From right: Ashlynn Kumar

Working for recognition

Milieu Family Services finds employment for eager people with developmental disabilities in Surrey and North Delta.

Ashlynn Kumar is a people-greeter at the new Walmart in Surrey’s Central City shopping complex.

She was there at the beginning, just over year ago before it opened, wearing a hard hat and steel-toed boots as things were being organized.

Today, the 27-year-old works part-time, three or four days a week, welcoming customers and checking the purchases of those leaving the store.

This is Kumar’s first job and she’s taking it seriously.

“We do try to explain to them that it’s our job and we have to check the receipts,” she says.

Aaron Chamberlist, 28, works at a Starbucks coffee shop in North Delta.

He likes cars – a lot – and makes notes of details about them.

“I collect them in my head,” he says.

Between cleaning and stocking the coffee shop’s shelves, he often chats with customers about the kind of car they’re driving.

And he never forgets their names.

Less than a block away, in a pink T-shirt, Ashley Dana, 19, is the first person customers may see at a Vancity bank.

“My position is called administrator. I do filing, mainly up at the front.”

She’s honed her stills on the job.

“They show you how to do it, so I just learned from that. When you start, it seems confusing, but after a while, it’s really straightforward.”

All three have found employment through the Milieu Family Services’ employment program.

The social service provider, in business since 1989, has offices in North Delta and Fleetwood and assists people with developmental disabilities.

While the Fleetwood location has community inclusion programs and social and recreational activities, the more job-focused North Delta office has been responsible for finding career opportunities for 103 people over the past 12 months.

Milieu employment specialist Veronica Cowan (left) says the first step with new clients is evaluation.

“We find out where their employment skills are and we have workshops where they learn employment skills – simple skills like getting up on time and being organized the night before.”

The prospective workers are often taken through several weeks of work training – often at retail locations such as Shoppers Drug Mart.

Assessment of their job skills continues.

“I’ll use Ashley as an example,” says Cowan. “She’s got great people skills, she has great organization skills…”

Cowan turns to Chamberlist, the café lobby attendant: “He’s great with people. He knows what kind of car they drive, what colour it is, what they like to drink… He does his job very well and has a memory like an elephant.”

While all three employees live at home, their jobs give them some newfound independence.

Dana even pays partial rent at home.

“I pay not the full thing, but I give some money.”

The workers who have gone through the Milieu program receive the same wages and benefits as their co-workers at their respective employers.

Cowan has worked for years developing relationships with local businesses, synchronizing their needs with the skills of the job-seekers in Milieu’s program.

Sometimes, she can walk in and talk to the manager of a small store for a chat, and other times, she meanders through head-office bureaucracy early in the process.

The Walmart job for Kumar, for instance, was 1.5 years in the making.

“It has to be a value for both (sides),” she says, adding that the program should be looked at as a partnership.

“With Milieu, we’re about employment, we’re not about volunteer or work experience. We tell the employers that we’re a value to the employer. This isn’t a charity.”

Cowan adds that in general, employers are simply not informed about what people with developmental disabilities can offer.

“They are highly employable,” she says.

For more information about Milieu, visit facebook.com/MilieuFamilyServices/

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