Imagine, John Lennon wrote, all the people, living life in peace. Imagine someday the world will be as one. Over 50 years ago, ImagineAbility envisioned that world too.
ImagineAbility, then Arc Industries, was the brainchild of a group of parents who wanted to create a more inclusive world for children living with intellectual disabilities. Today, with support from United Way Winnipeg, ImagineAbility serves over 200 clients per year through its contract packaging facility, a supported employment program, recreational activities, and community-based services (CBS) program.
Kay Mulenga has been co-manager of CBS since its inception five years ago. Funded entirely by United Way Winnipeg, the program’s goal is to support individuals with intellectual disabilities to have full and meaningful lives, whether through education, employment, life-skills, volunteering, or other interests.
“We expressed that this was something we wanted to do, and United Way Winnipeg was part of our strategic planning process from the outset,” Kay says.
With co-manager Tara Buzahora, they piloted the project, working with agencies, government, businesses and schools to identify barriers, challenges, and opportunities.
That’s how Tara and Kay met Kenny Brisebois, a former student at Sisler High School. Diagnosed with an intellectual disability at three years old, Kenny needed support with various abstract concepts like managing time and money, but demonstrated great strengths in other areas. One of them was culinary arts.
Kenny Brisebois found employment and social connection thanks to a United Way Winnipeg program that supports people with intellectual disabilities
“I remember, whenever teacher would assign who would be doing the cooking…my kitchen was comprised of two guys and three girls…and the girls always said that I made the best meals,” says Kenny remembering his home economics class at Sisler. “Women love a man who can cook.”
Kenny had made it clear to teachers and family that he’d love to work in the restaurant industry after graduation. ImagineAbility’s own cafeteria kitchen seemed like the perfect place to support Ken in developing the skills he would need to succeed. It quickly became apparent that Ken would not only succeed, but thrive, so Kay and Tara began the search for a relevant business to partner with.
“We approached Mooshiro Japanese Cuisine, and they were very receptive. They’ve been a great partner.”
Ken, Tara and Kay met with restaurant manager Joon Chon to learn what working in that environment would be like, but also to understand what kind of supports—emotional, intellectual, or physical—might be needed. “It also required some bus training for Kenny to get there, which fulfilled one of his other goals: to increase his independence,” says Kay.
Ken wasn’t at all intimidated by what can be a highly technical kind of cuisine. He quickly mastered prep of vegetables and fish, works the deep fryer, and even serves customers from time to time. Joon has given Kenny more and more responsibility and is amazed at his capacity to learn.
“He likes learning something new. Wants to learn. He just gets better and better. Precision. Speed. With time, he can be better than anybody,” says Joon.
After five years, Kenny has no intention of stopping. “I love it here. It’s fun! The other employees will talk to me and help me out. And Joon and his wife Rachel, they treat me like family.”
To date, Tara and Kay have worked with 40 service seekers, providing opportunities for them to accomplish their personal goals. Kay says there’s no sign of the program slowing down.
“It’s been great. The only thing we could ever ask for at the end of the year is more support so we can expand,” says Kay.