'The best employee I have': Winnipeg non-profit helps people with disabilities find meaningful work

For nearly 30 years, Connect Employment Services has been helping people in Winnipeg not just search for jobs, but secure and retain them.

Connect Employment Services helps people like daycare worker Kristin Mellon overcome employment barriers

Kristin Mellon has worked at Panda Bear Daycare for four years. She landed the job through Connect Employment Services, a Winnipeg non-profit that helps people with intellectual disabilities find and keep jobs. 'Without them I definitely wouldn't be in this position,' she says. (Will Reimer)

With their toys frozen to the ground, snow covering the play area, and temperatures around –27 C, the children at Winnipeg's Panda Bear Daycare are spending most of a frigid February day inside.

There, it's bustling with energy. Kids are talking and laughing, some are digging up games to play, others are being read to.

"We have low numbers today," says 29-year-old worker Kristin Mellon, despite the hectic atmosphere. "But it's busy and I like it."

And she's thankful to Connect Employment Services, which helped her land the job.

Mellon was born with an intellectual disability, and says finding work would have been a big challenge without assistance from the agency, which helps people with intellectual disabilities find and keep jobs.

"Without them I definitely wouldn't be in this position," Mellon says. "I probably wouldn't even know about this job."

Inclusion, not just integration

For nearly 30 years, the non-profit agency has been helping people in Winnipeg not just search for jobs, but secure and retain them.

CEO Krista Bissett and program manager Lori Watson-Sewell have each worked for over 20 years to help those with intellectual disabilities leap over the hurdles they face. They aim to foster not just integration, but inclusivity, in Winnipeg workplaces.

"People often think integration is enough but that's kind of like being invited to the dance, but inclusion is actually getting to dance," Bissett said.

Krista Bissett, right, and Lori Watson-Sewell, left, have both worked for over 20 years helping people with intellectual disabilities find and keep meaningful jobs. (Will Reimer)

Mellon's relationship with Connect began when she was in Grade 9. It was so long ago she doesn't remember how she first heard of them.

She says she went to their Goulet Street office once a week to get help tailoring her resume and learning employability skills, eventually landing her first job at Safeway.

Lower employment rate

Getting a job can be tough at the best of times, but it's even harder for those who have the added hurdle of living with an intellectual disability.

The reality is Canadians with disabilities have a far lower employment rate than other Canadians.

Forty-nine per cent of Canadians aged 24-65 with a disability had a job in 2011, compared with 79 per cent of Canadians in the same age range without a disability, according to a 2014 Statistics Canada study.

To help people become beneficial employees, Connect offers a variety of free services to their clients to get them job-ready. This includes work plan and resume development, interview prep, and job search assistance.

Connect's job developers seek out and partner with Winnipeg employers who might be open to hiring their clients. 

Mellon says the best parts of her job are doing crafts and planning activities for the kids. 'Kristin has a huge heart,' says Micheline Fay, Panda Bear's director. (Declan Schroeder)

Often, employers will reach out to Connect to hire more of their clients after seeing what one can do.

"We hear over and over again from employers who say 'oh my god, this is the best employee I have,'" Watson-Sewell said. "'Do you have 10 more people with these skills? Because I need these people.'"

'The children love her' 

Panda Bear executive director Micheline Fay says Mellon has been a great fit. 

"The children love her," Fay said. "Kristin has a huge heart and she's a big part of the team in there. She's always coming up with new activities."

She said Panda Bear's partnership with Connect began over eight years ago. They've since hired four women through the program, most recently Kristin, who became a full-time staffer a year ago.

The thrill is knowing that you're just moving people forward.- Connect Employment Services CEO Krista Bissett

"We're an all-inclusive childcare — some of the kids have special needs," said Fay. "It's a very positive environment for children to be exposed to that because they learn to be patient, acceptant, and more caring people."

Connect case workers are always a phone call away should Kristin or the others need support, but generally everyone gets along independently.

Bissett and Watson-Sewell say pre-conceived notions and myths about people with disabilities in the workplace still exist, namely the belief that they're less reliable and need more supervision.

They say these are misconceptions. 

Ninety per cent of people with disabilities perform "as well or better" than non-disabled coworkers, according to a 2001 study by Statistics Canada, while a 2012 BMO survey said 77 per cent of small business owners surveyed felt their employees with disabilities "met or exceeded" expectations.

The Statistics Canada study also found 86 per cent of people with disabilities had "average or better" attendance at work.

Long-term supports, follow-up key

Connect's work doesn't end when their clients get jobs. Their case managers provide on-site job training and long-term supports.

"Some individuals may need a bit of extra assistance at the beginning of a job to learn the tasks or learn the things they need to do to fit into the work environment," Watson-Sewell said.

"Our goal is to act as a human accommodation," Bissett added.

Krista Bissett, CEO of Winnipeg's Connect Employment Services, says the support the non-profit provides to their clients, even after they’re settled in their jobs, ensures they thrive in their workplaces. (Will Reimer)

Even after their client is settled, case managers continually follow up so they can tackle any problems and make sure they succeed.

At the same time, "we don't want to be over-invasive," Bissett said. "Having someone at their work site maybe drawing attention to them isn't ideal either."

Bissett says her work is rewarding in many ways, but points to one in particular.

"The thrill is knowing that you're just moving people forward."

Changemakers is a multimedia series spotlighting the efforts and stories of everyday Winnipeggers striving to improve the lives of their neighbours. It was produced by senior journalism students in Red River College's creative communications program.


Will Reimer and Declan Schroeder are journalism majors in the creative communications program at Red River College in Winnipeg.