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Charlie smiling

Employment Pathways is a winning program for youth with disabilities, employers and colleagues

Funding from the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch supports Holland Bloorview’s unique three-part program to help youth with disabilities find and succeed at work.

Finding a job is challenging for most high school students, but for teenagers like Charlie, who lives with an intellectual disability, the barriers to successful employment can be overwhelming. Still, they are not insurmountable, as Charlie and his family discovered thanks to Holland Bloorview’s Employment Pathways program.

The three-part program, supported by a generous donation from the RBC Foundation, provides work experience, skills training and career coaching for youth with disabilities to prepare them for employment and the social, financial and mental health benefits that come with it.

Charlie is a high school student living with Fragile X syndrome, which impacts his reading and communication skills, making things like job interviews extremely difficult. He began his employment pathway at Holland Bloorview in 2022 with the VolunteerABLE program, where he established basic work skills, and continued with Employment Action Coaching, where he and his parents learned about job search strategies like networking and video resumés from Holland Bloorview’s occupational therapists and parent mentors.

These experiences helped Charlie secure a summer job in 2023 as a customer care specialist with Aqua-Tots Swim Schools, where his tasks included greeting swimmers and families, keeping the coffee station clean and stocked and mopping the wet floors. And as a participant in the Ready to Work program, he received onsite job coaching from Nancy, a Holland Bloorview staff member who helped him navigate his role and learn how to do it well.

“Having an onsite job coach seemed like the perfect way to get work for Charlie, and it was great having Nancy there to help him learn,” says Charlie’s mom, Jill. “Charlie does need some direction, but once he learns something, he’s methodical about executing it. Nancy made some aids for him, including a colour-coded, laminated floor plan with arrows to show him where to mop, and a task reminder with photos of the coffee station and alerts on his phone.” While Charlie doesn’t need to use the aids anymore, Jill is grateful that Nancy provided them. “It was one of the many things she did to contribute to his success.”

The Aqua-Tots team also received coaching in how to help Charlie integrate smoothly into his role. On his first day, his manager and co-workers demonstrated his work routine to him and Nancy, and they held practice sessions to help him settle in and feel comfortable to ask questions when he needed to.

“We were thrilled to partner with Holland Bloorview and the Ready to Work program and introduce Charlie into the Aqua-Tots workforce,” says Lisa Morlock, owner of Aqua-Tots Swim Schools in Mississauga, Burlington and Heartland Town Centre. “The training from the Holland Bloorview team was great, and my whole team has learned a lot.”

Charlie loves working at Aqua-Tots, and the friends he’s made there. “It means everything to him,” says Jill. “It’s been amazing for his self-esteem, he gets social interactions with his work buddies and he’s got some real experience that can be a stepping stone to success for the rest of his life.”

In fact, Charlie did so well over the summer that Aqua-Tots offered him a part-time job helping out on weekends through the fall.

“Charlie is an important member of the team,” says Lisa. “He is so loved by his Saturday crew, and how great is it that these teenagers get the opportunity to work with someone like Charlie? It’s an amazing opportunity for employers as well. It’s really a win-win-win situation.”

The support from the RBC Foundation for this unique program has allowed Holland Bloorview to provide 52 youth with disabilities with valuable work experience this year, along with invaluable social connections, confidence and independence. It’s also helped employers and the community see and understand the many benefits of hiring young people with disabilities.

“RBC Future Launch is committed to helping young people access the tools and resources they need to transition into the workforce,” says Brian Guinto, Vice-President Real Estate Markets & RBC REACH Champion. “As part of our investment in diversity and inclusion, we are proud supporters of Holland Bloorview’s Employment Pathways program, which connects youth with disabilities with early work opportunities.”

Employment Pathways programming is generously supported by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch and other donors to Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation.