SHSAtv: The First Steps to Mental Health in the Workplace

COR is proud to be recognized by the Service and Hospitality Safety Association (SHSA) for our efforts to incorporate Mental Health within our Safety Management System.  To learn more about Mental Health in the Workplace, watch their SHSAtv video segment.


Lisa Chavady, SHSA’s Senior Advisor will guide you through the first four steps to implementation, from gaining leadership commitment, conducting a baseline assessment, devising a plan, to measuring and revising.  Remember, what works for one organization may not work for another.  Find out what is required at YOUR organization, and do what works for you!

Special Guests Experts:

  • Elizabeth Rankin-Horvath, CSA Group Project Manager for the development of the National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health & Safety in the Workplace
  • Rory McCorriston, Mandy Boersch & Kristyn White from Creative Options Regina, who tell a first-hand story of how they have successfully integrated the mental health aspect into their safety management system 

To learn more, visit the SHSA Website.


‘Mend the heart. All else will follow’: Creative Options Regina creates new life for many with disabilities

Pamela Cowan, Regina Leader-Post Pamela Cowan, Regina Leader-Post

In this season of giving, reporter Pamela Cowan is profiling some of the organizations and people working to make the lives of Reginans better. Watch for her stories for the rest of the year as we showcase the 12 Days of Difference-Makers.

Staff crowd around Andrew Ronnie and hug him as he blushes. It’s his 35th birthday.

One can feel the love inside the room.

Ronnie says softly: “Now I’m safe.”

It’s a feeling he hasn’t always felt. For many years, Ronnie didn’t feel loved and, in fact, was feared and shunned.

A number of years ago, he spent six months in the psychiatric unit at the Regina General Hospital. After his release, he was in and out of the emergency department.

No one could deal with the violent outbursts he was prone to until a group of special people uncovered his giving heart and his desperate need to feel safe.

He was the catalyst for the development of Creative Options Regina (COR) — a non-profit organization that develops personalized supports for people with a wide range of intellectual disabilities, and often mental health issues.

“They care about me a lot,” says Ronnie, the first person to receive COR services.

“What’s really important to understand is that these aren’t bad people,” says Michael Lavis, executive director of COR. “It’s just the system wasn’t flexible to be able to meet the needs of these folks to provide them with the care they required.”

And so, Lavis Says, COR started working with people “nobody else wanted.”

Andrew Ronnie and executive director Michael Lavis, right, play foosball at the Creative Options Regina office. Michael Bell / Regina Leader-Post

COR was created in partnership with the Ministry of Social Services in 2009.

A year before its creation, the provincial government identified 448 Saskatchewan people with intellectual disabilities and other complex needs who couldn’t access services — many from around Regina.

“We’ve seen families say, ‘We can’t do this anymore’ and they cut ties and that’s hard,” Lavis says. “I can only imagine how painful it is to drop their loved one off at the emergency room and abandon them. That’s happening all of the time.”

So COR, working with others in the community, connects individuals and their families with whatever services are required.

“Ultimately we’re providing support to everyone who is connected to that person’s life,” Lavis says.

The government gathered community-based organizations to discuss who required specialized services and how to provide them. Many were homeless, living in psychiatric units, shelters or hotels and two-thirds had a mental health diagnosis.

Complicating matters was that many were involved with multiple government departments.

“What happens to the people that touch two, three or four of those government departments?” Lavis asks. “What we know to be true is often they fall into these huge gaps that exist in our service delivery system.”

For example, people with mental health issues are the responsibility of the Ministry of Health. Those with intellectual disabilities deal with Social Services. Aboriginal people receive federal supports through Indian Northern Affairs Canada. Those under 21 fall under the Education Ministry and people in trouble with the law are involved with Justice and Corrections.

A number of adults connected to COR endured significant trauma while growing up in foster homes or group homes.

“Trauma that was inflicted upon them by the very people that were intended to protect them,” Lavis says.

Foster and group homes aren’t equipped to provide the supports these kids need, so they’re bounced around in the child and family system, he says. When they reach adulthood, they’re bounced around some more.

Supports through COR are tailored to each individual’s dreams.

