By Charlie Senack
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed all non-essential services in mid-March, a local organization that works with adults with special needs had to find new and creative ways to keep their clients — or “apprentices” as they call them — engaged.
The Work And Volunteer Experience (WAVE) program is a non-profit organization that runs through the Dovercourt Recreation Centre, but operates out of Festival House on Churchill Avenue. WAVE was founded in 2013 and aims to help apprentices “increase their independence at home, work and in the community,” the program’s webpage states.
Caitlin Booth, the program’s coordinator, said those on the spectrum can find it difficult to adapt to change, which was a concern staff had about how their apprentices would adapt to the new normal.
“When we initially had the three-week shutdown, that shook us, and right away,” Booth said. “We started thinking about how our apprentices are going to have to adapt to this lack of routine that they are so accustomed to.”
“If you are on the spectrum, or if you have any barriers with socialization, I find if you don’t use your social skills you lose them in a way,” Booth added. “You lose confidence; you lose your conversational skills.”
What was supposed to be short closure ended up lasting over five months. During that time, staff at WAVE decided to find ways to interact with their apprentices virtually. They held Zoom sessions with a different theme every week and, once weather and the removal of restrictions allowed, hosted physically distanced picnics in the summer.
The staff were temporarily laid off when the program halted in the spring, but they decided to volunteer their time because they cared.
“We did not get paid for our picnics or our Zooms — we were all on CERB [the Canada Emergency Response Benefit] — but every week we came together because we missed our apprentices,” said Booth.
WAVE was one of the first programs Dovercourt decided to start up again after the initial lockdown ended, something Booth is very thankful for. They reopened their doors at the end of August with new safety measures in place.
Booth said she was proud of the apprentices for how they dealt with the lockdown. She said it’s like a family has been brought back together since they were allowed to reopen.
That was a message that was echoed by Karly Anderson, head staff at WAVE. She said while many of the core fundamentals of the program had to change, the community aspect has remained the same.
“I feel like having us all back together has been extremely beneficial for the apprentices,” Anderson said. “We had a long break. Now that they have structure back, a lot of parents have noticed that they have been feeling so much better overall when it comes to attitude-wise and motivation-wise.”
With Ontario now in a second wave of COVID-19, the WAVE family has kept their outings close to home. When the cooler weather started to arrive, organizers hoped they would be in a position to take public transit again, but that idea has been halted.
Before COVID-19, the apprentices would also work in the mornings, gaining real-world experience in workplaces all across the city.
Many of the locations where the apprentices would work were located in Westboro, including The Village Quire, Merry Dairy and Mrs.Tiggy Winkles.
Unfortunately, that part of the program has been paused for now, with the apprentices’ mornings now being spent at Festival House if they choose.
“They have been really cute by asking if they can find some COVID-19 jobs,” joked Anderson. “They have been really curious about when they will be going back.”
The day-to-day programming has been filled in with new activities such as fitness and science, with the apprentices also swimming at Dovercourt three times a week. They still take walks around the community and will stop in at the local Starbucks, or Shoppers Drug Mart, to pick up a drink.
Anderson said the program has now shifted to be more socially and recreationally based, as opposed to work and volunteer experience focused. Days have gone from being structured to more relaxed.
About 50 per cent of the apprentices have returned to the space, and Booth said they are looking at continuing virtual programming for those who aren’t comfortable returning yet. Only 12 apprentices are in the building at a time — all wear masks and maintain physical distancing.
Due to the enhanced COVID-19 safety measures in place, WAVE is not accepting any new members currently. To find out more about the program, visit waveottawa.ca.
This story appeared in the November 2020 Giving section in Kitchissippi Times.