Forty years of empowering employment success across British Columbia
Reprinted from the Workplace: Transitions issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 11 (3), pp.33-35
British Columbia has come a long way since 1976, from Expo to the Olympics—and so too has Open Door Group (ODG). As we approach our fortieth anniversary, we look back on our humble beginnings in the mid ‘70s, when we offered woodworking and sewing classes to people with disabilities in Vancouver, to our role today, providing clients with programs and projects at more than a dozen locations across the province.
Our team has grown from a dedicated band of volunteers to become a leading partner in collaboration with provincial ministries, international corporations and social enterprises.
Most people know Open Door Group as the largest non-profit organization in BC providing employment services. In addition to operating WorkBC employment service centres, Open Door Group is deeply involved in supporting success, from pre-employment services to lasting job placements.
But Open Door Group offers much more than employment services. We’re proud of our leading role in Project EveryBODY, a community collaboration in the Lower Mainland that hosts five events (including a film festival and a hiring fair) leading up to the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
Our UNTAPPED conference series hosts employer-focused breakfasts aimed at breaking down hiring barriers in key industries. At the same time, we remain focused on our core vision: empowering everyone to succeed.
New mother and Open Door Group client Robynn Smith recently shared her experiences with us. “You don’t know how many times I walked by the Open Door Group service centre but never went in,” she explained. “Two years [ago], I was an operations and revenue manager at a boutique hotel. [Next,] I was an unemployed single mother battling postpartum anxiety so crippling that I could barely leave my home.”
“As a new mother, I was overcome with fear,” Robynn confided. “I rarely slept for fear my baby would stop breathing. I was suffering from debilitating panic attacks, and trying to find a job in my condition was overwhelming. I had called the employment centre several times and hung up. I just couldn’t do it.”
At Open Door Group, we offer both group-based programming and one-to-one services. Before someone enters (or re-enters) the workforce, we help him or her develop a set of employment skills. When clients like Robynn come to us, we meet them where they are, mentally and emotionally, assessing their skills and matching them with services that address their barriers to employment.
Robynn related how Open Door Group’s focus on the individual affected her on a very deep, very personal level: “One day, I finally went in and my life changed. I met two fantastic support workers who greeted me as a person—not just an ‘out-of-work mother.’ It’s hard to put into words how something as simple as a warm greeting completely changed my mindset. That very same day I sat down at a computer and started looking for work.”
Open Door Group programs combine guidance from recreational therapists with specific skills coaching to enhance and develop an individual’s abilities and interests. For example, the Thrive program includes health and wellness workshops that focus on everything from yoga and community walks to staying positive and learning how to be more assertive. Kitchen skills programs (from beginner to intermediate) focus on cooking for one person or meal planning on a budget. Even parenting and “good neighbour” workshops can help change someone’s life experience. Building natural support networks, positive relationships and healthy lifestyles spurs personal development and empowers people to become genuinely independent.
Since Open Door Group is in 14 different communities across BC, we have a unique perspective on the varied issues our clients face. Our specialized employment programs are designed to support a variety of diverse populations, from persons who experience addictions, to youth, to Aboriginal people, to individuals living with disabilities.
When we meet a client for the first time, we start with case management and work towards lasting job placement and meaningful career choices. Not all people know immediately what employment is a good fit for them; our employment advisors and vocational counsellors have the tools and training to conduct in-depth career planning with clients and provide them with guidance. We offer essential skills training and specialized employment readiness workshops and services to help clients prepare for, find and maintain work. This training includes workplace literacy/communication, short-term certification training, sector-specific training and work/education placement and follow-up services.
Robynn’s experience at Open Door Group illustrates how valuable these programs can be: “Over the next [few] months I became a regular at the employment centre. My employment advisor Geoffrey was encouraging—always speaking to my strengths, always instilling confidence and genuinely engaged. I saw a posting for an administrative assistant for ODG. I let it pass—not wanting to take away the safe feeling of this place. Then I started thinking, ‘I’m already there five days a week—I love the people there, why wouldn’t I want to work in such a great environment?’ The next time a position became available, I applied. After an anxiety-ridden pair of interviews, I was terrified and grateful when I was finally offered the position. There was hope! Since then, I’ve risen to work as the executive assistant to the executive director. I puked—I panicked—I didn’t sleep—I cried—I doubted—I almost self-sabotaged. But I worked with my team to overcome these challenges, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share my skills with the team and how in turn I can provide for my child.”
Because our funders trust Open Door Group to empower individuals across the province, especially in at-risk communities, many of our programs are targeted to address specific issues. One of our longstanding commitments is to the promotion of mental well-being. Clients are invited to participate in addiction and disability management workshops, where they create individualized management plans. These plans support their journey back to wellness and ultimately back into society. In Kamloops, for example, Open Door Group has a program aimed at solving an issue many Canadians struggle with: having access to the healthy and nutritious food that allows for positive mental well-being. The Gardengate Horticultural Program promotes healthy eating and active living for persons living with mental health problems. Gardengate provides rehabilitation for participants while providing volunteer opportunities for members of the community. Healthy living workshops through Gardengate include sessions on gardening, nutrition, cooking, food preservation, building, crafts, mechanics, pre-employment skills, vocational skills and life skills. Programs take place in a greenhouse, a vegetable garden and our kitchen classroom. Participants and volunteers increase their own food security by taking home organic produce in exchange for their help in the garden, while increasing the food security of the community by producing up to 18,000 lbs. of organic fruits and vegetables each year for local food charities.
If you’d like to learn more about our free services in your area, visit our website, OpenDoorGroup.org, or find us on Facebook: facebook.com/OpenDoorGroup.
Robynn’s enthusiasm for Open Door Group’s approach is clear in her final thoughts on her experience: “The warmth of that first greeting was the first step on the path to [my] success, and while it’s scary to share my story, I hope it can inspire someone else to make that first anxious step for themselves.”
As Open Door Group looks out across the future employment landscape, our goal is to reach out to all communities. We have no doubt that we’ve charted an inspiring course for the next 40 years!
About the author
Naomi is Executive Director of Program Management and Development at Open Door Group. She has over 17 years’ experience working with multiple-barriered clients and persons with disabilities. After a decade with the organization, Naomi now develops employment-service-related tools and programming specific to serving disability and other specialized population groups