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Putting inclusion into practice

Funeral home signs onto customized employment
September 16, 2016 4:00 A.M.
Staff at Schoening Funeral Service flank Dustin St. Onge (striped shirt), support worker Chris Vollans and funeral assistant Mike Hilliard.

A smile seldom leaves Dustin St. Onge’s face, a clear sign he loves his job at Schoening Funeral Service.

Once a week for just one hour, Dustin goes to work with Mike Hilliard, a funeral assistant at Schoening, helping with general cleanup and washing vehicles. It’s not his first job, but it’s a big step up from the paper route he has in Westsyde.

Dustin, who turns 21 Sept. 22, has severe developmental disabilities attributed to autism and fetal alcohol syndrome. His challenges in communicating don’t inhibit his happy, lighthearted spirit, though, making him a welcome addition for staff at the funeral home.

“Yes,” he manages when asked if he likes his job.

“We love it,” said office manager Deborah McCabe.

Staff actively engage with Dustin to the extent of contributing each week to his wages by passing the hat.

Dustin’s example shows a lot more than the act of caring. His employment at Schoening over the past couple of months demonstrates in practice what some might see as simply a noble concept: Customized employment.

Customized employment is, in a sense, a social partnership that enables people with significant disabilities to be included in working life. It’s not a one-way arrangement though; the benefits can be mutually felt, and Schoening offers one example among many in Kamloops.

In Dustin’s case, his support worker, Chris Vollans of Access Family Resources, approached Sabrina Weeks, a job developer at Open Door Group, which administers the Employment Program of B.C.

Job developers are trained to scope out opportunities, to work with employers and clients on an ongoing basis, creating and maintaining inclusive workplaces.

Could Open Door find an employer willing to accommodate Dustin’s disability?

Knowing Hilliard, Weeks broached the idea to see if it could be explored.

“This whole inclusion process was her idea,” Hilliard said. “I thought it was an excellent idea, so I presented it to the people at Schoening. They were onboard immediately. They’re always looking for opportunities to get involved in the community. It was just such a no-brainer.

“Staff cover the cost for him to come in,” he said, adding that they’re not just observers. “They participate every week.”

Social engagement in the workplace — something most people consider a fact of life — is one of the key mutual benefits.

Social isolation gives way to social acceptance and understanding. The work is secondary.

“We’re not concerned about that part of it,” Hilliard said. “That he can come here and feel part of the team, and that he has some presence here, that’s important. Just to know he’s got something scheduled during the day, and that people appreciate it.”

Many employers, when introduced to the idea of customized employment, find it difficult to imagine in their own workplaces. That hasn’t held back a long list of city employers who’ve hired people with disabilities, a list that includes London Drugs, Flavours of India, Independent Grocers and the Ramada Inn.

There is another benefit that can’t be discounted: Customers, and by extension the community, notice and appreciate inclusiveness.

“It’s one way to give back to the community and help out,” said Rick McArthur, general manager at Schoening.

When it comes to showing compassion, “That’s what we’re all about,” he added.

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