchen and baked a batch. She then approached the owner of the Golden Goose Market in her North End Boston neighborhood, to see if the store would try selling her cookies.
“They did,” Divitto said. “And since then, I’ve sold over 200,000 cookies.”
Divitto admits she couldn’t have started her business in 2015 without the help and support of her mom, Rosemary Alfredo and sister Blake.
With exposure from local and national media, sales grew, leading Divitto to being honored last year with the New Englander of the Year Award from the New England Council. Her courageous journey, drive and remarkable approach to life has been documented in more than 100 publications worldwide.
But Divitto’s not done. Her goal is to help others achieve similar success and community support, no matter their challenges. She speaks at events across the country, using her own story to illustrate what can be accomplished with a can-do attitude, support and a will to succeed. She also hopes to get lawmakers to create national policies that will improve job opportunities for others with disabilities.
For more information on One Sky Community Services, visit www.oneksyservices.org or call (603) 436-6111.