For years, Dawn Garvey was a traditional co-operative education teacher helping secondary school students find work placements in their community and supporting them through the semester. She discovered after some time, however, that a group of students with different, non-traditional needs were being left behind.
She thought maybe a stepping-stone to a traditional co-op placement could help these students gain the necessary independence to succeed after high school. With the support of the principal in Amherstburg’s Western Secondary School, Dawn developed a new program to individually prepare these students for an opportunity to try out small roles in a real work place.
Then she found the Village at St. Clair, a place where several different jobs were available that, depending on their abilities, each student could put their energy into while Dawn supported them on site. Volunteer coordinator Tammy Zimmerman was on board right away; as Dawn says, “we’re both out-of-the-box thinkers and willing to take risks, so we said ‘let’s do this.’ ” They were joined enthusiasticallty by educational assistant Diane Lamain.
The first group of students arrived in the village in early 2017 and they thrived, while a second group found equal success that fall.
“It was amazing,” Dawn says. “It was so mutually beneficial for the neighbours (residents) and the students. The growth that I saw in the students was immediate – I thought it would take the whole semester but within three weeks I was seeing huge changes.”
By simply talking with the neighbours and hearing their stories, the students developed communication skills that were lacking for many of them, and Dawn says a lack of communication ability is often the largest barrier these students face. As their communication skills developed, their confidence rose.
“These are students who would never even want to do co-op because they don’t think they can or they are nervous,” she says, “so their confidence is huge.”
Dawn thinks the program is so successful because St. Clair is a safe place for the students to grow where they don’t feel judged because the neighbours who make their home there are friendly and understanding of disability, for they all live with some sort of challenge.
“It’s a really safe environment,” Dawn says. “It’s amazing.”
There was one student in the second cohort who was selectively mute,” Dawn recalls. In the four years he’d been at Western secondary he didn’t utter a word and yet, after a short period of time in The Village, he began to speak and hold conversations with the neighbours and his fellow students.
She’s seen other students with autism who never smile or touch another person cracking jokes with neighbours and holding their hands as they walk down Main Street. When parents hear of such success, their eyes well with tears, for the hopes they’d held for their beloved children are coming to life in ways they never thought possible.
The positive impact of the program can’t be overstated, Dawn says, and the team and the neighbours at The Village should be proud of the role they play in transforming the lives of these young people. She can’t wait for the next semester to begin.