Meet Our Staff: Tony

Meet Our Staff: Tony

Christian Zapata, most often known as Tony, a household nickname from his middle name Antonio, heads Friedman Place’s versatile social services department. His wide-ranging duties include overseeing the whole admission process for prospective residents; providing group and one-on-one counseling; supervising case management; and acting as Friedman Place’s de facto IT department by providing adaptive technology services. Tony describes his and his team’s responsibilities in short as “a little bit of everything” that improves residents’ quality of life and their ability to live as independently as they’re able to.

The variety of Tony’s work at Friedman Place reflects the diversity of his educational and professional past. Prior to his fifteen-year-long career in social work, Tony worked as a computer programmer for General Motors after earning his associate degree in computer science, but went back to school for behavioral science, and then social work for his master’s, in part because he felt his sociable personality was a better fit for working with people. Always technologically inclined, with an early-found enjoyment in learning about and tinkering with electronics, Tony enjoys that he can still draw on his technology skills when, for example, he teaches residents how to use assistive technology such as JAWS, a program that enables users with total or partial vision loss to fully use a PC. Usually, though, Tony assists residents in getting and using Amazon Echo & Alexa devices. “They’ve been so popular, I feel like Amazon should pay me for the advertising,” he says.

Tony, “very family-centric,” spends his time away from Friedman Place with his wife, whom he has been with for fifteen years, and his two children. They share a love for the Bears and for “anything with wheels,” Tony says, an interest due to Tony being a “car guy” ever since he learned, and was able, to drive. Now visually impaired, Tony can no longer drive a car, but he still greatly appreciates them.

Tony’s visual impairment and his approach to it contribute to his abiding mindfulness when interacting and working with residents; though he too experiences vision loss, he acknowledges that he and any one resident do not share the same experience of it. Tony says this nod, at differences in each individual’s life course, experience, and opportunity keeps him from equating residents’ capabilities with his own, assessing potential from the notion of, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Tony echoes the three other blind and visually impaired staff members of Friedman Place when he describes his work as a dovetail of both work and life experience. While he feels this convergence with the residents he connects with each day, it also becomes vivid when he receives a first-time call from someone expressing interest in living at Friedman Place. Many of these conversations are not just the caller’s first time asking about a place to live, but the first time they have spoken with someone about their experience with vision loss. These callers often approach disability as an identity-consuming trait, confiding in Tony a sadness at the idea that their ‘life is over’ because they can’t see. Tony finds great reward in these moments—when he can tell these callers that, no, their life is just beginning—in which he can provide clarity and validation to people in an overwhelming and possibly traumatic time.

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Meet Our Volunteers: Rod

Meet Our Volunteers: Rod

Rod* Gardner (pictured right) has been volunteering as Friedman Place’s job coach for over one year. Part of Rod’s inspiration to volunteer at Friedman Place stemmed from his relationship with a family friend who was blind. He recalled the successes and the struggles of his friend and hopes to provide Friedman Place residents with opportunities to succeed in gaining work by teaching them how to find work and keep it. He also has worked as a job coach for people with disabilities other than blindness, and when he discovered Friedman Place in his old neighborhood it seemed like a great fit for him.

He offers his expertise in job coaching and job placement services to residents on Mondays and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., even though most residents make appointments he occasionally has time to accommodate a drop-in visit. He works with four residents each day. He helps build their resumes, assists in their job searches and teaches them how to conduct searches independently. Rod first learns about residents’ abilities and desires and then works with residents to find a paid or volunteer job. Once Rod gets to know a resident better he incorporates role playing in order to hone residents’ interviewing skills. Rod also helps settle down first-day jitters and provides advice on how to communicate issues that arise with employers or co-workers.

Rod’s many years of experience in the job placement and job readiness field for people with disabilities made him well aware of the challenges that employers imagine when considering hiring someone with a disability. Despite his experience helping other job seekers with disabilities, he was surprised by the extreme bias employers had toward applicants who are blind or have severe visual impairment. Rod’s firsthand experience of the difficulty for those living with blindness to find work makes the incredulous statistic of 70% unemployment nationally for people who are blind or visually impaired very believable.

“Employers don’t think people who are blind can work or be productive, it’s very sad,” Rod said. However, this bias makes him even more determined to succeed. Rod has faced these challenges and has had success partnering with other nonprofits, faith-based organizations and corporations that have provided Friedman Place residents with volunteer and paying jobs.

