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‘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.”

pcowan@postmedia.com

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:

Dylan Morin is an extremely hard working and dedicated citizen in the Regina community.

Dylan Morin is an extremely hard working and dedicated citizen in the Regina community. His days are filled with student life, working part time for Dutch Industries, and volunteering for one of the countless clubs he is a part of. He makes himself available whenever he is needed and never shies away from a challenge. Dylan is everywhere.

Dylan is dedicated to his studies at the University of Regina. He is currently in his 4th and final year of the Campus For All and plans to graduate in the spring of 2018. When asked what his favorite part of being in school was, Dylan was quick to reply, “Meeting new people!” He also mentioned that once he graduates he really wants to continue his studies at the U of R auditing classes, furthering his education and broadening his scope of knowledge. In his own words, “There is so much information out there.”

At Dutch Industries, Dylan has developed a strong relationship with a family run business that is designed to “bring quality to its customers for generations.” It is this mantra and his personal connection to his boss Greg that keeps Dylan passionate about his work. When asked what he does at Dutch Industries, Dylan said proudly, “quality control and shipping. I package bolts for farming equipment across North America (Canada and the US) as well as the UK and then prepare them for shipping.”

His days are filled with student life, working part time for Dutch Industries

Another reason why Dylan enjoys his work at Dutch is because “they are great at helping [him] balance his time with what is important and the things he loves to do.” Dylan has been an amazing advocate for Friendship Club, Best Buddies, book club, Special Olympics bowling as well as track, and the Wind On My Wings Sailing Club to name a few. Being involved in his community and taking part in special events around Regina is something Dylan truly enjoys. In getting to know Dylan over the past couple years I have learned that his passion for serving others is unmatched. He is a fantastic public speaker and enjoys pounding the pavement looking to connect people and organizations, alike.

Finally I asked Dylan what his dreams were once he graduated from the University. Dylan replied without hesitation, “I make a good pay cheque already. I plan to keep working and saving. I will probably take some more classes but I don’t think much will change.” To conclude our interview I asked Dylan what his dream job would be if given the choice to do anything in the world to which he replied, “I would love to be a flight attendant for WestJet. I think it would be amazing to fly from Chicago to LA or even Vancouver again!” Dylan, with your passion and dedication to doing a thorough job, the sky is the limit.

Thank you for modelling passion and dedication, Dylan! We could all learn something from you.

 

Ben Morris,

Community Education and Outreach

 

“It’s nice to have money. Especially when I want to buy something big.”

Austin is an example for us all to follow. Austin has set a goal, worked hard to learn the skills, spent the time mastering his skills and finally achieved his goal through persistence. He never once slipped up and was always prepared to try again when a challenge arose. Austin was not afraid to ask for help when he needed it and was always ready to help others with their challenges. When you put your time and effort into a goal, anything is possible!

Austin has been passionate about recycling for as long as he can remember. In his spare time he cleans up his neighborhood, and is always looking for ways to help out the environment. If there is a will there is a way, and Austin’s will is what pushes him to research all the different ways to reduce waste and maintain a healthy planet! That is why a job in the recycling field at Sarcan could not be better suited for him.

passionate about recycling

What started as a self-directed three month work term for his high school work experience class, turned into near full-time paid employment for the summer months. He was 16 when he set his sights on future employment with Sarcan and he is now 18 years of age still passionate and proud about this role.

Austin and his supports have started to notice a change in his self-confidence. His numeracy skills and ability to count and understand money has also improved and he has no problem reading a schedule or earning his own steady paycheck. Much of this success can be attributed to his job at Sarcan and because of this success his independence has also increased. He recognizes that he can set goals for himself and can succeed in attaining those goals. With this new heightened self-awareness and his independence and confidence levels elevating it is my hope that new and exciting opportunities will continue to present themselves to him.

In addition to being a great employee, Austin is learning to be a humbly responsible young man. To be fair, at 18 one doesn’t have a lot of expenses but he manages to save most of his earnings every two weeks. “It’s nice to have money. Especially when I want to buy something big.” He does however splurge with twenty dollars on pay day to celebrate his hard work. At such a young age it is rare to find this level of dedication! Austin’s next chapter in life is sure to be bright.

 

Ben Morris,

Community Education and Outreach

 

“I would love to work in an office because it seems fun and full of positive energy!”

Jaime Carter is a mover and a shaker in the employment world. Her fantastic work ethic and gift of the gab has opened up a universe of opportunities and leaves those influenced in her wake astounded and inspired! Jamie’s an inspirational lifelong learner who understands the importance of education but also knows that you can’t have a clear view of where you’re going without recognizing where you have been.

iQmetrix-logoJaime has been working at iQ Metrix since January of 2017 and has enjoyed every minute of it. What started as stocking fridges and doing odd cleaning jobs within the organization has turned into some part time work behind the front desk! Now Jaime greets people, signs for packages and is appreciated as ‘part of the team and like she is part of the family.’

Her teammates have also recognized her talents. As her teammate at iQ Metrix puts it, ‘she is always happy and working hard!’

Jaime has also begun a training program that, if successful, would have her training people in and around the City of Regina to safely ride public transit. It is an initiative started by the city to help promote public transit to Canadian newcomers, seniors, and anyone else in need of a helping hand while riding the bus. Jaime has expressed her excitement with this new initiative by simply stating, ‘I’m excited! I love helping people and I know a lot about busses. Regina is going to be my home base and want to help keep it as safe as possible.’ It sounds like another perfect fit!

