Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, pp. 34-35
As a part-time supported work coordinator, I face the challenge of working in a rural community where there are dwindling resources for pre-employment training. Often, the programs have attendance requirements and are fast-paced. As a result, successful completion by consumers is rare, and the self-esteem of people with mental illness suffers as a result.
In 2000, CMHA Port Alberni developed a business plan that would provide consumers with work opportunities otherwise unavailable in an area with an increasingly poor labour market. In our efforts to mobilize a work-ready labour pool, we provided some basic courses including a series of pre-employment seminars. In the supportive atmosphere of the clubhouse, individuals who were not ready to enroll in off-site programs were seeing success and requesting further training.
In the spring of 2001, I received the news that North Island College (NIC) was eager to institute a local Transition to Work program for individuals with a serious mental illness. Eureka clubhouse had a successful pilot project in Courtenay that could serve as a frame of reference in designing our program. By November, the College announced it was ready to start working in partnership with our agency.
The course was designed with consideration for the needs and strengths of the target group, the realities of life with a mental illness, and included strategies to reinforce work habits. Classes would begin at New Horizons clubhouse, with the advantages of having few distractions and providing a familiar environment. Participants would be registered with the college for non-credit courses, receiving only a pass or fail based on participation.
Structured to be consistent with employer expectations, and following the college calendar year, the classes would start early and be held every week, including disability cheque issue day. Each class would be a separate module, so missing a session would not have an effect on continuity.
In developing the curriculum, we considered the employment-focused courses Eureka clubhouse had implemented, the requirements of our particular group, and the expertise of the college instructors. New Horizons clubhouse members also expressed an interest in continuing with personal development prior to working on job-readiness skills.
I had witnessed first-hand the expertise of both college instructors working with individuals with cognitive difficulties, and knew we were in good hands. They are respectful and engaging as well as knowledgeable of the supports conducive to success for persons with disabilities entering the realms of education and employment.
In September 2002, we held an orientation for the Transition to Work program at New Horizons, open to any clubhouse member. The clubhouse coordinator and I had been ‘selling’ the program and I was relieved when we exceeded an acceptable number of registrants. Most participants were older and had been out of the workforce for an extended time. It was clear that old members and newcomers alike were sincere in their desire to regain employment.
Classes began this October with the goal of providing a valuable and pleasurable learning experience. I took on the role of support worker, assisting in the classroom with tasks that would promote successful participation.
It has been important to consider the social benefits of the group and to facilitate the development of peer connections. The first exercise was a self-introduction through collages. What appeared to be a grade-school activity soon turned out to be a revealing and humorous tool to learn about each other’s goals and dreams. The ice was broken, anxiety was reduced, and positive group interaction began.
We valued flexibility in responding to the group, and suggestions were considered throughout. Class time became a means of sharing information and addressing issues such as the recent reassessments and changes to the provincial assistance program for persons with disability designation. A coffee break offered further opportunity to network and accommodated students with difficulty concentrating over extended periods.
An orientation to NIC was held on campus for the students, many of whom had never been on site. This event dispelled the notion that the college was only for young, high school graduates. It also provided a transition to the second semester of the program, instruction in basic computer skills, that is being held on campus in order to accommodate the number of registrants. One additional benefit came when we were able to hire a participant as a ‘student-aiding-student.’ The class has extra support and the aid now has an opportunity to develop work skills.
Next semester, we return to topics relevant to consumers entering the workforce. Many of the fears and concerns that surround the world of work can be addressed; for example, issues around disclosure, self-care when working, impacts of work on disability benefits, and strategies for dealing with difficulties on the job.
This small community project in partnership between CMHA Port Alberni and North Island College has received excellent evaluations. People have gained new coping strategies and more confidence that they can successfully gain and maintain employment. Members say they have something meaningful to look forward to, and that they have been able to restore or develop skills. For others, the program has served as a link to further education.
About the authors
Sandra is the Supported Work Program Coordinator for CMHA in Port Alberni, working part-time over the past four years. Supported Work has recently integrated with the New Horizons Clubhouse program as the first step working toward clubhouse accreditation
Sharon is a faculty member in Adult Special Education, Programs and Services for persons with disabilities at North Island College in Port Alberni. Her background is in social work