Rotary Employment Partnership Celebrates 20 Years
By Sara Protasow
With the help of committed allies, what started as an idea by a parent and Rotarian 20 years ago is now an initiative that has created over 600 quality jobs for individuals with developmental disabilities across Alberta. Inclusion Alberta’s Rotary Employment Partnership, a collaboration between Rotary Clubs, Inclusion Alberta and the Government of Alberta, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Wendy McDonald is now Inclusion Alberta’s Chief Operating Officer, but 20 years ago she was the volunteer President of G.R.I.T., her local Rotary Club and the mom of two young sons, one of whom has developmental disabilities. At the Rotary International Convention which she attended in preparation for her year as President, Rotarians and Rotary clubs were challenged to develop employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities around the world.
“I came home from that convention and I started doing some research about disability and employment, because I honestly didn’t know anything about it,” says Wendy, noting that her son Kyle was in Kindergarten, and therefore the notion of employment was not a huge focus in her life yet. “And it was then that I began to understand the huge unemployment rate for individuals with developmental disabilities.”
Wendy suggested that her Rotary Club launch some sort of project to develop jobs for individuals with developmental disabilities, and the idea was met with overwhelming support from fellow club members. Wendy reached out to a few people actively working in Alberta’s disability community in order to explore the idea, and invited Bruce Uditsky, CEO of Inclusion Alberta, and Norm McLeod, the CEO of the Provincial PDD (Persons with Developmental Disabilities) Board, to club meetings. When Wendy shared her idea of using the Rotary network to create jobs, both Bruce and Norm saw the potential impact it could have as employment initiatives for adults with developmental disabilities had been operated the same way for decades without changing the high unemployment rate. Bruce was interested in doing something different, and Norm was willing to fund it.
“Bruce recognized, in that first Rotary meeting, the power of the Rotary network,” says Wendy. “And so, from the get-go it was him who said that The Rotary Employment Coordinator was not going to be the ‘job developer’, that we were going to access the capacity of Rotarians and the business community to be the people that would develop the jobs and that has stayed true for 20 years.”
Norm indicated that he wanted to lead by example and created the first job opening of the Partnership to hire inclusively, an Administrative Assistant position at the PDD office. After interviewing a few candidates, he hired Jodi Reid, who had just completed 4 years of inclusive post-secondary studies at the University of Alberta. And while she has had a typical government experience of being shifted through various departments, Jodi is still at her job 20 years later, and loves what it brings to her life. She has been with Alberta Seniors for the past 3 years, and says she still learns something new every day.
“I’m very happy in the job I’m at,” says Jodi. “I’m comfortable with the work I do, and the people I work with. I trust them and they trust me and I’m proud of the work I do.”
Jodi is one of the few essential employees who have remained in the office during pandemic restrictions and says one of the things she loves most about her job is the variety of responsibilities and tasks she has on any given day, from digital file management to coordinating staff T4 slips.
“If I want to learn something new or if there’s a new task at hand, I learn it,” says Jodi. “It doesn’t take long for me to learn something new. I learn the steps, and then follow the instructions that are given to me and then I do it with no problem.
“I think if you’re consistent and accurate with your work, then you’ll be very successful in what you do,” she adds.
Typically, Jodi lives on her own and enjoys a short walk from her condo to the office, although much like many families during the pandemic, she has temporarily moved back to be with her parents.
“I miss my friends, going to restaurants and being able to go shopping as I please,” says Jodi. “But it’s ok, my parents drive me to work so I don’t have to worry about taking public transportation, and I can help them out here when they need it. So, it’s ok.”
Although Jodi’s employment journey is exceptional in that it is now uncommon for most people to stay at the same job for such a long time, Wendy says that The Rotary Employment Partnership’s mandate has always been about quality over quantity.
Inclusion Alberta conducted research a few years ago, looking at the first few early jobs the Partnership created and to follow up to see how they were doing now. Out of about 50 random job files, every single person was still working.
“What we learned was that yes, we’ve done a good job of creating jobs,” says Wendy. “But we’ve also done really well at sustaining jobs.”
The average wage of jobs created by the Partnership has always been above minimum wage, dispelling the myth that somebody with a disability is only capable of being paid minimum wage. Wendy says tracking average wages also helps her team continue to raise the bar.
“It helps us to make sure that people are being considered for wage and responsibility increases,” she says. “Jodi is an example of that. She is unique in that she has held the same job for 20 years but has moved through government departments and has enjoyed increased responsibilities and wages.”
The Partnership’s mandate to ‘do things differently’ than has traditionally been done in disability employment programs is its key to quality and success, says Wendy. Partnership staff are not job developers; potential jobs are identified by Rotarians and businesses and Partnership staff then work with them to pin down their particular needs. A number of job seekers who might be a good fit for the created position are then presented as candidates for hiring.
“Rotarians and the business community consider us the connector, but we need them to open the door,” says Wendy. “We need a pathway in, and then we will present candidates to those interested in hiring somebody with a developmental disability.”
The Partnership is also unique in that there is no time limitation on support offered to employees and employers alike, whether it’s at the start of a new job or 10 years down the line. Jodi Reid says she knows that Inclusion Alberta is there to support her if and when she ever needs it, although she rarely does as she feels well-supported by her supervisors and colleagues.
“If I don’t understand something or something is not right, I’ll go to [my supervisor] and talk to her and get her to help me figure out a way to fix it,” she says. “It’s challenging, but in a very good way.”
“A big part of it though is having support from your family and your friends,” Jodi says. “That’s been a big part of it for me, and it’s made a big difference.”
The Partnership currently has initiatives in Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Red Deer, Lloydminster and this year it will also move into Vermilion. Inclusion Alberta hopes to be able to expand the Partnership into more communities across the province should resources become available, as there are more Rotary Clubs interested.
Jodi Reid’s advice to job seekers with developmental disabilities is to stay connected to Inclusion Alberta and be prepared to hand out a lot of resumes and job applications.
“That way they know that you’re interested,” she offers. “And be confident in what you do. Be happy and proud of the success you have because everybody has a right to work, everyone has a right to be paid and have friends and have a normal life!”
Learn more about the Rotary Employment Partnership and the possibilities of inclusive employment here.