Posted On: January 31, 2020
Having recently graduated high school and trying to figure out what’s next, Danielle Giuffrida found herself in a predicament that’s far too familiar to young people with disabilities.
“I didn’t really fit in the realm of supported employment, but no one really knew if I could go to college or not,” Danielle recalls. “No one ever told me no, exactly. They just didn’t know what to do with me.”
Danielle, who has cerebral palsy and a related learning disability, ultimately chose college. However, the uncertainty surrounding her own transition to postsecondary education was an eye-opening experience. She became devoted to the idea of helping make sure other young people with disabilities don’t fall through the cracks.
“If I wouldn’t have spoken up, I would’ve been allowed to just stay with my high school job at Dierbergs indefinitely,” Danielle remarks. “People deserve to know all of their options, no matter what, because you never know what they might aspire to.”
When Danielle first enrolled at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley, multiple internships and an advanced degree were still not on her radar.
“To be honest, I thought I’d get my two-year degree and be done,” Danielle admits. “But I had certain people around me saying, ‘Hey, your grades are good enough. You should go on and get your bachelor’s.’”
Danielle listened. She eventually transferred to the University of Missouri-St. Louis where she earned her B.A. in social work. Her first practicum experience as an undergraduate came with the St. Louis ARC. She helped facilitate community involvement and recreational opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. Although she enjoyed the work, it wasn’t a role she saw herself doing long term.
After hearing about SDI and learning a little about its mission, Danielle left a voicemail for Colleen Starkloff. When Colleen returned her call, they had a frank discussion about Danielle’s passion and career goals. Colleen invited her to the office to discuss the possibility of an internship with SDI, an opportunity Danielle jumped at.
Before long, Danielle began her second undergraduate practicum, working closely with SDI Director of Education Steve Foelsch to promote the disability studies graduate certificate program at Maryville University. As someone who felt a deep appreciation for her own college experience, Danielle loved encouraging students to attend Maryville and pursue the certificate.
Upon completing a 10-month practicum at Starkloff and graduating from UMSL, Danielle was once again unsure of what her next move would be. The Access office advisor from her days at STLCC-Florissant Valley invited her to apply for an internship there, so Danielle gave it a shot.
She was ultimately selected for the position, conducting intake interviews, preparing case notes, and providing academic and financial aid guidance to students with disabilities. When Danielle asked about what it would take to become a full-time employee at the Access office, her boss made it clear that a Master’s Degree was mandatory. Colleen had always stressed the importance of obtaining a graduate degree as well, so Danielle made a decision.
“I would apply to grad school, and if I didn’t get in I’d start looking for jobs,” Danielle says. “I did get accepted to Washington University, though, so I started working toward my Master’s in social work.”
During her studies at Washington University’s prestigious Brown School, Danielle served as a youth and family practicum student at Paraquad. In this role, she helped lead classes on money management and independent living, facilitated group discussions with youth and developed a policy brief concerning the transition-related components of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Even with a Master’s in social work, Danielle’s job search wasn’t immediately fruitful. She eventually found work as a retention specialist at a nonprofit specializing in supported employment, but Danielle wasn’t fully satisfied. A lunch meeting with her friend and mentor Colleen, however, took her career in an exciting new direction.
She was encouraged to apply for a Youth Transition role at SDI, an opportunity that aligned perfectly with her personal experience and passion. Shortly thereafter, Danielle became DREAM BIG Camp Coordinator at Starkloff.
Lori Becker, Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Development recognized right away that Danielle would make the perfect leader for DREAM BIG Career Camp.
“Danielle is an absolute firecracker. Her energy and enthusiasm light up the room,” Lori remarks. “Upon getting to know her more, you find out she is also extremely smart, resilient, and a dedicated worker. I knew she would be an amazing role model for our kids and for the companies we meet.”
As Camp Coordinator, Danielle is responsible for planning and facilitating all aspects of the three week-long career camps that define DREAM BIG’s summer programming. She looks forward to helping students unlock their true potential.
“I’m really excited to be here. This is basically what I’ve always wanted to do with my life – help students realize they can have the career they want,” Danielle explains. “For students who are unsure about their future, I want to tell them they don’t have to listen to the stigmatization they’ve probably been subjected to their entire lives. There’s possibility out there. You just have to dream big and go for it.”