Work program: Shuswap Association for Community Living client Robert Almas feeds cardboard boxes into the box compressor at De Mille’s Farm Market. By Barb Brouwer – Salmon Arm Observer

For the first time in his 48 years of life, Robert Almas has a paying job.

NewS.29.20101019233749_20101020.jpgAnd it was a completely satisfying experience for the Shuswap Association of Community Living (SACL) client of 13 years and his employer Brad De Mille.

“For all of the kids it’s been a highlight. He’s been a fresh breath of air,” says De Mille, noting he hires young people on a seasonal basis every summer and Almas is the first with intellectual disabilities. “He’s very proud of his job, he just shines when he’s doing it and it’s such an enjoyment to see him.”

Almas looked after all the plants out front of the store, kept the landscaping and driving area swept clean and operated the cardboard crusher.

Describing Almas as quite intelligent, De Mille says he was pleasantly surprised by his ability.

“We need to bring them into society, they’re part of what we do,” he says. “They’re just being shut out because of the perception of their abilities. I think you can find a place for them.”

De Mille says, without a doubt, he will hire an SACL client again.

While he’s never been employed in the community, Almas has worked in SACL’s recycling program and sheltered woodshop.

But the province has closed the purse strings on adequate funding, so the organization has had to look to the greater community for help.

“We still offer recycling services and confidential paper shredding, but our wood shop is only open one day per week now and will be closed once the present inventory is sold,” says SACL executive director Jo-Anne Crawford.

And the greater community has stepped in, with more than 21 local businesses giving paid work to SACL clients.

SACL employment specialist Merrilea Young says the program is of mutual benefit to clients and employers.

“We are promoting a value exchange in that a job seeker’s inclusion in society is championed and an unmet need in the organization (SACL) is being addressed,” she says. “We prescreen and try to match our clients to a job that suits his or her abilities and interests.”

Being employed in the greater community for real pay helps empower, connect and include people with intellectual disabilities.

Employers who hire the clients help to raise awareness and combat stereotypes and prejudice about the rights of persons with disabilities.

“You should have seen him with the first pay cheque he ever got, he was three feet off the ground,” says Young of how a proud Almas was showing his cheque to everyone.

Another client, 43-year-old Brad McDonald, works at Chesters in the Mall at Piccadilly and is well-liked by staff and customers.

“He’s a very hard worker and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone wear a uniform more proudly than he does,” Young says. “It’s such a good placement, he’s so happy there and they’re so happy with him. It’s a really good fit.”

Young says people with disabilities represent a large pool of motivated, talented people who will remain an under-utilized labour source if businesses don’t step up to the plate.

She says clients are carefully matched with employers’ need and have proven to meet or exceed job performance of employees without disabilities.

Echoing De Mille’s comments, Young says co-workers often report a more positive work environment when a person with a disability is on the team.

As well, each client is given as much support as needed in order to perform their jobs.

“They’re not scary, they’re generally very personable,” says Young, noting that employers need not worry about behaviour issues. “They have their challenges, but with all the hopes and dreams you have.”

Anyone interested in finding out more about SACL’s Employment Services is invited to call 250-804-2332. For more information, call 250-832-3885 Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.