Annamaria Esplen, BTC culinary arts alum and owner of Anna’s Sunrise Café and Catering at UPMC’s South Hills.
Since she was a young girl, Bidwell Training Center (BTC) alumna Annamaria Esplen has always had a love for cooking and a passion for planning parties. Annamaria recalls “Over the years, everyone told me that I should be a caterer or open a restaurant.”
However, Annamaria’s path didn’t lead her to BTC right away.
“After high school, I went to college for a year,” said Annamaria. “I came home and took a summer job with a small fastener distributor.”
Annamaria worked 32 years for that company and learned all aspects of the business. She spent 15 years working in purchasing and then moved on to sales. She held a dual role as an in-house buyer and sales representative for one of the company’s largest customers.
Thirty-two years later, the company was sold, so she decided to move on and make her earlier dream of owning a restaurant come true.
“Twenty-five years ago, I brought my stepdaughter to tour BTC,” said Annamaria. “At that time, I fell in love with the culinary department, but unfortunately, the timing wasn’t right. At this point in my life, I knew I needed to attend BTC to help me become successful in my next adventure.”
BTC’s culinary arts program enabled Annamaria with the push she needed to open her own catering business.
“With what I learned and experienced through the classes, kitchen time, and volunteering for as many events as possible,” Annamaria explained, “it helped me grow; gave me the opportunity and confidence that I needed to move forward with my plans.”
Annamaria in Bidwell Training Center’s culinary amphitheater during her time as a student.
Since graduating from BTC in February 2019, Annamaria has opened Anna’s Sunrise Café and Catering at UPMC’s South Hills location. The Café is a small, open-air space that serves the medical and building staff and patients. As Annamaria’s business continues to grow, she is finalizing the details to open a second location.
She has now taken the next steps to pay it forward, joining the American Culinary Federation Pittsburgh Chapter and serving on the BTC Culinary Arts advisory board.
When asked what she would say to someone who is considering BTC, Annamaria exclaimed, “Do it! Open your mind, take the time to take on new challenges, and gain new opportunities. Everyone is there to help you succeed and improve your life.”
Kimberly Rassau, Ed.D, Bidwell Training Center’s new executive director
Bidwell Training Center (BTC) has hired Kimberly Rassau, Ed. D., as its new executive director. Rassau comes to BTC with career training leadership experience working in several executive and dean positions at various for-profit schools.
“Kim’s extensive experience and accomplishments in career training and higher education were the first things that caught our attention in our search for a new executive director at BTC,” said Kevin Jenkins, Manchester Bidwell Corporation President & CEO. “Her innovative ideas peaked our interest as they will allow us to help more people in the community while also pushing BTC as a leader in the career training space. And the fact that she was a non-traditional student who can serve as a model for our students cemented her as being our choice to help steer BTC into the next 50 years.”
Rassau enters BTC in its 51st year after the departure of former executive director Valerie Njie, who retired after dedicating 37 years to the school.
“I have tremendous amount of respect for what Valerie and the staff here have built,” said Rassau. “BTC has been a school of excellence two consecutive times. I know I have incredibly big shoes to fill.”
Rassau plans to take BTC’s successful education model and look ahead as the school faces a changing education sector.
“I want to make sure that the school remains relevant and sustainable,” said Rassau.“The landscape changes rapidly and industry needs can be fickle on any given day and on any given year. I want to make sure that BTC is not just meeting all the necessary standards but setting them.”
While this is Rassau’s first time working for a non-profit, she’s been very familiar with schools like BTC from a young age. Rassau’s mother worked enacting the Jobs Training Partnership Act (JTPA), which gave money to organizations and tuitionfree schools to prepare youth and unskilled adults for the labor force. BTC was one of the organizations that received support from the JTPA. Rassau’s enthusiasm for the work started when she was a JTPA teen board member in high school, and while she made some deviations on the way she found herself back helping adults in transition.
“I realized that I absolutely did not want to work for an organization that was strictly numbers driven only,” said Rassau. “ I feel like BTC is a perfect fit because what I’m doing is valued at a level that is focused more on developing the human spirit.”
Aside from the enthusiasm for the work and her vast experience in the field, Rassau is also very familiar with many of the obstacles and stresses many of our students face.
