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Taking Care of Business: Progress Place Toronto Finding Work and Mental Wellness

Looking for a job? Stay at home mom returning to work? Recent college graduate? Downsized from corporate merger? Mental health patient? On the road to recovery? Motivated? Want to get back to work? But who would hire someone who might still be "crazy"?   Someone whose life had been interrupted by mental illness?

Early on March 2nd, over 280 people gathered at The King Edward Hotel for the first Taking Care of Business Breakfast in Toronto on behalf of Progress Place. Did you know that for over 30 years Progress Place has been helping improve the lives of people living with mental illness? It wasn't until I met Georgina Patko at last year's CAWEE Tea that I first heard of this real gem located at 576 Church Street. Georgina is a new CAWEE member and Resource Development Manager at Progress Place. Looking around the Vanity Ballroom that morning, Georgina exclaimed: "Toronto's biggest secret is no more!"

At one of the Progress Place breakfast tables was a group of 11 women from CAWEE.   Many of us had just seen each other the evening before at CAWEE's Annual Celebration of International Women's Day. The theme was Moving Up and Giving Back: A Celebration of Women Business Leaders Making an Impact in Social Responsibility. How appropriate that we should then all be at the Progress Place breakfast the next day.

Taking Care of Business was not our annual CAWEE Tea at "the lovely King Eddy" (with fancy hats), nor our monthly breakfast club meeting at the Hot House Café (where networking is all about relationship-building). This particular morning, CAWEE members were surrounded by members of the Toronto Provincial Police, the Toronto Transit Commission, the City of Toronto and GO Transit, as well as donors, sponsors, supporters and employment partners from the GTA.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, "People living with mental health disorders often say the stigma they encounter is worse than the illness itself." At the breakfast, we learned that Progress Place "provides a unique clubhouse environment for over one thousand individuals annually. It provides resources to help with every aspect of a person's life: employment, education, social recreation, health and wellness."

Over coffee, fruit and croissants we heard about the Partners in Recovery Employment Transition Program, "an innovative employment programs that works in collaboration with the business community. Members living with mental illness are supported as they work in a variety of industry sectors filling entry-level positions completing high-volume repetitive tasks, and meeting the demands of peak-time work flow."

Progress Place "offers unique training and support to business partners. The result is improved employee awareness, understanding and compassion when dealing with mental illness." Anjali Chandra, Business Operations Manager, Accenture, made a compelling case for a successful business partnership with Progress Place. According to Jane Allen, Chief Diversity Officer with Deloitte: "The program addresses both a business need and a community responsibility. It's truly a partnership that benefits everyone."

No doubt testimonials from Progress Place members themselves were the highlight of the morning. As long-time CAWEE member Judi Hughes wrote: "Martha, the morning was inspiring, motivating and totally relevant...." The video presentation of "Ann's Story" was moving. As Ann Kaunda, a member of Progress Place explains: "Something happens when you go to work every day. You just feel different when you get out of bed. You feel you have a purpose."

The most memorable part of the program for all of us was the keynote address and Member's Voice given by Christina Barbarasa, a Progress Place member. Christina shared her difficult journey and amazing story of recovery. There wasn't a dry eye at our table.

In the Clubhouse News, Fall 2016, Georgina explains in an interview: "One of our members told me that she found her voice when she started coming to Progress Place. I believe this is another key to the success of the Clubhouse Model... Members are able to choose. They choose which unit they work in, who their contact person is... For many members, being in a clinical setting has never provided those choices, or given them their 'voice'. It is life altering."

We can always count on CAWEE members to be there bright and early and to move up and give back. Georgina is thrilled with the response to the action cards: "So far we have had offers of printing, video production, interview role playing, database support....Professional photography help would be great."

Beyond donations, new donors and potential sponsors, "six new Transitional Employment sites have been confirmed straight away after the breakfast, with several meetings pending to discuss more. I think we can be comfortable saying that we'll have around 10 new employment positions when the dust settles."

Thinking back to Ann and Christina's stories of recovery, it sounds like there will be more success stories in the months to come. How can you help? To make a donation, arrange a tour of the Clubhouse, or learn more about how to become an employment partner, please call Georgina at 416-323-0223.

Martha Dove has been a CAWEE member since 2007.

CAWEE members support a number of charitable organizations. CAWEE’s charity this year is Homeward Bound. We are proud of our members who support this and other worthwhile organizations.