In fact one resident, a man in his fifties, is doing very well at his volunteer position. He attributes some of this success to getting his foot in the door thanks to Rod, his hard work and determination, and having someone to help him talk through sticky situations at work. This has provided the resident with enough self-confidence to ask his boss for a paid position.

Rod has been a member of the surrounding communities of Lincoln Square and Edgewater, although he currently resides in Evanston with his wife and two cats. They enjoy exercise, music and listening to old CDs, cassettes and vinyl records together.

If anyone can connect Friedman Place with organizations or corporations that would be willing to work with Rod to explore the possibility of paid or volunteer positions for our residents, please contact:

Christian Zapata (Tony), Social Services Supervisor; or call 773-998-9800 ext. 1102.

*Friedman Place recently welcomed Rod to the staff as our new Health and Wellness Coordinator. We are grateful for Rod’s service as a volunteer and congratulate him on his new role in the Friedman Place community. If interested in the volunteer job coach vacancy, we encourage you to please contact:

Beth Elman, Director of Activities and Volunteers; or call 773 989-9800 ext. 1111

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Meet our Staff – Rita

Meet Friedman Place Director of Operations: Rita

Rita helps landscape the grounds of Friedman Place with volunteers and staff.

Talk about covering a lot of ground. Rita worked with staff and volunteers installing the wonderful landscaping that beautifies the outside of Friedman Place.

Rita Scaletta has been Friedman Place’s Director of Finance and Operations for about 14 years now. Her four main areas of responsibility include making sure the building is in good physical shape, overseeing housekeeping, dining services and ensuring that the organization’s finances are correct.

The native Chicagoan possesses an unusual strong work ethic and love for the residents she serves. Full of energy, always positive, Rita is ready to pitch in wherever and whenever she is needed. “I don’t have a typical work day,” she said. “In order to make sure the needs of residents are met, I cover a lot of ground.” Rita would never say so herself, but her management contributes directly to Friedman Place earning perfect scores on the Annual State Review for three years in a row now!

One moment, Rita might call a repair person if a kitchen appliance in the dining hall isn’t working properly. Another time, she might be interacting with someone from housekeeping. At certain times of the year, she puts on her accounting cap (an Accounting degree from Loyola University prepared her for this task) to review Friedman Place’s finances and work with an outside auditing firm.

Rita is proud of her work ethic which she learned while in the Accounting Department at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. “At Lettuce Entertain You, employees were trained initially by rotating each week through various departments and performing various jobs such as food preparation,” she said. She has applied this same hands-on approach when she came to Friedman Place and has continued it ever since.

Her biggest challenge, she believes, is to make sure the individual voice of each resident is heard when a situation needs to be resolved or a problem anticipated before it inconveniences a resident. This is her way to insure the highest standards of Friedman Place are maintained. Furthermore, she loves spending time with residents, taking one of them out for coffee, for example, or participating in the numerous activities such as playing Uno.  It’s a marvelous way for Rita to become familiar with residents, learning about their backgrounds, perspectives and desires.

Rita was born and raised as a Cubs fan.  Outside of being a great mom to her kids, one of her very best and unforgettable moments was to actually be at Wrigley Field during the World Series and watching her Cubbies take the Series.  She also loves attending rock concerts and most recently saw the “well-aged” Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field.  Rita’s daughters inherited her love concerts and when they were too young to see Britney Spears on their own Rita chaperoned them through a very energetic crowd! Her daughters are turning out to be chips off the old block too in other ways.  Together with Rita as a partner; they have opened a pet care service offering a host of services for just about any kind of pets.

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Miller Family Legacy

In Memory of Arnold “Arnie” Miller
Earlier this year, we mourned the loss of a long-time board member, Arnie Miller. His mother, Esther Miller, served on the board of directors when Friedman Place was still The Kagan Home for the Blind. After she died in the 1980’s Arnie took over her role. For more than 30 years, Arnie saw Friedman Place through many transitions including moving into our current facility.

Late Board Member, Arnold Miller

Arnie was thoughtful, a good listener, and a loving brother to his sister, Roberta. He was born in and lived out his life here in Chicago, attended Lane Tech high school, worked at Bennett Brothers, and had a passion for the opera and playing basket ball. Before he passed, in a final act of love and caring for his sister, who has lived with blindness since their youth, Arnie entrusted Friedman Place as a supportive home for his sister to live. Roberta is now continuing her family’s legacy at Friedman Place as a new resident and Arnie wouldn’t be surprised that she is fitting right in.

