While working in retail, Bethpage resident Jennifer Torchetti peeked at the local classifieds looking for an opportunity to apply her degree in clinical psychology. She took a chance and scheduled an interview at Developmental Disabilities Institute (DDI) for a teaching assistant position working with young children with autism.
“As I sat in the lobby, I watched the children and teachers walking by, feeling so nervous that I didn’t have any experience with children with disabilities,” said Torchetti. “I observed a teacher and young child walking along happily and every few feet the teacher would stop and ask the child to repeat the sound ‘Mmm.’ She had encouraged the little boy’s attempts with a smile and ‘That was a good try.’ It was fate when they were steps away from me the child looked up and as clear as could be said, ‘Mmm.’ Everyone within earshot erupted in cheers. Although I didn’t know exactly what was happening, I knew it was something extraordinary, and I wanted in.”
On March 20, 2006, Torchetti began her career at Developmental Disabilities Institute’s Early Childhood Services Center for Autism, applying the knowledge she gained while pursuing her master’s degree in clinical and industrial psychology at Adelphi University. Within weeks, Torchetti became part of the fabric of DDI’s Ronkonkoma campus.
“I remember immediately being taken under the wing of the classroom teacher and falling in love with the students and teaching,” said Torchetti.
Mary Zinck, the mother of a DDI alumnus, shared a story of the help she got from Torchetti. “Jennifer Torchetti is nothing less than a gift from God,” Zinck said. “I know it sounds corny, but it reflects just how thankful I am that our son had her as his teacher, friend, advocate and, most importantly, his number one fan.”
Committed to continuing her education with the goal of advancing the understanding of autism spectrum disorders, Torchetti decided to pursue her doctorate in clinical psychology in September 2007. DDI supported Torchetti’s decision and offered her a part-time position in the program allowing her to focus on her academic responsibilities while maintaining a valuable role in the program.
In 2010, Torchetti began her practicum at DDI’s Opti Healthcare clinic and with the support of Dr. Jeff Romano, assisted with patient care and counseling. This experience provided the opportunity to work with adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities and confirmed for Torchetti that the field of autism spectrum disorders was her passion.
“Working as part of the clinic, I gained a working knowledge of co-occurring conditions in autism and the importance of effective diagnosis and treatment,” said Torchetti.
Torchetti faced the fear that remaining at DDI to complete her pre-doctoral internship would be difficult. Torchetti recalls, “When I received the call stating that both Dr. Kim James, Licensed Clinical Psychologist at the Children’s Day Program and Dr. Denise Tuckruskye, Licensed Clinical Psychologist at the Early Childhood Program would be willing to provide the supervision, mentorship and experience I needed, I was elated.” In less than one year into her practicum, Torchetti was offered a position in the Children’s Day Program as an Education Behavior Specialist.
As 2017 came to a close, Torchetti realized another tremendous accomplishment as she successfully defended her dissertation and completed the doctoral program in clinical psychology at Walden University. For almost ten years, Torchetti had been working at DDI in some capacity and focusing on her goal of completing her doctorate. This accomplishment would stir those feelings of change once again. DDI had offered flexibility, support, and compassion while Torchetti pursued her academic dreams. The interview process concluded with a job offer bringing her full circle back to early childhood—the roots of her journey at DDI.
“Jennifer has been a wonderful new addition to our Psychology Department in the Early Childhood Services Program,” Tuckruskye said. “Her involvement with Early Childhood Services began several years ago as a doctoral intern in clinical psychology. So, we were thrilled when several years later, Jennifer joined our Early Childhood team, where once again her positive attitude and excellent clinical skills have made our program a stronger one.”
Reflecting on her years at DDI, Torchetti thinks about the children and their families who have forever influenced her passion for understanding, growing and learning. “I didn’t have any idea what career path I would have when I graduated with my master’s degree, but my supervisors and mentors always encouraged me, trusted me and believed in me” said Torchetti. Jill Pollacek, the parent of a student at DDI, added how Torchetti stood out from the rest of the workers there.
“DDI has so many dedicated staff I have to come to know through the years,” said Pollacek. “Jennifer always went above and beyond to help my son Keith and our family. Over the years, she has become part of our family, and we are truly grateful for her.”
Torchetti’s commitment to children and adults supported by DDI is no surprise when you meet her family.
“I come from a family of educators, and I have been fortunate to have great family support throughout this journey,” said Torchetti. “My parents have shown me what it means to remain devoted to a career path and loyal to the people you have chosen to work with.”