In this season of giving, reporter Pamela Cowan is profiling some of the organizations and people working to make the lives of Reginans better. Watch for her stories for the rest of the year as we showcase the 12 Days of Difference-Makers.
Staff crowd around Andrew Ronnie and hug him as he blushes. It’s his 35th birthday.
One can feel the love inside the room.
Ronnie says softly: “Now I’m safe.”
It’s a feeling he hasn’t always felt. For many years, Ronnie didn’t feel loved and, in fact, was feared and shunned.
A number of years ago, he spent six months in the psychiatric unit at the Regina General Hospital. After his release, he was in and out of the emergency department.
No one could deal with the violent outbursts he was prone to until a group of special people uncovered his giving heart and his desperate need to feel safe.
He was the catalyst for the development of Creative Options Regina (COR) — a non-profit organization that develops personalized supports for people with a wide range of intellectual disabilities, and often mental health issues.
“They care about me a lot,” says Ronnie, the first person to receive COR services.
“What’s really important to understand is that these aren’t bad people,” says Michael Lavis, executive director of COR. “It’s just the system wasn’t flexible to be able to meet the needs of these folks to provide them with the care they required.”
And so, Lavis Says, COR started working with people “nobody else wanted.”
COR was created in partnership with the Ministry of Social Services in 2009.
A year before its creation, the provincial government identified 448 Saskatchewan people with intellectual disabilities and other complex needs who couldn’t access services — many from around Regina.
“We’ve seen families say, ‘We can’t do this anymore’ and they cut ties and that’s hard,” Lavis says. “I can only imagine how painful it is to drop their loved one off at the emergency room and abandon them. That’s happening all of the time.”
So COR, working with others in the community, connects individuals and their families with whatever services are required.
“Ultimately we’re providing support to everyone who is connected to that person’s life,” Lavis says.
The government gathered community-based organizations to discuss who required specialized services and how to provide them. Many were homeless, living in psychiatric units, shelters or hotels and two-thirds had a mental health diagnosis.
Complicating matters was that many were involved with multiple government departments.
“What happens to the people that touch two, three or four of those government departments?” Lavis asks. “What we know to be true is often they fall into these huge gaps that exist in our service delivery system.”
For example, people with mental health issues are the responsibility of the Ministry of Health. Those with intellectual disabilities deal with Social Services. Aboriginal people receive federal supports through Indian Northern Affairs Canada. Those under 21 fall under the Education Ministry and people in trouble with the law are involved with Justice and Corrections.
A number of adults connected to COR endured significant trauma while growing up in foster homes or group homes.
“Trauma that was inflicted upon them by the very people that were intended to protect them,” Lavis says.
Foster and group homes aren’t equipped to provide the supports these kids need, so they’re bounced around in the child and family system, he says. When they reach adulthood, they’re bounced around some more.
Supports through COR are tailored to each individual’s dreams.
Services range from daytime, recreational, supported living and employment supports. Depending on an individual’s needs, home supports might be provided for a few hours a day to 24/7 care.
Based on a companionship model, staff promote each individual’s independence.
“They might help them get up and get ready, grocery shop, prepare meals, do medication management and then help them connect with the broader community, both socially and recreationally,” Lavis says.
Many under the care of COR are society’s most disenfranchised.
When Ronnie moved to a home, he required two-on-one support around the clock. He couldn’t have a roommate because of his violent history.
“(He) came with case file after case file of all the horrific things he’s ever done in life,” Lavis says.
Candidly Ronnie confides he’s “had lots of temper and anger.”
But gradually Ronnie’s life was transformed. In 2012, he moved into a new home with a roommate and now receives one-on-one care.
“I’m working on no self harm and I’m working on not trashing the house — that was in the past,” Ronnie says proudly.
He hasn’t been to the hospital for more than a year, which Lavis credits to COR’s “gentle teaching” philosophy.
When dealing with behavioural issues, staff are taught: “Go for the centre. Mend the heart. All else will follow.”
Among those they had to mend was Gerald, a man with cerebral palsy who was unable to speak.
The first time Lavis met Gerald he was trussed tightly in his wheelchair with restraint upon restraint upon restraint. Boxing gloves and a helmet with face mask prevented the young man from hitting, pinching and biting those around him.
Gerald’s wheelchair was bolted to plywood to prevent him from toppling because of his constant thrusting.
“I remember looking at Gerald and thinking, ‘This is horrifying — straight out of a movie.’ Imagine, in 2009, that this exists in our own community,” Lavis says.
When COR staff started caring for Gerald the first thing they did was remove his restraints. There were ongoing struggles as he continued to pinch and bite.
“He couldn’t walk because he’d been in this wheelchair for so long that he had zero muscle capacity in his legs,” Lavis says.
While the team tried to build trust with Gerald, they gained a champion in the health-care system who discovered he had a bowel obstruction and dental issues.
“When we dealt with those underlying health conditions, the pain stopped and the hitting of the head stopped,” Lavis says. “Some of that violence that we saw was him trying to tell us, ‘I’m in pain. I hurt.’ ”
Eventually Gerald moved into a home with a roommate and has learned to walk unassisted.
“He has to hang on to the railings in the home, but there’s no helmet, no gloves, no restraints,” Lavis says.
Over eight years, the non-profit organization has grown to 170-plus employees who support more than 50 high-needs people.
“If there was a blanket diagnosis that I could give to everyone that we provide services to, I would say that it is a deep sense of loneliness,” Lavis says. “A deep sense of disconnect. These are folks who have very few, if any, true friends — unpaid, natural supports in their lives.”
In Saskatchewan, 170 community-based organizations provide services to roughly 5,500 adults with disabilities.
Within that group of people, approximately 100 have been identified as having complex and challenging support needs. COR supports 19 of the 100 people.