Rassau’s father worked at Edgewater Steel, and in 1981—when she was graduated from Valley Senior High School in New Kensington, PA—the steel industry was on the cusp of collapsing. Worried about her no longer being on his health insurance, Rassau’s father made it a priority for her to get a job so she could get health insurance. She luckily landed an administrative assistant position at Carnegie Mellon University, but it would take over eight years until she started working for Education Management Corporation and was asked to consider going back to school.
“At that time I wasn’t thinking at all about going back to school let alone getting my bachelor’s degree,” said Rassau. “I had felt that school just wasn’t for me.”
However once she returned to pursue her secondary education, she didn’t stop for 12 years until she got her doctorate in organizational leadership.
“I know what it’s like driving down Route 28 at 10:30 p.m., crying your eyes out because your exhausted then get back up in the morning to go to work, do your homework, go to class, and do it all over again,” said Rassau. “I know exactly how it feels to look at your checkbook and think ‘I got $4.37 and payday is not for seven days but I have to pay my bills today.’”
Rassau shared her story of being a nontraditional student during an assembly with BTC students and staff on her first week as executive director.
“You’re never too old to realize your self worth or your potential earning power,” Rassau said during the assembly. “For me, that happened very much later in life.”
While Rassau is inspired by the work BTC’s staff has done for 50 years there is one area that she wants to change.
“My goal is to get rid of the idea that BTC is the best kept secret,” said Rassau. “I want to increase our exposure, so people stop thinking that BTC is only for a certain kind of student that lives on the North Side. BTC is a wonderful opportunity for everyone.”
Bidwell Training Center culinary arts students. Photograph by Jonathan Zito.
Bidwell Training Center (BTC) and Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) have entered into an articulation agreement that will allow BTC’s culinary art students to transfer credits to CCAC if they wish to pursue a culinary arts degree.
With regular wait lists to enroll, BTC’s culinary arts diploma program is among the career training school’s most popular majors. Our students have gone on to work at some of Pittsburgh’s most prestigious restaurants, started their own restaurants, and established their own catering companies. At no cost to qualified students the culinary arts program—like all other BTC programs—provides an excellent first step for student’s to change their lives. This new articulation agreement will help provide new opportunities for our students who would like to continue their studies and get an Associate in Applied Science from CCAC in culinary arts.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for Bidwell’s culinary arts graduates who would like to receive their Associates Degree in culinary arts,” said Cynthia Tuite, BTC’s culinary arts program director. “This agreement will give them the opportunity to have a flexible schedule with CCAC by receiving credits for courses completed at Bidwell Training Center.”
Adagio Health and Accredo have joined Bidwell Training Center’s (BTC) industry advisory boards, which help shape curriculum to better prepare students for employment and help develop externship and placement opportunities.
Adagio Health is now part of the medical assistant industry advisory board. For nearly 50 years, Adagio Health has served over 100,000 patients and clients—most of them women who are uninsured and underinsured—in 23 counties in Western Pennsylvania. They provide life-changing services including 9,000 breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings through the HealthyWoman, WiseWoman, and the Komen Mammogram Voucher program, which help low-income underinsured women. Their insight on women’s health will be a great asset for the medical assistant students.
Pharmacy technician students will gain more knowledge about the specialty pharmacy field with the addition of Accredo to their industry advisory board. This specialty pharmacy company serves patients with HIV, cancer, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, and other complicated health conditions. Focusing on these complex conditions allows the pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and nurses to provide more personalized care to the patients.
Jack Forsythe, Market Manager Industrial Coatings and graduate of BTC’s first laboratory technician class
A cornerstone of Bidwell Training Center’s (BTC) foundation is working with industry to shape our curriculum. When Dr. E. Peter Benzing approached us about helping Covestro—then Bayer—find more diverse laboratory technicians, we worked together to form the laboratory technician program. Having the input from industry ensures that our students are ready and have the exact skills and experience that employers want. There is no better testament to that than Covestro hiring their 70th BTC graduate in the 27 years that the laboratory technician program has been operating.
