On Point – Sam Rowser ’86

Rowser- Top PicSamuel Rowser ’86 grew up on the south side of Syracuse where he attended Central Tech before it closed after his sophomore year. He would finish high school at Corcoran and then enlist into the Marine Corps. His home life was solid as he quantifies himself as a SOP (Son of Preacher) so faith, hard work and the requirement to help others were instilled in him and his six siblings at an early age. He was released from the Marine Corps on an honorable discharge three years later and it wasn’t long after that a series of bad decisions left him incarcerated for the next two years. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do and it was during that search for purpose I took a couple of wrong turns,” Rowser said.

When he was released, Rowser would eventually find his home and purpose at Onondaga Community College (OCC) a year later in 1984. “OCC was an exciting time for me right from the start,” Rowser said, “in my first semester I was persuaded to join the JAMAA Club and everything started to fall in place from there.” In his first meeting with JAMAA (a term that means “family” in Swahili) Rowser was elected as treasurer of the group and by March, he was also named president and vice president of the club. Thinking back on this Rowser cannot help but laugh, “going in [to the first meeting], me and my buddy had no idea what the group did,” Rowser said smiling, “and by the end of the meeting we were leading the group!”

Jim Martin was a counselor and served as an advisor to JAMAA
Jim Martin was a counselor and served as an advisor to JAMAA

However, little did he know at the time, but this experience with JAMAA would introduce Rowser to a world where he would find his passion and calling. The first step in his journey was being able to work directly with the Clubs’ advisor, Jim Martin, who would quickly become someone Rowser would admire greatly. “Jim was more than an advisor,” he said, “ he was my mentor and friend and I feel so fortunate that he took the time he did with me.” The second part was the feeling he got by serving as a key ingredient in making some of the interests of the Club a reality. “Before I got there, the Club carried this stigma that they couldn’t do any programming,” Rowser said, “however, I found the real reason was that they didn’t have a clear vision of what they wanted to do so once we cleared that up we started to hold some great events on campus and in the community.”

Seeing his work in JAMAA and with his background in the military, Martin would get Rowser involved with the recruitment of people completing their military duty through the College’s Veterans Office. In this role, he would walk returning veterans through the enrollment process and work with them on their program of study and getting settled. While serving in this work study role, he would expand on his knowledge of OCC because he was giving tours and working directly with incoming students. He excelled and shortly before he graduated in 1986, Martin would come calling once again to take him under his wing further and hire him full-time through a grant obtained by the Urban Extension Program. It was here where Rowser would become trained in the duties of admission, financial aid and other components of the registration process. “I was going all over town and in people’s homes,” Rowser said, “it was a great experience for me because I loved OCC so much it was an easy sell.”

Rowser worked with thousands of students while working for Admissions
Rowser ’86 (right) worked with thousands of students while working for Admissions

When the grant ended in 1990, the College hired Rowser to be part of the full-time admission team due to the amount of work and results both he and Martin had achieved while working together. All continued to go well for the next seven years when he fell victim to drug addiction, which caused him to put his career and life on hold until he was incarcerated for a second time in 1999. “During those four years of drug use,” Rowser said, “I knew I was better than what I was doing, but I couldn’t break free and each time I used I would say ‘God you said in your word, if I believe in my heart and confess with my mouth, I will be saved. Save me Lord!’” It was through his incarceration that he would finally be able to break free and get clean because he was able to think rationally and clearly for the first time in four years without being in an environment that kept him from doing so.

Once released in 1999, he went to the Rescue Mission, where he completed a six-month program before he had to go to start looking for work again. It was while he was going through this program that he would see an old friend at a local store. Jesse Dowdell was a friend of his and ran the Southwest Community Center in Syracuse for many years before retiring in 2013. “Jesse saw me in an aisle and went out of his way to find out how I was doing,” Rowser said, “once I explained where I was at, he told me once I completed the program to come talk to him.” True to his word, once the program was completed Rowser called on Dowdell and by the following week he was working for him. “Jesse was tremendous,” he said, “he knew who I really was and looked at me in the here and now, instead of who I was, which is something I’ve tried to do myself with others to this day.

Rowser '86 with Ginny Donahue
Rowser ’86 with Ginny Donohue

Good fortune would follow him for within a couple months of working there a student came in looking for Ginny Donohue – who had recently just started up On Point for College program, which was an initiative to help urban youth prepare and enter college – because he needed assistance with some financial aid forms. Knowing Donohue was not onsite yet, Dowdell sent the student down to see Rowser because he knew of his work at OCC. “The student came in and all the experience came back to me,” he said, “it was a great feeling and I was able to answer all his questions, assist him with his financial aid application and send him on his way.” When Donohue arrived the kid explained to her that he was all set and pointed to Rowser’s office as she was very interested in finding out who helped him with the financial aid paperwork.

Rowser '86 with President Barrack Obama
Rowser ’86 with President Barrack Obama

Within the few months, Donohue had talked with Dowdell about transitioning Rowser from working at the Southwest Community Center to On Point. Shortly after, Donohue offered Rowser a job with her and together they would evolve the program from the trunks of their cars, to offices and additional staff at the Catholic Charities Building. “It was a great marriage,” Rowser said, “Ginny is great from running the business side and developing programming ideas, and I had the experience from the enrollment and registration side thanks to all of previous work at OCC.” While working at On Point, Rowser has gone on to get his bachelor’s degree in 2008, was able to meet President Barrack Obama when he visited Syracuse in 2013 and completed his master’s last year, which also coincided with On Point’s fifteen year anniversary. “That was a special moment,” he said, “I told students in attendance that this program not only saved their life, but it saved mine as well.”