Arnold Miller's sister and current resident

Introducing Roberta
Roberta always wondered if she would have done better in school had her vision loss, due to Retinitis Pigmentosa, been diagnosed earlier. However, once diagnosed just after completing high school, she quickly flourished. She loved learning Braille and picked it up quickly. She still enjoys reading her Braille magazines and books, and makes use of a Braille calendar. In 2012, a surgery in Roberta’s left eye saved some of her vision and prevented her from becoming totally blind.

Roberta first met her husband, Alan, at a dance hosted by the Kagan Home. After dating for four years, they married in 1976 and moved into their condo at Belmont and Sheridan. Although Roberta and Alan were both visually impaired, they managed to live an independent life together. Roberta cooked and kept house and Alan could read finer print, which was helpful for going through mail and paying bills. To support them, Alan found a good job doing office work for the CTA. Roberta remembers getting around on the CTA buses. “It was a lot of fun!” she remembers of the experience. Back in those days, they had to rely on the driver and other passengers to call out stops. Once a week, Roberta’s brother, Arnie, would come over and help the couple with tasks that were more challenging to do without sight.

Roberta and other residents at Dr. Huss's play
Roberta and other residents enjoy watching podiatrist Dr. Huss in a community theater performance

When Alan passed away in 2014, Roberta lived on her own for a couple of years before moving in with her brother, Arnie. They were close and one of their favorite things to do together was enjoy opera. Arnie had a grand collection of opera music. According to Roberta, he knew all the technical stuff and she just enjoyed listening to the music with him. Her favorite piece is the second act opening to Mozart’s Magic Flute. Standing at 4’6″, Roberta still laughs when she remembers hugging her brother; Arnie would have to sit in a chair to be at Roberta’s level. Today, Roberta is thriving at Friedman Place and especially enjoys the bingo and crosswords activities. In recent years, trouble with her leg prevented Roberta from walking much, but at Friedman Place she has kept up with her leg exercises and now moves freely around the facility without assistance. With her improved mobility she looks forward to attending outings to the botanical gardens and showing off her thrill seeking side at our annual trip to Six Flags Great America this summer.

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Friedman Place Welcomes a Furry Resident

Friedman Place Welcomes a Furry Resident!

resident and her guide dog walking outside
Tina and Cassidy out for a walk on a beautiful spring day.

Please join us in congratulating Friedman Place Resident Tina and her new guide dog Cassidy. The pair recently graduated guide dog training together and returned home from California just in time to enjoy walks in the lovely Chicago spring weather. Cassidy is a two year old medium-sized black lab and bred especially to be a guide dog. A loving couple from California, who have trained many other dogs to be guide dogs, raised Cassidy. The couple befriended Tina and attended the graduation. At the same time Tina worked hard to recover from the stroke that caused her blindness and learned orientation and mobility skills at Friedman Place in order to be eligible for a guide dog, Cassidy trained equally as hard to be eligible to support someone’s independence. These two were truly meant for each other and are already best friends. Tina said, “At Friedman Place I learned how to feel more safe, secure and confident while inside, but I felt that a guide dog would help me conquer my fear of being outside alone, especially at night.” It took Tina almost a year from the beginning her application to her acceptance into the program. She was grateful to Friedman Place staff that supported her through the process. We are so excited to add another guide dog to our Friedman Place family. Currently, three residents and two of our staff members have guide dogs. We are proud to offer a dog exercise area and cover the costs of food and grooming for resident guide dogs.

In order for Tina to be accepted into the guide dog school, she had to be very proficient in white cane use. She had to submit a video of her walking outside with her white cane, crossing intersections, and using public transportation. The reason for this is that a guide dog won’t teach you how to be independent, it is just there for support as you go about your day. She filled out long questionnaire and also had to video tape her responses for the school to determine if she would be a good fit for a guide dog. One of Tina’s great joys has been the dogs in her life. However, she was devastated when she had to re-home her dogs after the stroke. The pair are quite happy to be together. Tina hopes she inspires others to do whatever it takes to reach as much independence as they desire, “You just have to keep at it.”

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First Annual Holiday Giving Tree

Tis’ the Season Help Make the Holidays Bright for an Adult who is Blind or Visually Impaired

residents around the Christmas tree

Friedman Place announces its first annual Giving Tree for its 85 adult residents who are blind or visually impaired. All residents are either in poverty or have very low income and most residents have, on average, 5 health concerns other than blindness. Your gift would mean so much to them at this time of year.

