It’s a sunny Saturday morning and people are starting to trickle into the Clarenville Farm and Market. The strumming of a guitar can be heard in the distance, and through the happy chatter of market-goers, a smooth voice starts singing. Participants are greeted at the door with a big smile, by the volunteer at the coffee station, Amber. Amber is there to greet the market-goers, and they have come to recognize her. She beams with pride as she serves coffee and points people in the direction of the vegetable vendors.
When Amber is not at the market selling coffee, she’s working in the vegetable gardens, cleaning up the market grounds, or setting up vendor tables. She knows the coffee is good because she made it; she can tell you who is singing because she helped them carry in their equipment; she knows where the vegetable table is because she set it up; and she’s proud of the vegetables because she grew them, tended to them, and harvested them herself.
During the summer of 2018, Amber was one of 14 participants in Ability Employment Corporation’s (AEC) Supportive Volunteer Program, which was funded by Eastern Health’s Healthy Communities Partnership Fund. Originally established by Eastern Health’s Board of Trustees in 2008, the fund supports projects that strengthen partnerships and foster the development of healthy communities.
This fits well with the goal of the Supportive Volunteer Program, which helps to diminish barriers that participants face by encouraging better community integration, improving health and well-being, and providing for valuable employment skills that could lead participants into a paid work placement. The program also improves participant confidence, strengthens their skill-sets, and reinforces the partnership between AEC and the Clarenville Farm and Market.
As a participant in the program, Amber was involved in many aspects of the day-to-day farm and market operations. Based on the enthusiastic feedback of the program participants, it was clear that she, and the other participants, loved every minute of it!
“[The Supportive Volunteer Program] helped us socialize with others and gave us a purpose, made us feel like what we were doing mattered,” said Stephen Glover, program participant.
“Participants in the program face barriers to employment; physical and/or intellectual disabilities, low self-esteem, little confidence, communication barriers, and limited access,” says Lori Hann, executive director of the Ability Employment Corporation. “Without the program, they wouldn’t have an opportunity to gain or sustain employment.”
She emphasizes that staff at AEC made sure that regardless of client barriers, there was a job task available for every client participant. “We also made sure that the participants had help from a support worker, if needed,” she adds.
Participants, accompanied by support workers, volunteered two days a week at the Clarenville Farm and Market. On Tuesdays, when the market was closed to the public, they cleaned up, set up tables, and tended to the gardens. Saturdays were “market days” and on those days, participants helped serve coffee, sell vegetables, and greet market-goers.
At first, participants preferred volunteering on Tuesdays because it was much quieter. Some of the participants were shy, and the busy market day could be overwhelming. To AEC’s surprise, however, participants began to love working on Saturdays. In fact, many specifically requested to volunteer on Saturdays because they loved interacting with customers, staff, and vendors. They came to appreciate the social aspects of market day and began taking on more difficult tasks as well as tasks that allowed for more independence. These were the first of many signs that the program was meeting its goals.
Customers, staff, and vendors loved having the volunteers almost as much as the program participants loved volunteering! One vendor said that she really appreciated their “smiling faces, positive attitude, and their assistance.” Another said that the volunteers added to the overall “market experience.” All of the vendors, staff, and community members who provided feedback said that they appreciated the help of the volunteers.
“I have come to realize that this program has not only impacted the clients,” said Cindy Bailey, supportive volunteer coordinator, “but also the clients’ families and caregivers, the market staff, the market vendors, as well as the community as a whole.”
When the program concluded in November of 2018, neither the participants, Ability Employment Corporation, or the Clarenville Farm and Market wanted it to end! The program was successful in improving the confidence and self-esteem of participants; it gave them the opportunity to learn new things, expand their skill set, make memories with others in the program, and ultimately improved the overall mental health of those involved.
“The Supportive Volunteer Program was a great initiative that contributed to the success of the Farm and Market in 2018,” said Krista Chatman, the general manager of the Clarenville Farm and Market. “This program was amazing in that it was very inclusive for all who participated.”
Building on last year’s success, AEC is working to continue to grow the Supportive Volunteer Program.
The 2019 market season is in full swing and many of the AEC clients still attend the market each week, proudly demonstrating their newfound confidence and skills.
The Healthy Communities Partnership Fund strengthened a budding partnership between the Ability Employment Corporation and the Clarenville Farm and Market; inclusion and community are the seeds that allowed it to bloom. ■
This week, the Eastern Health Board of Trustees announced eight recipients of the 2019 Healthy Communities Partnership Fund.
Visit the Eastern Health website to learn more about the Healthy Communities Partnership Fund, including current and past recipients.
This story was written by Hannah Tilley, social marketing consultant with Health Promotion, Population and Public Health, in consultation with Tammy Greening, healthy communities consultant, Health Promotion.