“Now, everyone puts their own coffee cups in the dishwasher.”
Those words, more than any others, could sum up the success of the Rotary Employment Partnership that Wendy McDonald (RC of Edmonton Sunrise) has championed since its inception 20 years ago.
Wendy’s dedication to helping people with developmental disabilities find “real work for real pay” was recognized with a Service Above Self award, which was presented by 2018-2020 Rotary International Director Jeffry Cadorette during the District Changeover Event on June 25.
“This award is presented to Rotarians who have demonstrated exemplary humanitarian service, with an emphasis on personal voluntary efforts and active involvement in helping others,” he said.
Jeffry emphasized the exclusiveness of the award.
“Only up to 150 Service Above Self awards can be given each year. Imagine that—1.2 million Rotarians, 540 Districts. And only 150 awards.
“This award is very special. While all Rotarians serve and all Rotarians should be recognized, these individuals are in a league of their own,” Jeffry said.
“I am very proud for the recognition, very honoured to have been recognized.” Wendy says. “The Rotary Employment Partnership is certainly a passion of mine and over the last 20 years has become a really significant part of my life.”
Service Above Self Award recipient Wendy McDonald with her son Kyle
The Rotary Employment Partnership was formed with Inclusion Alberta and the Government of Alberta to create meaningful employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.
Wendy describes the role of each of the partners:
“It’s Rotary’s and (the job of participating) Rotarians’ to create jobs, to find organizations and employment opportunities and companies that are willing to talk about inclusive employment. It is Inclusion Alberta’s job to provide the support to Rotary and it is government’s job to provide the funding. Today, even though we’re much bigger, that is still the structure of the partnership.”
Wendy hopes that her receiving this award will increase awareness of the challenges these individuals face finding employment.
“It needs to be elevated in a sense that people understand we’ve got a community that struggles with unemployment in a way that most of us don’t understand,” she says.
Without opportunities for meaningful employment, these people face a life of isolation and loneness.
“Imagine what it was like to live a life of isolation and loneliness with no prospects of a job,” Wendy says. “I think we can all maybe empathize with them, but I don’t think we really can understand because that’s not our life experience.”
She suggests that dealing with the pandemic may give us a taste of what life is like for people with developmental disabilities facing a life of unemployment.
“COVID has presented this opportunity for people to understand what isolation, job loss, not being able to connect with others feel like, even if it’s for a short period of time,” she says. “I would just like us to understand that for many in this population, their life really didn’t change in COVID, whereas for many of us, it has been really challenging and hard and it presented all sorts of challenges for many people with developmental disabilities.”
Since its modest beginnings, the partnership has helped nearly 600 people find employment, including Brian, who was hired by ATB Financial to work in its Strathcona branch in Edmonton.
“Part of his job was filling the dishwasher in the staff room and making sure that that coffee was out for ATB clients,” Wendy say. “Part of Brian’s job was to help greet customers and direct them when they came in the building.”
As they came to know him, his colleagues felt he could take on more responsibility.
“His co-workers said, ‘Why aren’t you a customer service representative just like we are?’ His colleagues said, ‘He can do what we’re doing.’
“And he can”, Wendy says. “He needed a little more time to learn the material and have it presented in a way that he could understand it.With the support of the leadership of that branch and his colleagues, Brian is now a customer service rep.
“He’s doing the same role that his co-workers are and everybody fills the dishwasher. It’s just not one person’s job.”
Brian’s story has been captured in a video on the Rotary Employment website.
Wendy traces the beginning of the Rotary Employment Partnership back to the Rotary International Convention held in Buenos Aires in 2000, which she attended as the president-elect of the Rotary Club of Edmonton Mayfield.
“Incoming RI president Frank Devlyn talked about his goals and hopes for the Rotary year. One of those goals was that Rotarians would take responsibility for changing the unemployment rate for people with disabilities.”
Wendy, who has a son with a developmental disability, returned home and researched the employment prospects of people with developmental disabilities.
“I wanted to understand the realities for individuals with developmental disabilities because it was my interest because of Kyle.”
Part of what she discovered is that the unemployment rate for this population at that time was 70 per cent.
“What’s really kind of disappointing to me in 2020 is that has only gone up,” Wendy says. “We have close to an 80 per cent unemployment rate for this population.”
The research done, Wendy approached the incoming board with her ideas. “I said, ‘I would like to do a project that addresses this,’ and literally everybody on the board agreed, thought it was a great idea.”
Over the first months of her presidency, Wendy invited the CEO of Inclusion Alberta and representatives of the Alberta government to Rotary meetings.
“I think I invited the right people who really had a vision of what the Rotary Employment Partnership could look like probably before I even did.”
The transition from a club project to a District initiative began when a Rotarian from another club attended the meeting at which the idea of the project was introduced to members of the Mayfield club.
“There was a member from the West Edmonton Rotary Club who was doing the makeup and he came up to me at the end of that very first presentation and said, ‘I want to do this in my club too.’
“Within a couple of months, the St. Albert Rotary Club came aboard.”
The Rotary Employment Partnership became a District initiative in 2008-2009, when Ross Tyson (RC of Edmonton Northeast) was the District Governor.
Over the years, the program has expanded beyond the Edmonton region.
“We started the partnership in Lloydminster about 12 years ago. Grande Prairie would probably be about that time as well, 10 or 11 years. Red Deer would also be about that time or about that, and then Calgary, we kind of had a false start about 10 years ago and then we’ve been back in Calgary in a really meaningful way for five years.”
Recently District 5360 in southern Alberta joined the partnership.
Apart from the obvious benefit for the individuals who have meaningful employment, the partnership has been good for their families and participating employers.
“It provides a ton of hope for families about what is possible for their family member with a developmental delay,” Wendy says.
On its website, the partnership encourages potential employers to consider that, as employees, people with disabilities have lower absenteeism and stay with employers longer than their non-disabled counterparts, have good on-the-job safety records and 90 per cent of people with disabilities rated average or better on job performance appraisals.
Wendy predicts that for people with developmental disabilities finding meaningful employment will be even more difficult, which means that more Rotarians will need to step up to meet the challenge.
“Moving into our post-COVID world, it’s going to be even more critical for Rotary and Rotarians to be thinking about presenting opportunities and introducing the idea of inclusive employment to their colleagues, friends, neighbours and fellow Rotarians,” she says. “I really worry that this population will be left behind if we’re not really intentional about ensuring that there’s a space for these really important members of our community.”
Learn more about the Rotary Employment Partnership by contacting Wendy at email@example.com or 780-451-3055 x410.