Friedman Place staff and social work interns have asked residents for a gift ideas and most items cost $25 or less such as: pajamas, sweaters, blankets, slippers or gift cards to stores like Walmart or Target.  These everyday items are small luxuries that they cannot afford to buy for themselves.

Gift tags with the residents’ wishes will be hung on a tree in the Friedman Place lobby beginning on Wednesday, November 15th. You may stop by any day of the week: Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., or on Saturdays or Sundays from 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. We ask that you please return the purchased items wrapped and with the tag attached by Monday, December 10, 2018. If you are unable to come in or would just like to sponsor a gift, call Kathy Gregg at 773-989-9800 to arrange. We will have a gift exchange shortly thereafter. For many this may be their only gift.  We hope you will help make this holiday special for one of our residents.



If you or your group would like to learn more about making a Giving Tree donation please contact:

Kathy Gregg 773-989-9800,

If you or your group would like to help organize or participate in the gift exchange please contact:

Beth Elman @ 773-989-9800 or

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Lighthouses on The Mag Mile

Are you looking for a fun, free way to spend an afternoon viewing art while learning about people with disabilities in Chicago?

Friedman Place is participating in “Lighthouses on The Mag Mile,” a citywide free public art exhibition celebrating the call to action for access and inclusion for people with disabilities.  This fabulous exhibition can be found along Chicago’s famous North Michigan Avenue, from June 19, through August 11. This world class event features 51 six-foot lighthouse sculptures, created by national and local Chicago artists, many with disabilities.

Our Woven LighthouseFriedman Place’s contribution: “Our Woven Lighthouse” was created in our weaving studio. It involved taking a 40+ foot piece of fabric, woven collaboratively on a community loom by weavers who are blind and disabled, and wrapping it around the structure. The various sections of the weaving are made of different types of threads and yarn – some very find and smooth, others thick and rough. It provides a ranging and varied textural experience to the person viewing and touching the completed lighthouse. The colors too vary by section, some being muted while others are quite bright. This piece has been selected in part because it shows weavers of various skill levels responding to pattern, texture and color, jointly creating an ultimate expression of their collaborative work. The final ” woven lighthouse” is a beautiful, visually arresting, experiential beacon for access and inclusion for people with disabilities.

Lighthouse close upFriedman Place’s weavers represent a unique point of view. Our Therapeutic Weaving Program functions as a creative outlet for individuals who are living with a disability or multiple disabilities, blindness being the common factor. Our weavers are always eager to present their work and share with others what they can accomplish when the all-too-common barriers to inclusion are lowered. The opportunity to have their collaboratively created artwork displayed to so many thousands of people through a public display of this type is extremely empowering, compelling and validating.

The agency’s Therapeutic Weaving Program is part of the David Herman Learning Center, which honors the legacy of lifelong learner, David Herman, a 25-year Agency resident who was blind and deaf since early childhood. Friedman Place residents are empowered through the center to pursue learning opportunities and technology skills to their greatest desire and capacity. The Therapeutic Weaving Program – located at Friedman Place – provides residents an opportunity to create original, one-of-a-kind weavings and in the process enhance the individual’s senses of self-efficacy and worth as well as general learning and socialization, as most weaving is done individually but in a group setting. All aspects of the program are educational and facilitate learning to the resident’s greatest desire and capacity.

Friedman Place’s lighthouse is sponsored by Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island, Michigan.

You can find “Our Woven Lighthouse” at

430 North Michigan Avenue/Plaza of America.


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Summertime is a wonderful time to Volunteer at Friedman Place!

Friedman Place offers a wide variety of activities and outings for our residents all year round, but Summer is always busiest as there are so many opportunities for outdoor fun! In addition to our daily activities and special guests or performers inside our building we take residents to many destinations in the Chicago area. Volunteers are almost always needed to accompany residents and help them navigate their destination.

Our first trip of the Summer was one of our most popular – Six Flags Great America in Gurnee. A group of staff, residents and volunteers spent the day on easy rides like the Carousel to some of the scariest of roller coasters. They all returned with big smiles on their faces!

We have several other adventures planned for this Summer and more may be added to the calendar for late July and August.  You can always check with our Activities and Volunteers Department directly to find out if anything has been added. Call Beth Elman at 773-409-6123 or email, for more information.

Wendella Boat Tour Group 2017

Here are some confirmed Outings for Summer 2018:

  • Tuesday, July 10 – SeaDog (speed boat) & Pepsi Swings at Navy Pier
  • Friday, July 20 – Big Bus Tour
  • Thursday, August 9 – Wendella Boat Architectural Tour
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