We corresponded with Jack Forsythe, a graduate of the first laboratory technician class who is retiring from Covestro after over 25 years of working there, and Curtis E. Terry II, who graduated from BTC in June 2018 and is Covestro’s 70th BTC hire, about their experiences at BTC and how it has changed their lives.
Can you describe how you remember your first day at Bidwell?
CT: I was super nervous. I wondered who would my teacher be? Who would my classmates be? How are they going to teach me to be a Laboratory Technician? Of course, the class started off with an ice breaker to get to know everyone and we went from there. I was ready and eager to learn.
JF: My first day of class at Bidwell was exciting because I met a diverse group of folks interested in the same thing I was—namely, finding not just a job, but a new career. Having been out of school so long, there was some fear as to whether I had it in me to learn a new world of things. However, the teachers and the school environment made me comfortable enough to believe I could learn and grow.
What made you decide to attend BTC?
CT: I was at a crossroads in my life. I made the decision to leave my job of five years because I felt like a robot. I needed something different. I needed to do something I was actually interested in and could gain a measure of happiness from. I wanted to be able to market myself better, and I heard from friends that Bidwell was a good place to gain some hands-on learning experience.
JF: When I showed up for the interview at BTC, I was given a tour of the facility and met the director of the program as well as some of the advisory board members. Right away, I could sense that this was the answer to my prayers: a path to a career in science, which I loved from the time I was in grade school, that would lead to employment, and the kind of employment that would help my family and enable me to put my kids through school. I knew this place would lead me to a job I could retire from when the time was right.
Curtis E. Terry II, Coatings/Adhesives Laboratory Technician at Covestro and BTC Alum ‘18
Curtis, what made you decide to major in Laboratory Technician?
CT: Chemistry has always piqued my interest, but I was never passionate about it nor could I see myself as a chemist. However, I knew that this course offered an associate degree after 13 months. I also knew it would be inherently challenging and I was looking for something to really challenge me.
How and why did you both end up working for Covestro?
CT: Funny story. I would pass by Covestro on my way to the Robinson Walmart and I would wonder, “What is behind that colorful sign? Who are these people and what do they do?.” Come to find out Covestro, the former material science division of Bayer, is one of Bidwell’s externship sites for the lab tech program. Oh, I had to go there! Fast forward to interviews and externship bids, and I was chosen to go to Covestro. I couldn’t have been happier.
The two months of the externship were almost up, and I was dismayed, but excited, but afraid, but confident all at the same time. I didn’t want to leave Covestro. I have built a wonderful network of colleagues and mentors. I was participating in diversity and inclusion groups, taking tours of other buildings and getting to know the different business units of Covestro. This corporate environment was for me. On top of all of that—or I should say the foundation—I was learning so much. I was learning laboratory etiquette by being immersed in the culture.
I mentioned this to my supervisor while I was practicing my final presentation to be delivered in front of top executives at Covestro and later at Bidwell in front of my classmates. He politely asked me, “So, how’s everything going? Are there any job prospects outside of Covestro?” I said, “No”. He said, “Well, we would like to offer you a contract position and keep you here, if you are available.” I almost cried. I had to truly hold back my tears of joy. So far it’s been almost three months working here. I still love it.
JF: Covestro played a key role in the establishment of the lab program back when the company was part of Bayer. I had the opportunity to do my externship at Covestro in the polyurethanes research group and felt right at home with the people, the job responsibilities, and the company.
Curtis, what was the transition from classroom life to professional life like?
CT: Sometimes it can be a little daunting. In the classroom you always have your teacher to cover you. Even to give you immediate feedback. However, it’s a lot tougher in class than in the real world. However, what I’ve found here is that when your work is trusted, you are left alone to complete it. Seasoned individuals are around to assist and answer questions, even offer more efficient means of completing a task. I love gaining that perspective but also being able to employ a little trial and error for myself.
How did your externship prepare you for your new career?
CT: I learned to slow down a bit. When I first got here for externship, I was trying to busy myself and I felt myself rushing around. I took note of those around me and they were taking their time. Work was getting done at a reasonable pace. So I slowed down. This offers an opportunity to truly enjoy the work and minimize mistakes.
How would you say BTC has impacted your career and life?
