When Brandon Bain graduated from high school in a small town in rural Manitoba, he had very few options. There were little to no job prospects, and he didn’t want to live in Winnipeg because he would have felt unsafe.
So Brandon moved to Atikokan to be closer to family. The small Northwestern Ontario community is home to 2,400 people and is located two hours west of Thunder Bay. Mining and forestry are the community’s leading economic drivers. Quetico Provincial Park is nearby, and the town is also home to Community Living Atikokan.
With some encouragement from his mother when he relocated in 2006, Brandon met with Community Living Atikokan’s Executive Director at the time to see whether the organization could assist him in finding work. He had a job about a month later, working at Chips ‘R’ Us, the association’s social enterprise.
“My first job I spent the summer doing food prep in the potato room. I did that for one whole summer as part of my training period,” says Bain.
“After I did that, they basically took me under their wing. They put me in different areas.”
Brandon tried his hand at lawn cutting, laundry, cleaning at the local employment centre, before moving on to yard maintenance. He still works at Chips ‘R’ Us.
Jim Turner, Community Living Atikokan’s Executive Director, concedes finding work for people with intellectual disabilities can be difficult in a small community where jobs are limited, particularly when the economy is in a downturn.
“You have grown men that, at one time would have worked in mills or mines, now pumping gas and stocking shelves in the grocery stores. I have teenaged sons and they’re unable to find work. If the teenagers in the town are unable to find work, the people we support have a more difficult time. As a result, we’ve evolved how employment’s done through our organization,” said Turner.
The association has obtained employment contracts from many homeowners or businesses in town. As is the case with Brandon, the organization also provides employment services to the people they support.
All 24 people supported by Community Living Atikokan have jobs, earning $11/hour or more. Half of them work at Chips ‘R’ Us.
The business is well-known to people in Atikokan and surrounding communities. Open six months a year, Chips ‘R’ Us garners a steady stream of customers. The food preparation and cooking are done by people supported by Community Living Atikokan.
“I’ve watched people do U-turns on Main Street because they’ve driven by and seen it. They weren’t thinking about grabbing an order of fries. But once they see it or smell it, they do the U-turn and do a quick stop,” says Turner.
In addition to having ‘the best fries in Northwestern Ontario,’ as Turner attests, the social enterprise provides the organization with prominence in the area. Community Living Atikokan has also raised its profile in other ways, like celebrating inclusive businesses at the association’s barbecue in May as part of Community Living Month. They also recognize businesses in town that provide employment opportunities, either through contacts or by employing people with disabilities directly, with the Widening Our World award.
“The members make the determination and whoever [is working with that] winning business is the one that presents the WOW award at the Chamber of Commerce Awards Dinner,” says Turner.
In addition, Community Living Atikokan awards a bursary to a local high school student that is pursuing an education in either developmental services or a related field.
The organization is also determined to change how accommodation supports are provided. Like many Community Living associations across the province, Community Living Atikokan operates a group home. The organization also acquired a small apartment building to ensure people had a decent standard of housing.
Now, after consulting with people receiving support and taking cues from the Select Committee on Developmental Service’s Interim Report, Community Living Atikokan’s Board of Directors, in consultation with families, has decided to close its group home.
“Several members living there indicated that they didn’t want to live there, they weren’t living there by choice,” says Turner.
The group home will close in the fall. The association also purchased additional homes, after individuals living in the apartment building indicated they want to live in the community. The apartment building is being renovated, so that people currently living in the group home will have their own apartment with on-site supports.
“We’re changing the support services that we provide, in order to accommodate the requests of the members,” says Turner.
“It’s helping individuals we support live their lives to the fullest, it’s real simple. Everything we do is about helping people achieve their goals and their dreams.”
Earlier this year, Turner’s staff assisted Brandon with achieving a dream he’s talked about for years – getting his driver’s licence.
“All winter long, a staff memb
er was set aside to sit with me to help me get my beginners and that’s one thing I’ve obtained,” says Bain, proudly.
He’s hoping to take a beginner driver education course in neighbouring Fort Frances or Thunder Bay, in order to get his G2.
Brandon, who has been a Member of the Council of Community Living Ontario for the past four years, appreciates the services and supports offered by Community Living Atikokan.
“They do very well at putting people on their feet that have disabilities or don’t have the courage or strength to do it on their own.”
– Ron Laroche