Services range from daytime, recreational, supported living and employment supports. Depending on an individual’s needs, home supports might be provided for a few hours a day to 24/7 care.

Based on a companionship model, staff promote each individual’s independence.

“They might help them get up and get ready, grocery shop, prepare meals, do medication management and then help them connect with the broader community, both socially and recreationally,” Lavis says.

Many under the care of COR are society’s most disenfranchised.

When Ronnie moved to a home, he required two-on-one support around the clock. He couldn’t have a roommate because of his violent history.

“(He) came with case file after case file of all the horrific things he’s ever done in life,” Lavis says.

Candidly Ronnie confides he’s “had lots of temper and anger.”

But gradually Ronnie’s life was transformed. In 2012, he moved into a new home with a roommate and now receives one-on-one care.

“I’m working on no self harm and I’m working on not trashing the house — that was in the past,” Ronnie says proudly.

He hasn’t been to the hospital for more than a year, which Lavis credits to COR’s “gentle teaching” philosophy.

When dealing with behavioural issues, staff are taught: “Go for the centre. Mend the heart. All else will follow.”

Among those they had to mend was Gerald, a man with cerebral palsy who was unable to speak.

The first time Lavis met Gerald he was trussed tightly in his wheelchair with restraint upon restraint upon restraint. Boxing gloves and a helmet with face mask prevented the young man from hitting, pinching and biting those around him.

Gerald’s wheelchair was bolted to plywood to prevent him from toppling because of his constant thrusting.

“I remember looking at Gerald and thinking, ‘This is horrifying — straight out of a movie.’ Imagine, in 2009, that this exists in our own community,” Lavis says.

When COR staff started caring for Gerald the first thing they did was remove his restraints. There were ongoing struggles as he continued to pinch and bite.

“He couldn’t walk because he’d been in this wheelchair for so long that he had zero muscle capacity in his legs,” Lavis says.

While the team tried to build trust with Gerald, they gained a champion in the health-care system who discovered he had a bowel obstruction and dental issues.

“When we dealt with those underlying health conditions, the pain stopped and the hitting of the head stopped,” Lavis says. “Some of that violence that we saw was him trying to tell us, ‘I’m in pain. I hurt.’ ”

Eventually Gerald moved into a home with a roommate and has learned to walk unassisted.

“He has to hang on to the railings in the home, but there’s no helmet, no gloves, no restraints,” Lavis says.


Over eight years, the non-profit organization has grown to 170-plus employees who support more than 50 high-needs people.

“If there was a blanket diagnosis that I could give to everyone that we provide services to, I would say that it is a deep sense of loneliness,” Lavis says. “A deep sense of disconnect. These are folks who have very few, if any, true friends — unpaid, natural supports in their lives.”

In Saskatchewan, 170 community-based organizations provide services to roughly 5,500 adults with disabilities.

Within that group of people, approximately 100 have been identified as having complex and challenging support needs. COR supports 19 of the 100 people.

Funded by the provincial and federal governments, COR has an operating budget of $7.8 million.

A number of COR participants have had lengthy stays in the mental health unit — the shortest being three months, the longest being 19 months.

“When you sit down and evaluate the cost of daily police interventions and all of the emergency room visits that happen weekly and the stints in the acute care settings — this is a fraction of the cost,” Lavis says.

To meet a growing need, Rory McCorriston, director of people and culture at COR, hired 30 employees in the past year.

“The majority of our organization is made up of support people,” he says.

The average age of staff is 28 — a good fit for the people they serve who are, on average, in their 30s.

Rory McCorriston, director of people and culture at Creative Options Regina. Michael Bell / Regina Leader-Post

It’s not uncommon for COR to hire people without previous disability experience.

“In some situations, it’s almost preferred because often if you have people who have done this type of work in a more traditional setting or have done it for a long time, they come in with their own set of ideas about caregiving,” McCorriston says.

Staff turnover is low and jobs aren’t posted because people send in unsolicited resumes after hearing COR’s story.

“In this industry of disability work, it’s common for an organization to have high staff turnover,” McCorriston says. “But when the basis of our philosophy of caregiving is building relationships, it’s hard to build a relationship if you’re only there for under a year.”

