Nfld. & Labrador

Special Olympics Canada names Spirit of Newfoundland director champion of inclusion

Since starting her job at Spirit of Newfoundland, Leah McDonald said the work done by Halley has helped her in many ways.

Peter Halley was nominated for going above and beyond, helping people feel accepted

Special Olympics Canada has named Peter Halley, left, a champion of inclusion for St. John's. He was nominated by Leah McDonald, an employee at Spirit of Newfoundland Productions. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Special Olympics Canada has named a St. John's businessman a champion of inclusion for his work promoting respect for people of all abilities in the workplace.

Peter Halley, artistic director of Spirit of Newfoundland Productions, was nominated for the award by his employee, Leah McDonald.

McDonald, who lives with Aspergers, anxiety and a rare brain disorder called agenesis of the corpus callosum — which is characterized by the absence of a part of the brain that connects its two hemispheres — started working at Spirit of Newfoundland seven years ago.

"They were looking for champions of inclusion, people who go above and beyond to make people with special needs feel welcome and accepted," she said. "When I got the email asking for nominees, I was like 'OK, I know right away who I'm going to put in. Peter definitely deserves this award, for sure.'"

Halley met McDonald during a show in 2011, and said a great friendship has grown ever since.

"We were doing our Abba show, and during that show I introduced my favourite Abba song, and I asked the audience if anybody knows [it]," said Halley.

"Hand goes up. [It's] Leah. And I think I commented on how polite she was because her hand went up, and we chatted after the show. And that was the beginning of our relationship."

McDonald says working with Halley at Spirit of Newfoundland has been life-changing. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Since starting her job at Spirit of Newfoundland, McDonald said work done by Halley and others has helped her become who she is today.

"In school, I never really did fit in, I got bullied a lot by my neurotypical — that's a big sciencey word meaning 'normal' — peers," she said. "And when I met Peter almost 10 years ago, he was one of the first ever neurotypical people to actually be nice to me and want to be around me."

"Finally finding a neurotypical person that actually wanted to be my friend instead of making fun of me, that was huge."

Halley said it's rewarding to work with McDonald and others who have disabilities.

"We've always been inclusive with our employees, and we have people that are literally part of our family here," Halley added. "It's easy to feel good about having Leah because she's always so vocal and thankful, and she's really great at her job."

Halley, the artistic director at Spirit of Newfoundland Productions, says working with people with special needs is rewarding for everyone involved. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Halley said the nomination McDonald wrote was "beautiful."

"I wasn't really familiar with the whole process, but having read what she wrote, it just made me feel great," he said.

McDonald said working with Halley is fantastic.

"He is a really, really kind person, he's a real pleasure to work for. I'm really happy that he's my boss and one of my best friends," she said.

Halley encouraged other businesses in the province to provide opportunities for people with disabilities, as the benefits are seen by everyone involved.

"It is very special, on another level, and it's so rewarding for us and for them," he said. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jeremy Eaton