CT: Bidwell has offered me the opportunity to learn something new, to take that something, and make it my own. I am now working at one of the best chemical manufacturing and supply companies in the world.
JF: The easy answer as to how Bidwell has impacted my life is to say it opened the door for me, to a career in a field I loved—science—and to work at a company namely Covestro that has an unparalleled culture of community service and employee satisfaction.
But it’s not that simple. As an advisory board member at Bidwell, I was able to bear witness to so many life-changing stories from the students that came after me – amazing stories of strength and character. Oftentimes, the folks coming though BTC have been through difficult hardships and very often had fallen through the cracks of traditional education. Through sheer determination, they complete the program while overcoming these personal struggles. These compelling stories leave me with a sense of awe. So when you are blessed with an opportunity to help or participate in various ways, you are given more than you can ever give back.
Roberto Clemente once said: “Anytime you have a chance to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on this earth.” Bidwell truly makes that difference.
Jack, how does it feel to be retiring as Covestro has hired its 70th BTC graduate?
JF: On my first day at Covestro, I remember thinking how grateful I was to be the first employed out of the first laboratory technician class, and that if I could help—in any way—just one person from the program per year to get paid here as a technician, that would be great.
So, I figured I’d be working for another 25 years or so, and that would mean a goal of helping—in some small way—25 people gain employment here. The program has far exceeded my goal through its excellent training and dedication to placement. Today, I’m proud to say that 70 people—not 25—earned employment opportunities at Covestro. This is a great source of pride for me, but more importantly, speaks volumes of the education Bidwell provided, as well as the students’ individual determination to succeed.
Valerie Njie, former Executive Director/Senior Vice President of Bidwell Training Center.
Bidwell Training Center’s (BTC) Executive Director/Senior Vice President Valerie Njie has retired after 37 years of tireless service and dedication to the students, staff, and industries in the Pittsburgh area.
Njie joined BTC in 1981 as a senior counselor when her former University of Pittsburgh classmate Jesse W. Fife Jr., former Executive Vice President and COO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, asked her to come on board. Njie credits Fife, who passed away in 2010, with motivating her to stay so long and succeed in doing the impossible.
“He had such great confidence in you,” said Njie. “He would give you some ridiculous assignment….but then when you did it …he was always thrilled. He always elevated you.”
Njie’s impact started when she put together the proposal and helped facilitate the partnership that led BTC to become a part of IBM’s national information sciences program.
Njie was promoted to executive director in 1999, and her first challenge was getting BTC out of reporting with the Accrediting Commission on Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC). Fife gave her another seemingly impossible assignment of becoming an ACCSC team leader, a volunteer who visits ACCSC schools and conducts extensive evaluations of the school.
“When he insisted that I become a team leader I said ‘Are you crazy,’” said Njie. “‘That would be so embarrassing. We’re always reporting. How can I go to another school?’”
What seemed like a ridiculous assignment helped change BTC’s course.
“He kept insisting, and I went to the commission in 2000 for training and the light bulb went on that day,” said Njie. “It was incredible because for the first time I really understood what the standards meant.”
The experience as a team leader and her dedication to elevate BTC lead the school to being recognized as a School of Excellence in 2012 and then again for a second consecutive time in 2017.
After Fife’s passing, Njie was motivated to run for a commission seat at the ACCSC, and she won.
Njie assumed leadership of BTC when it had 19 infractions but leaves it as a School of Excellence with an overall graduation rate of 79 percent and an overall job placement rate of 85 percent as reported in BTC’s 2017 annual report to the ACCSC.
In essence, Njie helped turn BTC around in the same way many of its students have turned their lives around when they attend classes at the school. There is no better example for BTC’s students than Njie’s energy, early mornings, late nights, and dedication for 37 years.
“My legacy is that if you’re going to be here you have to be committed,” said Njie.
Njie is currently spending her retirement still committed to education. She continues to volunteer as an ACCSC team leader. In addition, she is serving as president-elect on the board of University of Pittsburgh’s Alumni Association.
Valerie Njie at her retirement party with Manchester Bidwell Corporation staff in the dining hall. Photograph by Joel Mora.
Samuel Hawkins, Bidwell graduate and owner and operator of Whitetail Landscaping & Snow Removal.