Staff help people gain abilities and return power to those who have felt helpless for years.

“Every day we’re hoping to come in — not to dress them, but to help them pick out the right outfit,” McCorriston says. “It’s not cooking and cleaning for that person, but doing it together.”


Chris, another young man, was a conduit for great change in Saskatchewan.

“He fell victim to that trap of living in the psychiatric ward for 19 months,” Lavis says. “Can you imagine, at a cost of $2,000 a day? He was there because there was no place for him to go.”

COR worked with Social Services and Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region’s Mental Health and Addictions Services to create supports for him. Provincial funding was used to hire a psychiatric nurse. Together they provide proactive mental health supports.

“Much better than queuing up at the emergency room and waiting for a six-month appointment with a psychiatrist, which is the norm,” Lavis says.

Another initiative rolled out two years ago after COR was asked to help a 14-year-old boy with autism who had significant behavioural challenges.

Executive director Michael Lavis. Michael Bell / Regina Leader-Post

“The system was really challenged to provide supports to him,” Lavis said. “Through that process, we changed our mandate to include youths and get involved earlier with these kids so we can put an end to that revolving door and they don’t fall off that cliff when they graduate to adulthood.”

Now COR supports youths who have intellectual developmental disabilities and mental health issues.

“Our hope — and I say hope because it hasn’t happened yet in the province — is that these kids are going to be able to transition from Child and Family programs to Community Living — the department within Social Services for disabilities — and the transition doesn’t disrupt their lives,” Lavis says.

This summer, COR opened its second youth home and currently provides 24-hour support for three individuals.

“The plan is to add another one or two kids this winter, but we’re also providing support to children who are living in the family home,” Lavis says. “Often the system forces the families to the brink and they have no other option, but to hand their child over to the system.”

More avenues opened four years ago for those with disabilities when COR partnered with Campus for All, a unique program at the University of Regina.

Every year, 12 students with intellectual disabilities participate in the inclusive post-secondary education program and convocate after four years.

“Campus For All was doing a fantastic job of the academic and social piece, but where they were struggling was the employment part,” Lavis says. “We have a number of folks really starting to thrive in the community and they want to work. They want a paycheque and they want meaningful work.”

To address that need, COR and Campus for All partnered to create 4 to 40, funded through the Ministry of Economy.

The employment initiative connects individuals involved in Campus For All and COR with employers who provide a flexible four-to 40-hour work week.

“Community employers want to be inclusive, they want to have diverse work forces and they understand the importance and the value that diversity brings, but they don’t really quite know how to do it and they need help — particularly with the demographic that we’re serving,” Lavis said. “There’s a lot of fear and apprehension around what that looks like.”

Brittany Bechard, left, and Serena Bernges at Creative Options Regina. Michael Bell / Regina Leader-Post

COR participants work at individualized jobs at businesses including SeedMaster, SaskTel, Dutch Industries, Meyers Norris Penny and Farm Credit Canada.

Employers are not subsidized and the paid employment includes benefits and pension.

Job descriptions and work hours vary, but the benefits of a meaningful job are the same — greater self esteem and inclusion.

“We have a guy working at the SaskTel warehouse that went from a few hours and now he’s up to 30 hours a week,” Lavis said.

Job coaches from COR help individuals integrate into the workplace.

“It’s really helping to set that person up for success,” Lavis says. “When I talk about success, I mean developing not only their skills, but connecting them to the relationships that come with any place of employment.”


Lavis is passionate about his work.

“So many people that we serve have been given such horrific labels and diagnoses — this laundry list of all these bad things they’ve done and these are some pretty amazing people… How do you give them that opportunity to shine so others can see that value as well?”

Prior to becoming one of the founders of COR, Lavis spent 12 years working with marginalized children and women in post-conflict zones around the world.

The 38-year-old worked on projects funded by the Canadian government, Oxfam in Great Britain and other international development organizations in places like northern Uganda and southeast Asia.

Back in Regina, Lavis insists he’s one of a team working to make a difference.

“We have this incredibly passionate young board made up of community professionals from varied backgrounds that are really committed to social change,” he says. “They don’t have a background in disability — most have zero connection, like myself, to disability. They’re very supportive of what we’re doing because they believe in the vision.”

