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Learning Centre celebrates 20 years of ‘bridging’ participants to programs

Community ProfileLearning Centre celebrates 20 years of ‘bridging’ participants to programs

Since 2003, the Crossing All Bridges Learning Centre has been providing programs for continued learning and helping develop life skills for adults who have developmental disabilities and have aged out of the public school system.

Michelle Drake, who has been part of the organization since 2014 and became its Executive Director in 2022, explained the Centre’s history.

“It was founded by a couple of entrepreneurial mothers in the community who came together to provide consistent local services when there wasn’t any, for families who have adult children with intellectual disabilities,” continued Drake. “With the help of a Trillium Foundation grant, they launched the Centre in 2003 [and] started with ten participants and two staff. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary, and we continue to offer our regular day-to-day programs; serving 92 participants, with a staff of 13.”

The organization has not only helped those within Brantford and Brant County but also others from Norfolk County, and Haldimand County as well as several participants from the Cambridge area.

As Drake notes, the Centre has helped many of these participants build key life skills through a variety of programs.

“Each of the programs touches on life skills that can be applied to everyday living but also focuses on interests that they can build on. So culinary is our first program and it teaches the participants basic life skills; using the proper knives and showing them kitchen safety. [We also] take trips to the Brantford farmers market and they create the grocery list for supplies that they might need for a cooking or baking exercise,” explaine Drake. “We also have our recreation and wellness program [which] allows the participants to learn about managing a healthy and active lifestyle; making sure they can take care of themselves, both physically and mentally. Then there’s also the expressive arts program which allows the participants to express themselves differently [and is] more of an interest-based program.”

Pictured here are Ashton, Stephanie, and Brooke participating in the annual Food Drive. The organization has been involved and has supported many initiatives over the years within the community. Photo Courtesy Crossing All Bridges.

A newer program that the Centre has launched, the digital innovation program, gives participants a good understanding of technology and how to utilize it effectively.

“The focus behind that program is to teach the individuals about day-to-day technology. A lot of our participants have cell phones or tablets. But they don’t know how to use them outside of the basics of navigating apps like YouTube which generates their search history for them. We want them to learn how to use these devices in a more day-to-day way,” Drake said. “We show them how to set an alarm for themselves. To set reminders for themselves or book an appointment while also learning about Internet safety.”

Mandy Mascarin (who is part of the Crossing All Bridges’ Shredding Barriers Program) had her image featured on a new van they purchased in 2022 with the help of the Rotary Club of Brantford, Brant County Ford and the Donald and Jo-Anne Wilkin Fund. Michelle Drake is pictured here with Mandy receiving a $35,000 cheque from then Club President Jason Cherry and club member Glen Christensen. Photo Courtesy Rotary Club of Brantford.

Outside of the five core programs, one of the most successful programs has been Shredding Barriers, which Drake was a supervisor for from 2016 to 2022.  

“Shredding Barriers is our social enterprise program which currently employs 25 individuals all living with intellectual disabilities. They all get paid minimum wage.  Shredding Barriers works just like any other shredding company [but] the only difference is all of our shredding is done here at the facility because our individuals don’t physically drive vehicles. They do all the job themselves; they know how to operate the tailgate on the truck, they know how to lift the bins [and] they know how to empty consoles,” said Drake.

Brooke Hatfield, who became the Shredding Barriers Team Leader in 2023, has thrived in the program and continues to refine her skills in leadership as well as managing daily operations and projects. Photo Courtesy Crossing All Bridges.

There have been many success stories, however, Drake detailed one about Brooke Hatfield, who has recently become a Team Leader at Shredding Barriers.

“Brooke has never had a job before or been employed and now she’s overseeing 24 other individuals with intellectual disabilities having one herself. She makes sure that they’re shredding; she also can take a phone call [and] she can work at a machine and the cash. She’s learned [many] transferable skills in this role that have led her to this leadership role [and to] oversee her peers,” Drake explained. “It gives her such a sense of pride and ownership with her work. It’s amazing to watch an individual who probably wouldn’t have been as successful in employment in general, have a part-time job. She works three days a week and works full shifts. It’s empowering to watch her growth.”

However, Crossing All Bridges Learning Centre will continue to focus on developing programs as well as augmenting the physical Centre itself to accommodate participants. 

“Our focus has been enhancing our programming. After COVID, a lot of things changed [and many of] those community connections and outings took a backseat. And unfortunately, we’re lost. Over the course of the last year, we have been trying to increase our community outings and our community partnerships and engagement. The programming has excelled,” she said. “But we’ve had a few major projects like having our kitchen renovated [with a] better design and layout to make things more accessible and functional for the participants. We also created a lounge area to make it feel like they aren’t just coming out of high school. We want them to feel like this is a second opportunity that they would have post-high school.”

Pictured here is the Shredding Barrier’s Team. Launched in 2016, the social enterprise program provides part-time employment to individuals living with varying abilities. The program offers staff the opportunity to earn a pay cheque as well as demonstrate and grow their abilities in a business environment. Photo Courtesy Crossing All Bridges.

Drake also noted the implementation of a new social enterprise program to allow the Centre’s participants to develop especially with the success of Shredding Barriers. 

“We have seen over the years that a lot of our individuals want to work and they deserve to work. Unfortunately, there are a lot of barriers and a lot of stigmas attached to individuals with disabilities. And it’s challenging to find them work [because] there’s a lot of misconceptions like it could cost the employer more money, or hiring them could be a liability, or maybe they feel that they aren’t capable of accommodating them,” continued Drake. “But we have seen from the success of Shredding Barriers, that that’s not the case at all. We have a very dedicated staff, and they’re more than capable of doing the job. None of our employees in the shredding room have someone with them all the time, they just do their job [which] shows us the capabilities of each individual. So, we would like to work towards investigating and establishing a potential new social enterprise opportunity to provide even more individuals with employment opportunities.”

Nevertheless, Drake stresses the importance of continually finding ways to support the Centre’s growth as it receives no government funding.

“We have to consider fundraising for our future growth. We have 92 participants, and we’re seeing our registration continue to grow. We see the need and the demand for our service in this community and surrounding communities. We’re just looking at how we can better meet the needs of those that we currently serve and the anticipated numbers that will continue to see over the years,” Drake concluded.

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