Walking through the doors of the Drew Mathieson Center for Horticulture and Agriculture Technology (DMC) Greenhouse was a turning point for Samuel Hawkins. Sam had first heard about the programs available at no cost at Bidwell Training Center (BTC) when his father enrolled in the brick masonry courses at BTC many years prior to Sam’s visit to the greenhouse. Sparked by his lifelong interest in the environment, Sam enrolled in BTC’s horticulture technology major and spent the next eight months immersed in the courses and the 160-hour externship required to obtain a diploma in the program. As Sam worked with BTC’s instructors, he began to plan to open his own landscaping business upon graduation.
He currently owns and operates Whitetail Landscaping & Snow Removal. Sam credits the instructors and the environment at BTC for inspiring him to make his dream of opening his own business a reality.
“Not only did Bidwell teach me 100 percent of the horticulture knowledge it takes to run my company on a day-to-day basis, but it also gave me the needed connections that it takes to operate alongside other companies who have been around for decades in the community.”
As Sam’s business continues to grow in the Pittsburgh area, it is easy to see the role his education at BTC played in the success of his company.
“Sam is extremely hard working, reliable, and wonderful to collaborate with on my lawn projects,” said Laura Heberton-Schlomchik, a client of Whitetail Landscaping. “Bidwell Training Center does fantastic work training students for the workforce.”
Sam now has a much different role at BTC. His company regularly hosts externs from the same program from which he graduated. He also is an active member of the Horticulture Technology Board of Advisors and attends many of the events held at BTC throughout the year. And significantly, Sam and his company have become donors to BTC.
“Without all the generous individuals who donated prior to my education, I would not have had the opportunity that I was given,”said Sam. “Bidwell—in many ways—was a new beginning for me. If I can help another individual with their next opportunity, I will choose to do so every time.”
You can find out more about Sam Hawkins’ landscaping and snow removal business at pghwhitetaillandscaping.com.
Our fiscal year ends on June 30th. Making your donation on or before June 30th will help Manchester Bidwell Corporation continue to provide a place of hope and opportunity to students like Sam. Donate here.
Certified master chef and MBC board member Byron J. Bardy, BTC culinary director Cynthia Tuite, BTC Executive Director/Senior Vice President Valerie Njie, catering chef Brian Buskey, culinary department administrative assistant Gina Hergenroeder, and culinary arts instructor Richard Panzera with the Outstanding Supporter of the Year Award at the ACF Pittsburgh Chapter 2018 Awards Gala. Photo courtesy of Valerie Njie.
Partnerships with professional organizations provide Bidwell Training Center (BTC) students learning and network opportunities outside of the classroom, and there was no better example than at the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Pittsburgh Chapter 2018 Awards Gala.
The ACF promised a night filled with warm hospitality, fine dining, and tributes to those who promote the culinary profession. To say the least; they delivered.
Held on Sunday, March 11, 2018 at the St. Clair Country Club, BTC students stated that the things they most remembered about the gala were the accepting and welcoming atmosphere, the presentation of the exquisite six-course meal, the staff, and the club. It was a night where you could sit across the table from chefs who are pioneers in the culinary industry, instructors, executive directors, and students.
It is not uncommon for BTC staff and students and ACF members to be at the same event. The partnership between BTC and the ACF has provided an invaluable opportunity for students that is rarely experienced this early in the game. Throughout the years, BTC students have had the opportunity to attend monthly ACF meetings and Anything Goes Competitions—where they compete with other students around the Pittsburgh area. Their superior skills have resulted in first, second, or third place standings and awards. Monthly meetings offer a variety of demonstrations and educational lectures. Students are free to attend the meetings and competitions without being a member of the ACF and membership is offered at a discount.
Student involvement in ACF helps them gain a new perspective and enhances their ability to create new and exciting concepts. Richard Grabowski, a recent BTC graduate, was honored at the gala and received the William Foust Educational Scholarship Award. Grabowski won a $1,200 prize that paid for him to attend the Chef Connect Conference in Charlotte, NC and a student culinarian membership to the ACF Pittsburgh Chapter for one year. Valerie Njie, BTC executive director/senior vice president, was present to accept the ACF Outstanding Supporter of the Year Award on behalf of BTC.