Funded by the provincial and federal governments, COR has an operating budget of $7.8 million.
A number of COR participants have had lengthy stays in the mental health unit — the shortest being three months, the longest being 19 months.
“When you sit down and evaluate the cost of daily police interventions and all of the emergency room visits that happen weekly and the stints in the acute care settings — this is a fraction of the cost,” Lavis says.
To meet a growing need, Rory McCorriston, director of people and culture at COR, hired 30 employees in the past year.
“The majority of our organization is made up of support people,” he says.
The average age of staff is 28 — a good fit for the people they serve who are, on average, in their 30s.
It’s not uncommon for COR to hire people without previous disability experience.
“In some situations, it’s almost preferred because often if you have people who have done this type of work in a more traditional setting or have done it for a long time, they come in with their own set of ideas about caregiving,” McCorriston says.
Staff turnover is low and jobs aren’t posted because people send in unsolicited resumes after hearing COR’s story.
“In this industry of disability work, it’s common for an organization to have high staff turnover,” McCorriston says. “But when the basis of our philosophy of caregiving is building relationships, it’s hard to build a relationship if you’re only there for under a year.”
Staff help people gain abilities and return power to those who have felt helpless for years.
“Every day we’re hoping to come in — not to dress them, but to help them pick out the right outfit,” McCorriston says. “It’s not cooking and cleaning for that person, but doing it together.”
Chris, another young man, was a conduit for great change in Saskatchewan.
“He fell victim to that trap of living in the psychiatric ward for 19 months,” Lavis says. “Can you imagine, at a cost of $2,000 a day? He was there because there was no place for him to go.”
COR worked with Social Services and Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region’s Mental Health and Addictions Services to create supports for him. Provincial funding was used to hire a psychiatric nurse. Together they provide proactive mental health supports.
“Much better than queuing up at the emergency room and waiting for a six-month appointment with a psychiatrist, which is the norm,” Lavis says.
Another initiative rolled out two years ago after COR was asked to help a 14-year-old boy with autism who had significant behavioural challenges.
“The system was really challenged to provide supports to him,” Lavis said. “Through that process, we changed our mandate to include youths and get involved earlier with these kids so we can put an end to that revolving door and they don’t fall off that cliff when they graduate to adulthood.”
Now COR supports youths who have intellectual developmental disabilities and mental health issues.
“Our hope — and I say hope because it hasn’t happened yet in the province — is that these kids are going to be able to transition from Child and Family programs to Community Living — the department within Social Services for disabilities — and the transition doesn’t disrupt their lives,” Lavis says.
This summer, COR opened its second youth home and currently provides 24-hour support for three individuals.
“The plan is to add another one or two kids this winter, but we’re also providing support to children who are living in the family home,” Lavis says. “Often the system forces the families to the brink and they have no other option, but to hand their child over to the system.”
More avenues opened four years ago for those with disabilities when COR partnered with Campus for All, a unique program at the University of Regina.
Every year, 12 students with intellectual disabilities participate in the inclusive post-secondary education program and convocate after four years.
“Campus For All was doing a fantastic job of the academic and social piece, but where they were struggling was the employment part,” Lavis says. “We have a number of folks really starting to thrive in the community and they want to work. They want a paycheque and they want meaningful work.”
To address that need, COR and Campus for All partnered to create 4 to 40, funded through the Ministry of Economy.
The employment initiative connects individuals involved in Campus For All and COR with employers who provide a flexible four-to 40-hour work week.
“Community employers want to be inclusive, they want to have diverse work forces and they understand the importance and the value that diversity brings, but they don’t really quite know how to do it and they need help — particularly with the demographic that we’re serving,” Lavis said. “There’s a lot of fear and apprehension around what that looks like.”
COR participants work at individualized jobs at businesses including SeedMaster, SaskTel, Dutch Industries, Meyers Norris Penny and Farm Credit Canada.
Employers are not subsidized and the paid employment includes benefits and pension.
Job descriptions and work hours vary, but the benefits of a meaningful job are the same — greater self esteem and inclusion.
“We have a guy working at the SaskTel warehouse that went from a few hours and now he’s up to 30 hours a week,” Lavis said.
Job coaches from COR help individuals integrate into the workplace.
“It’s really helping to set that person up for success,” Lavis says. “When I talk about success, I mean developing not only their skills, but connecting them to the relationships that come with any place of employment.”
Lavis is passionate about his work.
“So many people that we serve have been given such horrific labels and diagnoses — this laundry list of all these bad things they’ve done and these are some pretty amazing people… How do you give them that opportunity to shine so others can see that value as well?”
Prior to becoming one of the founders of COR, Lavis spent 12 years working with marginalized children and women in post-conflict zones around the world.
The 38-year-old worked on projects funded by the Canadian government, Oxfam in Great Britain and other international development organizations in places like northern Uganda and southeast Asia.
Back in Regina, Lavis insists he’s one of a team working to make a difference.
“We have this incredibly passionate young board made up of community professionals from varied backgrounds that are really committed to social change,” he says. “They don’t have a background in disability — most have zero connection, like myself, to disability. They’re very supportive of what we’re doing because they believe in the vision.”
When Serena Bernges, one of the younger residents of Valley View Centre in Moose Jaw, moved to COR in 2016 she was adamant she didn’t want to live with roommates or a group of people.
She wanted her own place in Regina.
Bernges has a soft spot for Valley View where she had friends throughout the institution, but she has new-found freedom in Regina.
The 43-year-old lives in a self-contained suite in a small bungalow with another woman. No longer does she share a bedroom and best of all, she gets to cook her own meals.
“I make stuffed mushrooms, lasagna and sausage and hot dogs,” Bernges says. “I live in the best house in the world.”