Many Yellowknifers may know the Yellowknife Association for Community Living (YKACL) as just the Abe Miller Building on 53rd Street.
“But it’s more than this building,” said executive director Lynn Elkin. The non-profit organization offers a variety of supports including free employment services, respite care and programs that help people with disabilities transition from the school system into the workplace.
“It’s a variety of disabilities that we support, through our employment services, it’s not just intellectual and developmental disabilities. It’s a whole range of any disability at all, including mental health and physical disabilities,” said Elkin. On a given day they work with around 100 individuals with disabilities and their families, she said.
Those individuals include people like Kineta Michel. Michel has worked at the local Boston Pizza since last March, a job she was able to access through the YKACL’s employment program.
“I do prep work,” said Michel. “I do the pasta, the wings, the cheese, the pizza dough, and mashed potatoes.” Michel said she likes her job, especially getting paid, and she’s planning on saving up her money.
The roster of clients using the YKACL’s employment services ranges from 40 to upwards of 50 people in a given month and has steadily grown over the years, said Elkin.
“Not just because there are more people but because people with disabilities realize they can work, and they have seen it be successful,” said Elkin. Employers also continue to be more open, which creates more opportunities for clients, she said.
“Anyone who has a disability or self-identifies as having a disability, we can definitely help them,” said Junn Gesmundo, EmployABILITY and Employment Services Manager at YKACL.
The services they provide include helping people create or update resumes and cover letters, conducting mock interviews, and finding employment.
“We also have our School 2 Work program where I go to all the local high schools,” said Gesmundo. The School 2 Work program was created six years ago to help fill the gap when students leave high school Teachers select students they feel would benefit from the program, which connects them to employment opportunities.
“These students can be ranging from anyone on the spectrum or anyone that might need a little bit of support,” he said. The program starts out with volunteer work experience in grade 11 transitioning into paid employment in grade 12. Before this program was established, they found some students with disabilities didn’t know what to do after high school.
“Rather than staying at home…this programs exposes to them that they have different options because we know that some students are not able to do post-secondary,” said Gesmundo.
But some employers can be very hesitant to hire a person with disabilities.
“Some think that they’re in a wheelchair, they can’t do this. But no, it’s just that some of our clients do have obstacles. But it does not mean they can’t do the job,” said Gesmundo.
“Even if the employers are ready, some of the coworkers might not be,” said Donna Meserah-Zydb, the Skills Training and Community Inclusion Manager. She works with the Yes Program, which was created a year and a half ago.
“We focus on employment, what to expect when you’re employed, how to behave in an employment setting, get used to routines, so coming to work every day, eating lunch, no cellphones, once you start a job you complete a job, those types of things,” she said. They also work on communication skills, social skills, and literacy skills.
Meserah-Zydb currently works with 13 clients in the skills program, over half of whom have their own part-time job, and sometimes multiple jobs.
“We have to go at a pace that works for them, so we try and gradually increase so that they get used to being at work,” said Elkin. “Because if you haven’t done that for a while, maintaining that focus can be a challenge.”
The YKACL advocates for their clients to help them find employment in Yellowknife, which is critical for people who might not realize the opportunities.
“They haven’t been told they have lots of options, they think they can work one or two places,” said Elkin.
Having work placements in the community opens their eyes to what’s out there, she said, adding they’ve had people working everywhere from photography studios to dental clinics.
“We have people employed all over the city, so any employer that’s open to having the door open for us is really, really great,” she said.
The YKACL also runs the Odd Jobs Squad, which is less of a long-term commitment and clients are paid by the job.
“We’ve cut down people’s trees, we’ve cleaned their garages, helping them clean their yard, move stuff, and they do that with a job coach,” said Elkin. The Odd Jobs Squad can help people transition from wherever they might be, she said, whether they are re-entering the workforce, or just looking for some work experience.
But funding is a challenge for the association, said Elkin. “The need is far more than the funding that we’ve been getting from the government and other sources,” she said.
The YKACL has 24 different funding sources, many of which have to be renewed annually.
“We try and make sure that every service we operate has more than one funding source. Having those multiple sources allows us to ensure we never lose a service for a client,” said Elkin. The most important part about their funding is that it happens behind the scenes, so it doesn’t interrupt clients services, she said.
“We don’t have to say, sorry go away,” said Elkin.
When people are first starting out with employment, some of them need support like job coaches for longer periods of time, which is an expensive process.
“Down the road, it leads to good things,” she said.
The association’s annual Gumboot Rally is a major fundraiser for them, and they are currently doing an online art auction.
“Those are fantastic because that money doesn’t come with strings attached and we can put it to the best use,” said Elkin.
Over that last several years, YKACL’s board has used those funds to support employment programs and respite care.
“We are community living, we want people out in the community living, working, playing just like everyone else,” she said.