When Serena Bernges, one of the younger residents of Valley View Centre in Moose Jaw, moved to COR in 2016 she was adamant she didn’t want to live with roommates or a group of people.

She wanted her own place in Regina.

Bernges has a soft spot for Valley View where she had friends throughout the institution, but she has new-found freedom in Regina.

The 43-year-old lives in a self-contained suite in a small bungalow with another woman. No longer does she share a bedroom and best of all, she gets to cook her own meals.

“I make stuffed mushrooms, lasagna and sausage and hot dogs,” Bernges says. “I live in the best house in the world.”

Read the article on the Leader-post website here.


The Journey to Inclusion – IDPD 2017 Video Presentation

A number of local organizations (including COR) partnered on a collaborative video project to celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), as proclaimed by the United Nations annually on December 3rd. The project created a video highlighting: The Journey of Inclusion.

“Over the last several years the disability movement has both reflected—and, hopefully, inspired—change. Throughout our history, there were few opportunities for people with disabilities in terms of social inclusion, accessibility and human rights. Now, the bar is continuously being raised in all of these areas.

Meet four people who are an integral part of changing the world for people with disabilities, their families and ultimately our communities. These are their stories….”

A shout out to our project partners:

Comic Book Club Brings Laughs and Lifeskills

COR, in partnership with Inclusion Regina and the Next Chapter Book Club is hosting a weekly Comic Book Club at Comic Readers Downtown!

Recently featured in the SARC Spring Update, Ben Morris, Comic Book Club Facilitator, had this to say:

“Comic Book Club has been a breath of fresh air. Not only do we get to reacquaint ourselves with our favorite characters and stories old and new, but we get to share them with like-minded friends in a fun and creative environment. Whether we’re reading, story-telling, or just taking out an hour of the day to let loose and laugh, The Club is where it’s at!”

For more information, contact Ben:


Partnering to Deliver Sexual Health and Wellness Education in Saskatchewan

COR, in partnership with a number of talented folks, has worked to develop Tell It Like It Is, a Sexual Health and Wellness Educational Curriculum for diverse learners. In an effort to bring it to a wider audience, COR has partnered with the Saskatchewan Association for Community Living (SACL) and the Saskatoon Sexual Health Center to assist in the delivery of Sexual Health and Wellness Training across Saskatchewan.

Using a compassionate approach and taking into account the diversity of learners, each module of the curriculum offers various learning strategies, worksheets, and activities.  The curriculum covers sexual health topics including, but not limited to, the physical body and changes, boundaries, healthy relationships, dating, intimacy, sexual orientation, safer sex practices, and understanding sexuality.

Providing honest and clear sexual health education to individuals living with a disability enables them to make informed choices and decisions about their lives.  Being equipped with the knowledge of personal rights and an understanding of consent helps individuals recognize signs of coercion or abuse and provides the tools required to protect themselves.  Through Tell It Like It Is, our aim is to empower organizations serving people with disabilities to provide sexual health education and information to those individuals they support.

“This project has been a journey…. we hope that through partnership we can continue to build on the course content while continuing to provide a rich educational experience for diverse learners across our province.” – Michael Lavis, COR

Check out an article about the initiative in SACL’s Spring Edition of Dialect and download the course curriculum here for FREE!

For more information, email Marlene Yaqub at:

Culture of Gentleness: A Promising Practice for Supporting Vulnerable Individuals

Global Regina Click here to watch the interview on Global.


CTV Morning LiveClick here to watch the interview on CTV Morning Live.


Culture of Gentleness

Hands-on approach made a world of difference

Hands-on approach made a world of difference | Video

Tara Schmiedge curls up on a pile of fluffy white pillows, swinging on a circular bed suspended like a cloud from the ceiling of her basement living quarters.

Her mom, Margot, crawls in next to her, iPad in hand, to look through family photos. Childhood scenes of Tara and her three sisters quickly transition to a newborn baby, pink and swaddled — Tara is now an aunt, and Margot a grandmother. The two laugh as they sway gently back and forth, two peas in a floating pod.

Tara, 25, has Kabuki Syndrome, a relatively rare genetic disorder that causes cognitive delays, behavioural issues and a wide range of medical problems.

