Creating community with the Gateway Association

What does a great community look like? At its base, the answer is pretty simple. Most of us want a community where children grow within a family and learn together in neighbourhood schools, where adults work at real jobs, where people have real homes and friends, and where they contribute to their communities. These are the goals of the Gateway Association, too. This is the organization’s 40th year of serving families and people who live with intellectual disabilities, many who are also on the autism spectrum. And for 33 of those years, Gateway has been a United Way partner.

The Gateway Association has four main thrusts, says its director of employment supports Renate Burwash. There is family support, mentorship, and education and awareness. The fourth pillar – inclusive employment is – where the group focused its efforts. Many Gateway clients are people who might not qualify for other employment programming. The association administers the My Life Personal Outcome Survey, which revealed (among other things) that people with intellectual disabilities seek meaningful work.

To address the needs of this subset, Renate’s team, along with executive director Cindy DeBruijn, came up with the We Belong program, which aims to employ clients in meaningful work in which they can excel and add value to their employers. “We get to know the family, the situation and the whole person to get a good idea of where they might fit.”

But that’s only part of the story.

“We also identify potential employers, to find out where their staffing problems lie,” Renate says. Companies might have a position that experiences high turnover, which negatively impacts other roles in the company and the bottom line. With the employer, Renate’s team unpacks the role into its component elements. “We often find that we have a client who would be great at, say, eight of the 12 tasks the position requires,” she says. Willing employers might then opt to redistribute the remaining four elements and take other tasks off of other employees’ lists to create a job at which the Gateway Association client can excel. “Suddenly, they have a reliable employee who shows up on time and adds value,” Renate says. “We want to create real opportunities, not tokenism.”

The We Belong program is what brought Chris Henderson to Weiss-Johnson, a furnace and sheet metal company in Edmonton. “I started in April 2014, so it’s been almost a year,” Chris says. “I work in maintenance and shipping and receiving.”

“It was a learning curve at first,” says Barry Gabruch, human resources manager at Weiss-Johnson. “Chris wasn’t sure exactly what to do, and the other guys didn’t know what he was capable of.” Still, Barry knew Chris was willing, so he consulted with Renate. In the end, Barry made a schedule, and once Chris saw it, he knew exactly where to be and what to do – it was a tool that helped him excel, and it helped his colleagues work well with him, too.

“I get along with everyone,” Chris says, “and I’m good at helping out.”

Barry agrees. “Once Chris had that schedule and the expectations were clear, he really stepped up,” he says. “He’s always on time and almost never misses a day.”

Gateway Association celebrated its 40th anniversary by releasing the We Belong mobile app at its February 6 gala. The goal of the app is to reward inclusive businesses like Weiss-Johnson by giving consumers a quick, easy place to find those employers. It works like this: a consumer looking for a coffee shop can search the We Belong app to find one nearby that practices inclusive employment and opt to spend their cash there. It’s a way of rewarding a business by choosing to spend money there, instead of with a competitor.

Written by Martin Dover.