In addition to having an outstanding work ethic Jaime is also passionate about family, giving and caring for others, as well as maintaining a home she can be proud of. When asked what she does with all the money she makes she replied, ‘I like to buy gifts for my friends. Like cake! I also buy things for my cat and for my place, like a new coffee table and two end tables. [I am] proud of my living room.’

Jaime is also quite interested in visiting home more frequently. She would eventually like to be able to save enough money to visit home a couple times a year and get out to the beach more often. When asked about her home she stated that, ‘I miss going to the lake near Moosomin First Nation as well as Saulteaux First Nation called Acoshan Lake. I think about my family trips there and remember the sand on my feet.’

I’m going back to school. Haven’t been in school for over a decade

When asked what was next for Jaime Carter she replied, ‘I’m going back to school. Haven’t been in school for over a decade! I want to become an Administrative Assistant-Office Communicator. I would love to work in an office because it seems fun and full of positive energy!’ Jaime starts at the University of Regina this fall in the Campus for All program and is very excited at the prospect of furthering her education.

With Jaime’s ambition and selfless passion to do great things for others she is an asset to whatever project she chooses to become a part of. When you mix in her playful sense of humour and love for making a difference, the qualities of a great friend present themselves and completes the circle for a fantastic team.

 

Ben Morris,

Community Education and Outreach

 

“I love cars,” he beamed. “I’d like to work with Monster trucks or clean Nascars. Maybe a mechanic.”

Ted is always on the go! Whether taking an evening to race around town on his bike, or working as a cleaner and detailer for cars and trucks at Morsky; Ted is always on the move. His attention to detail helps make him an extremely gifted artist and his resourceful nature rivals that of Macguiver. In the first couple minutes of getting to know him I learned that Ted is playful and loves to joke around which makes him a good friend and well-rounded teammate.

When asked what his favorite part of working at Morsky is, Ted confidently stated, “saving money for things and [his] boss. I really like to have money for things I want.” Ted is a cleaner and detailer at Morsky and loves being part of the team. “Everyone I work with is really nice to me and when I do a good job, they hook me up with a bonus.” Not a bad gig if I do say so myself.

When the clock strikes 4 pm, Ted’s day isn’t finished. In his spare time he likes to tinker with new projects and fix broken treasures. If he can’t fix and sell it, he finds a way to repurpose it. One of Ted’s most recent projects is a mount for his iPod which fastens to the frame of his new bike. Now he can listen to tunes while he rips around town.

Looking around Ted’s home it is easy to see that Ted is passionate about creating

Looking around Ted’s home it is easy to see that Ted is passionate about creating. When he is not fixing up his ride he can be found drawing video game characters, painting fresh canvasses in his art class, and playing through games on his Xbox. One of Ted’s favorite games is Minecraft; a game where one builds and plays characters of their own design in a world which is also designed by the game player.

Finally, I asked Ted about his dream job. “I love cars,” he beamed. “I’d like to work with Monster trucks or clean Nascars. Maybe a mechanic.” It sounds like any pit crew would be lucky to have your creative vision and playful personality. Thanks Ted!

 

Ben Morris,

Community Education and Outreach

 

Bronwyn loves meeting new people and forging new friendships in her community.

Over the last four years Bronwyn Lenton-Young has been volunteering in her community. Whether she is sorting and preparing food to be distributed from the food bank or delivering hot meals to the doors of people around Regina with Meals on Wheels, Bronwyn has learned to find joy in helping others. In addition to providing safe and healthy meals to her community, she has also learned important skills in cleanliness and sanitation in the kitchen. What started as housekeeping and sanitation at the Regina Food Bank has made its way into Bronwyn’s natural skill-set in the home as she becomes more familiar with her role.

Bronwyn’s ultimate goal is to become employed in customer service and to create permanent income for herself. She loves meeting new people and forging new friendships in her community. She has accomplished this in her role at the Regina Food Bank but perhaps most evidently with the people she meets on her Meals on Wheels route. When asked about her role at Meals on Wheels, she speaks more about the people on the route than the actual volunteering itself; Citing birthdays and her knowledge of the people she meets on a personal basis. Her infectious smile and ability to engage conversation with anyone strengthens her case for this award as it is directly related to her helpful role in the community. She cares about people and unknowingly brightens the days of those whose path she crosses.

She cares about people and unknowingly brightens the days of those whose path she crosses

Through Bronwyn’s experience volunteering with the public and with her ever developing knowledge of safe food and better housekeeping practices, she has evolved into a very independent woman. In Bronwyn’s home you will find her preparing her own meals as well as keeping her space clean and tidy. She is a terrific housemate to her friend Gillian, a great member of the Regina community, and a valued member of our COR community as well.

My favorite part about Bronwyn is that she is unassuming and humble. She expects nothing and is thankful for what she receives. When asked if she was aware of how valuable her role in the community was, she replied with, ‘my parents are proud of me. And Shea [Bronwyn’s Team Leader], she is proud of me also.’ Bronwyn helps people every day whether it be in providing healthy meal options to the less fortunate or by helping to keep the levels of cleanliness at work and at home suited to the highest of expectations. She would never ask for credit and that is why she deserves our recognition.

Thank You B!

On October 25th, 2017, Bronwyn was the recipient of the Al McGuire Award for Community Involvement. Watch SARC’s Celebrate Success video here.

 

Ben Morris,

Community Education and Outreach