These days, Tara is at ease in her world. She shares a northwest Regina home with another young woman with a disability and the support workers who come and go around the clock. She has a specially designed, one-on-one day program that meets her needs. Her parents, Margot and Dean, visit regularly and make sure her life is full of love and encouragement. They have fought tirelessly to make sure she has adequate support to do the best she can with her abilities.


As most families with a disabled child find out, it’s never easy.

The Schmiedges started taking Tara to Winnipeg for sensory therapies as a preschooler, before she was diagnosed. They knew she had cognitive delays, something they could see when comparing Tara’s development to that of her two older sisters, Leah and Kyla, and younger sister Erica.

Doctors originally thought Tara might have osteogenesis imperfecta, since Margot had a family member with the congenital bone disorder.

“We knew that wasn’t likely the right syndrome,” Margot said, noting Tara’s cognitive delays didn’t fit that diagnosis.

Then Tara was diagnosed with Kabuki Syndrome by a Winnipeg geneticist at four-and-a-half years old. It was a relatively newly-categorized disease, first described in 1981 by Japanese scientists.

“Having a child with a disability can really make you feel like an island,” Margot said, tucked into a comfortable chair in her home a few minutes’ drive from Tara.

“You try to maintain your friendships from before, and you do, but your life goes in a whole different direction than the majority of people.”

It was that isolation that encouraged Margot to pen a letter in a medical genetics journal about a year after Tara was diagnosed.

Using a family friend’s then-advanced method of communication — an email address — she was soon inundated with requests to keep in touch and share information about Tara’s development and challenges. They quickly had to invest in a computer and a dial-up Internet connection of their own.

A website was also necessary. But in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t quite as easy as it is today to post things to the mysterious world wide web.

Margot enlisted the help of her brother, Ed Zwart, and his partner Janice Banser. The two technophiles made Margot’s dream for a network where families could connect and share information a reality.

And so the Kabuki Syndrome Network (KSN) was born. If you search Google for Kabuki Syndrome today, it is still the top hit.

Over the past two decades, Margot has fielded thousands of requests for information in multiple languages from her home. Some were from researchers; other requests were from families unsure of where to turn with their new diagnosis.

Her background as a nurse — she stopped working when Tara was born — helped in explaining the complicated terms to other parents, including writing a medical dictionary.

Newsletters were the next step. They were printed and mailed out for years, before moving to an online format. Brochures came out in several languages — Margot got a language school to translate portions of the website into Spanish to meet demand. She even reached out to geneticists and doctors to write articles that the average parent could understand.

“Little things like that started adding up to provide a bigger source of information,” Margot said. “It’s funny how things snowballed. I never set out to do this, never.”

From supporting newly-diagnosed families reaching out for help to assisting doctors looking to explain the disorder in layman’s terms, the quiet force behind a mountain of information has been passionately advocating not only what’s best for Tara, but what works for other children around the world with the condition.

“She’s really an amazing, one-woman magician,” said Dana Levinson, a Minnesota mom of a seven-year-old girl who also has Kabuki Syndrome.

When Levinson’s daughter was diagnosed as an infant in 2008, she soon found there wasn’t much local support for a syndrome with an incidence rate somewhere around 1 in 10,000. Reaching out to Margot and the KSN was a major step in learning how to live with the diagnosis.

“Kabuki was first discovered in the 1980s and really since then (Margot)’s been the main person providing info, identifying professionals, connecting families,” Levinson said.

Levinson not only wanted to learn more about the syndrome but also become involved in helping shape what the KSN could become. She’s leading the organization’s efforts for the first-ever Kabuki Syndrome conference, which will take place at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this summer.

Meeting other families who have a child with Kabuki Syndrome has been “so helpful”, Levinson added.

“These are kids that tend to have developmental issues. My daughter wears hearing aids and she had a feeding tube, so just meeting other kids that may have had similar experiences is good for her for having a social support group, too.”

KSN has been a support for the Schmiedges too, leading to long-term friendships and visits while vacationing, but it didn’t always hold the answers to every problem.

“Tara is definitely on the higher end of physical disability and sensory issues and because of that she had many, many behavioural issues from about 13 on,” Margot said.