Whether attending an awards gala, an Anything Goes Competition, or monthly meeting, students can walk out learning more than they walked in with. It is clear to see that the future of the culinary industry is in the students’ hands. The generosity and expertise that the chefs at BTC and the ACF give to the students will help guide the future of culinary cuisine and hospitality.
“From the Ground Up” installation at the 2018 Pittsburgh Home and Garden Show. Photo by Valerie Njie.
“From the Ground Up” was the underlying theme of Bidwell Training Center’s (BTC) exhibit at the 2018 Pittsburgh Home and Garden Show. In grand style, the event served to kick off BTC’s anniversary year celebrating 50 years of helping people find direction and opportunity by way of its innovative adult training programs.
The exhibit unfolded in the garden pavilion on the first floor of the David Lawrence Convention Center where displays created by the horticulture technology students included vignettes suggestive of the many programs that BTC has offered over the past 50 years. Each was constructed from repurposed items, to create fun and even somewhat whimsical plant containers bursting with the colors of spring. The exhibit also included salutes to our sister affiliate Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, which is also celebrating 50 years of enriching the lives of area youth through creative arts programming
In addition, BTC’s horticulture department took their collective skills to a new height as they expanded their theme in a second floor display, which included the Pennsylvania Woodmobile. The traveling exhibit managed by the State Department of Agriculture offered guests a fun and interesting romp through Pennsylvania forests and highlighted the economic importance of trees to the Commonwealth. The walkthrough display contained both educational and interactive components for tree lovers of all sizes. As if that wasn’t enough, the Woodmobile was set amidst islands of fun facts about economically important plants, also created by BTC’s horticulture students.
This event was not an add-on for the students, but rather a unique way of bringing all of their studies and classwork together within the context of one amazing applied learning module.
Other features included an amazing floral display created by Sogetsu Ikebana, rose experts from the Pittsburgh Rose Society and our ever-popular garden shop with an array of seeds, plants, and garden-related products.
In addition to over 400,000 people enjoying the show first hand, BTC’s horticulture department received accolades from both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Tribune Review and got great media coverage on KDKA’s “Pittsburgh Today Live.”
Watch for more exciting events as we continue with our year-long anniversary celebration including ways in which you can participate in this unprecedented time in our history.
Bidwell Training Center (BTC), an affiliate of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, will honor the 2017 Jesse W. Fife, Jr. Fabric of Our Community award recipients that embody the mission and vision of changing the lives of adults in transition in Southwestern Pennsylvania and whose contributions impact the career-training sector. As we approach our fifth decade, we celebrate those who have made significant contributions over the past 50 years with an awards ceremony and reception.
The 2017 Jesse W. Fife, Jr. Fabric of Our Community honorees are:
Dr. E. Peter Benzing
K. Leroy Irvis, posthumously
This year we look back at those who have helped us transition from a 1960s poverty program to a 2017 ACCSC School of Excellence, and we wouldn’t be where we are without Dr. E. Peter Benzing, IBM, and K. Leroy Irvis.
During the ’80s IBM did more than provide us with personal computers, staff, furniture, and the basis for our information sciences program. IBM gave us the credibility we needed at the time by backing our mission and our vision. In addition, it gave us a framework of how to work with future corporate partners. BTC students and the Pittsburgh region have benefitted immensely from IBM’s, Sal Faso’s, and Ted Robert’s support.
Due to Dr. Benzing’s belief in our mission and vision, we have funneled countless students through our chemical laboratory technician major and into bright careers. His tireless efforts and guidance have not only assured that every student that steps into the Dr. E. Peter Benzing Chemical Laboratory is taking their first step into a new life, but also when they step out of that laboratory for the last time a positive future awaits them and their families for future generations.
The only reason our doors stayed open in our early years was because of K. Leroy Irvis. He was our champion inside and outside the state legislature, and worked tirelessly to make sure BTC had the resources to follow through on its mission. This was a man who wouldn’t even let a snowstorm stop him from his purpose—doing good for ordinary people. Without Mr. Irvis, BTC would not exist today, and that is why we are posthumously honoring him with a Jesse W. Fife, Jr. Fabric of Our Community award.