Today, he and his wife Patrona, who he credits as an unwavering supporter and a wonderful blessing, are the proud parents of seven kids and are very active at Bethany Baptist Church, which is something Rowser will not lose sight of again. “I find that I am allergic to thinking I do not need God,” he said, “and when I do forget, I break out in handcuffs, so I stay close to God and it works for me just fine.” In addition, he is readying himself for when Donohue steps down as Executive Director in September, and will then begin another chapter in his life in a role of a lifetime. “Even though I was business major at OCC, when I started to help students I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said, “to come full circle now and to be able to help the children of the students I assisted at OCC is amazing. I am firm believer now that when you do the right things for the right reasons the next right thing will happen.” Each morning he celebrates his good fortune by thanking God for the gift of life and the opportunity to be a better person.

Shining Star of Child Care: Stella Barbuto Penizotto, ’90

Stella Barbuto Penizotto’s affiliation with Onondaga Community College started with her first class in the fall 1988 semester and has grown stronger in the 25 years since she graduated. “The things I learned at OCC laid such a strong foundation for me,” said Penizotto. “The constant help I’ve received from OCC’s Small Business Development Center has helped me build what we have today.”

John and Stella Penizotto own and operate Shining Stars Daycare's three locations in Onondaga County.
John and Stella Penizotto own and operate Shining Stars Daycare’s three locations in Onondaga County.

What Stella and her business partner and husband John have built is “Shining Stars Daycare,” a group of locally owned day care centers in Onondaga County that employ 70 people and serve 330 families.

Penizotto graduated from Syracuse’s Henninger High School in 1987 with plans to go into nursing. When she decided she preferred to become a teacher she enrolled in OCC’s Human Services major. “It was perfect for me. The teachers and everyone within the major were great, and I loved what I was learning.”

After graduating in 1990, Penizotto continued on to SUNY Oswego, where she would earn her bachelor’s in elementary education two years later. “I was ready to become a teacher but there were no teaching jobs.” She took a job as a nanny then worked at three different child care centers.

It was 1994 and Penizotto was combing the classifieds searching for a new job when she stumbled upon an ad which caught her attention. “It was for space at Medical Center East in East Syracuse. We looked at each other and realized it was the perfect opportunity to open our own day care center.”

cropped Shining Stars logoWith her husband’s marketing expertise and her day care experience, the Penizotto’s opened their first Shining Stars Daycare in July 1994. By the fall it was filled to capacity. Seven years later they opened their second center in Manlius. In 2009 they opened their third facility in Liverpool.

The Shining Stars in Liverpool is a brand new building built to the Penizotto’s specifications. The entire design is based on everything Stella learned from spending time in other day care centers and seeing what did and didn’t work. Each classroom in the 14,500 square foot facility is larger than state regulations call for. Outside are three playgrounds specifically designed to accommodate children in three different groups: toddler, pre-K and school-aged. The center also has a 3,000 square foot gym where children can burn off their seemingly endless amount of energy. “Having a gym in this climate is invaluable. There are only so many days out of the year children can play outside. With our gym we always have a place for children to play.”

Joan Powers is Director of OCC's Small Business Development Center.
Joan Powers is Director of OCC’s Small Business Development Center.

As Shining Stars has continued to grow, Penizotto has leaned on OCC’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC). “We call them all the time. In the beginning it was about business plans and projections. Every time we opened a new center we would work with them again on financing and any grants that might be available.”

Penizotto’s point person at the SBDC is Joan Powers, who is its director. “Joan just has so much knowledge. There are things you need to know to get through the process and Joan and the SBDC are great to work with. I always tell people they are so worth looking up. Their services are free.”

Penizotto in the Rose Garden at the White House with President Obama
Penizotto in the Rose Garden at the White House with President Obama

In 2010 Powers was so impressed with what Penizotto had accomplished she nominated her for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s “Small Business Person of the Year” award. The judges agreed and Penizotto won both the Syracuse district and New York State awards. She then solely represented New York State in the running for National Small Business Person of the Year awards in Washington, DC during National Small Business Week. Attendees were recognized at a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House and Penizotto was photographed with President Barack Obama. “When we met the President it was very brief. I got to shake his hand because I happened to be right up front.”

In 2014 OCC named Penizotto an “Alumni Face” in recognition of her professional achievements and contributions to the College and the community. A plaque highlighting her accomplishments is on-display in the Academic II building. “It’s a tremendous feeling to be honored by OCC. I loved my time there and value the relationship I continue to have with the College.”

Penizotto will continue her relationship with OCC’s Small Business Development Center as she plans her next major project. “We’re going to rebuild our Manlius center. Any other expansion plans will be up to our daughter.” The Penizotto’s 15-year-old daughter Alyssa is a sophomore at Liverpool High School who plans to get her teaching degree before fully joining the family business. The Penizotto’s also have a son, 11-year-old Peter.

Penizotto has been in business long enough to see children return to her centers as employees. “We have several 18-year-olds working for us now who started with us as children. It’s rewarding to see how well they are doing. In many ways it’s a testament to the hard work we’ve put in and the success we’ve experienced. We’ve been fortunate to be in business for 21 years.”