It was something that the family had to face mostly on their own. Their lives got “very complicated.”

In some instances, Tara would hit and bite. Her obsessive tendencies and anxieties were a part of daily life.

On a family camping trip, Margot brought along Tara’s favourite cookies — a huge motivator for Tara at the time — but she wouldn’t eat them. She barely touched food the whole weekend.

“We get back home and we’re unpacking the food, and she brings her cookies to the cupboard where the cookies go. She sits down, goes back to the cupboard, takes the cookies out, and starts eating,” Margot said. “Those cookies had to come out of that cupboard.”

School also became too much for her. Tara stayed in high school until 22, but was only managing a couple of hours per day by her last year.

Judy Humphries, Tara’s former student support services teacher at Michael A. Riffel High School, said the system can be hard to navigate for parents who aren’t sure what their options are for their child’s post-high school life.

“The transition is difficult sometimes for the students themselves, because they’ve been at their particular school for up to eight years, some of them. It’s hard to leave,” she said.

For students like Tara, the existing day programs may not be the right fit.

“There were things that Tara’s parents knew would not work for her,” Humphries said. “They could’ve just thrown up their hands and said ‘We give up, wherever she ends up will be fine,’ but that’s not what they did.”

Instead, Margot designed a day program for Tara that comes with one-on-one support. She does various tasks during the day, from collecting recyclables to delivering Meals on Wheels. In summer, she likes watering community gardens.

It’s a different path than some other young adults with disabilities take, and one that required letter-writing and many meetings.

“I’m a bit of a doer myself, it’s in my nature. We had to really fight to get her what she needed,” Margot said.

“All young people with cognitive disabilities should have those kind of parents,” Humphries added. “They need someone that’s just looking out for them.”


Tara was finally designated as “complex needs” — a designation not given lightly.

It means Tara has access to special funding for her housing and day program.

The Schmiedges’ advocacy work for their daughter is far from done. Her home had three other young women with disabilities when she first moved in and Tara had daily meltdowns over the pressures of living away from her parents and the constant stream of visitors and staff.

“It was very, very difficult for Tara,” Margot said. “We tried to prepare her. We’d go to the house before anyone was living there, show her where her bedroom would be.”

But it didn’t sink in, and the first year was terrible.

Daily panicked phone calls begging to come home were hard to face.

But it was an important step for not only Tara to make, but for her parents, as they too needed to have some space. And once two of the residents were moved to a new home, it became a lot easier.

“I like that we get to enjoy her now. I really like that. It’s not that we never enjoyed her, but I really just enjoy her now.”

Tara is doing “amazing” these days, she added.

“She’s a sweetheart, an absolute sweetheart. Everybody that gets to know Tara falls in love with her. She has challenging behaviours but once you know how to go around that, she’s really very endearing and so truthful.”

The efforts they’ve put in over the years have not only improved their own lives, but those of many other families with Kabuki Syndrome. Yet, Margot doesn’t think they’ve done anything extra special.

“There are parents that believe that it takes special parents to raise a child with special needs, but I don’t share this philosophy,” she said.

“I think you have a choice to make when you have a child with special needs. You either work very hard at it, or you drown in the immensity of it. And I think Tara taught us the patience.”


What is Kabuki Syndrome?

— First described in 1981 by Japanese scientists and named after affected individuals’ facial resemblance to traditional Kabuki makeup

— Affects anywhere from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 30,000 live births

— Caused by spontaneous gene mutation in one of two genes

— Wide range of congenital problems can result, from heart defects to kidney issues to recurrent ear infections

— Also a wide range of cognitive and intellectual disabilities, from mild learning disabilities to autism-like symptoms

— No known impact on lifespan, although the syndrome has only been described for 34 years

— Research continues into the genes causing Kabuki Syndrome. A recent study by Johns Hopkins researchers in mice with a genetic change similar to Kabuki Syndrome reports that the use of an anticancer drug can “open up” DNA, leading to improved mental function


Regina Leader-Post Article, by: Rachel Psutka

Published on: October 15, 2015 | Last Updated: October 15, 2015

Download the Regina Leader-Post article here.