When Community Living Sarnia-Lambton created its summer employment program nearly 30 years ago, the organization wanted to ensure that young people who have an intellectual disability had access to job skills and employment upon graduation from high school.
Starting with five summer students in the beginning, the organization’s Summer Employment Transitions program averages between 70 and 80 students every summer. This year, they have 55 participants and 19 summer job coaches.
For Bob Vansickle, Manager of Employment Options at Community Living Sarnia-Lambton, says the value of the summer employment program is its ability to raise the community’s expectations of people who have an intellectual disability.
“When [parents and] siblings are having conversations about going to college and talking about different careers and vocations, quite often, the people that we support who have developmental and intellectual disabilities are not part of those conversations and they don’t have the ability to dream like their siblings do.”
But, he adds, if you talk to kids who have a disability about what their lives could be like, it allows them to dream, it raises the bar, and it allows them to think about what’s possible. Vansickle says employers, school boards and colleges should also be raising the bar for students who have an intellectual disability when it comes to employment.
In Sarnia and Lambton County, Lambton College, the two school boards, the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor, as well as city and county councillors, are all on board with employment opportunities for people who have an intellectual disability.
Believing that their success could be replicated in other communities, Community Living Sarnia-Lambton partnered with Community Living Wallaceburg, Community Living Chatham-Kent and their local school boards on the Toolkits for Transition Project in 2015.
Thanks to funding from the Ministry of Community and Social Services’ Employment and Modernization Fund, the turn-key toolkit they developed provides high school and college staff, employment service providers, municipalities and employers with a consistent approach to starting their own programs and transitioning young people from school to work.
Since then, approximately 28 support organizations from across Ontario have taken advantage of the toolkit training offered through the Summer Employment Transitions program and have adopted many of the resources in the toolkit.
In February of this year, the program was recognized as an innovative practice by the Zero Project at a conference and awards ceremony in Vienna, Austria.
The Summer Employment Transitions program has now found a home in Barrington, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. There, Randy Lewis is looking to have his community of roughly 10,000 people become a hotbed for student employment, not unlike what he was able to do during his time at Walgreens.
Now retired, Lewis was the Senior Vice President of the company’s logistics division. He led an inclusive employment model at the company’s distribution centres, where 10 per cent of the workforce consisted of people who have a disability. Since then, the model has been adopted by other large employers in the United States.
Lewis first heard about the Summer Employment Transitions program several years ago through a conversation with Joe Dale, Executive Director of the Ontario Disability Employment Network, and he was impressed with Community Living Sarnia-Lambton’s success at securing employment for students.
“We need to work with employers, we need to work with school systems, we need summer jobs for kids with disabilities and after school jobs. So, these are the pieces of the puzzle that make all this happen and Sarnia is ground zero for [a summer employment program] that’s really successful,” said Lewis.
Vansickle and Lewis have had many opportunities to connect over the years, with a lot of discussion focused on community participation. “A lot of what we talked about was how we were able to change expectations in the community,” said Vansickle.
“When they talk about Sarnia as one of the most accessible places in Canada, it’s not because of anything that Bob Vansickle or Community Living Sarnia-Lambton did. It’s because the whole community has gotten behind this concept [of inclusive employment],” he stated, adding the community’s perception of people who have an intellectual disability has changed dramatically compared to when he started working for Community Living Sarnia-Lambton 24 years ago.
“Parents now demand that their kids have opportunities out in the community and have jobs, and the school system is now working to have their students have jobs in the community. They’re adopting our jobpath curriculum, so that they can help kids get ready while they’re in high school. We’re working with families at a much younger age, talking to them about employment when [their kids] are five-years-old.”
He says the students’ employment successes and the skills they acquire during the summer months are also helping to raise the expectations of teachers when young people return to class.
“Over the years, teachers have seen their students getting paid jobs during the summer and once that happens it raises the bar for their high school.”
The Summer Employment Transitions program has also made employers in the community disability confident. Vansickle says it’s a non-committal way for business leaders to hire people who have an intellectual disability, and “because of [the program], they end up hiring adults who have a disability.”
He says an unintended benefit of the nearly 30-year-old program is the fact that its one-time job coaches that have become the next generation of decision-makers when it comes to hiring.
“We have future business people, doctors, lawyers, you name it. Almost all the people [associated with] special education in our school boards are people that worked in our summer jobs program.”
For Lewis, he sees the Summer Employment Transitions program as an ideal way to introduce inclusive employment to businesses who may not otherwise hire someone who has a disability.
“Let’s start with summer jobs, which are six weeks or eight weeks. That’s a great way to introduce people with disabilities in the workplace for employers, change minds and create opportunities.”
That’s what Lewis has set out to do. With guidance from Vansickle, he has adapted the program stateside. However, rather than have summer job coaches seek out employers that wish to participate in the program like they’re accustomed to doing in Sarnia, he took a different approach.
“What I looked for first was somebody in the community who had deep roots with other businesses that could go out there and be a recruiter.”
He was able to partner with a person in the finance industry that sought out businesses to participate in the inaugural year of the program. Lewis then had Barrington Family and Youth Services administer the program.
“We went forward from there and started recruiting job coaches and students,” said Lewis, matter-of-factly.
Twelve students have signed up this summer, along with four job coaches. A diverse group of employers have also been recruited, which includes the local hospital, the City of Barrington, a construction company, retirement home, fitness centre and restaurant.
Vansickle says it’s important to start off small when it comes to bringing the program into a new community. He points to Community Living Thunder Bay and Community Living Algoma as examples. They each started with three students. Last year, they had 29 and 32 young people in their programs respectively.
He’s confident the model will also be successful for Barrington, given Lewis’ expertise.
“Randy Lewis is someone that is known internationally throughout the business community as being the leader [of inclusive employment]. You’ve got corporations not just in the United States, but all around the world, that look to the Walgreens model,” said Vansickle.
“[He] is seeing this as a model that is proven that he wants to, with his influence, move through the United States as a way to greatly reduced the employment problem for people who have a disability. You only have to look at what’s happened within the Community Living Movement over the last few years. All of the agencies that have taken on this model are doing incredible things with it, and I believe that the same thing can happen in the United States.”
What’s the end goal for Lewis? He wants to “give [the program] away and let every community start doing it themselves. That’s what I think got people excited about it. Not only do we want to make it successful in our town and sustain it, but also share it.”
Lewis is thankful for the partnership and support he received from Community Living Sarnia-Lambton in getting the program off the ground in Barrington.
“Sarnia offered to share everything they had and their success. It wouldn’t have happened without them, so I’m very grateful for that.”
Ron Laroche, Community Living Ontario