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Cover Story: Familiar ground

Jeremy Sellars and Nikki Slade have lived in this North Shore ConneXions Society group home (pictured) on Capilano Road for most their lives. The non-profit society has submitted a proposal to subdivide the land and replace the now rundown home.  - Maria Spitale-Leisk photo
Jeremy Sellars and Nikki Slade have lived in this North Shore ConneXions Society group home (pictured) on Capilano Road for most their lives. The non-profit society has submitted a proposal to subdivide the land and replace the now rundown home.
— image credit: Maria Spitale-Leisk photo

It’s Friday night at Cap House and Jeremy Sellars is settling in for a jam session in an unintentionally dimly lit living room.

The question is, will he play his bass or electric guitar? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?

Simultaneously, Sellars’ roommate Nikki Slade can be heard laughing from the kitchen as she prepares the toppings for homemade Hawaiian and pepperoni pizzas.

Like any adult their age, these two are unwinding after a long week of work and social activities.

Twice a week they run a muffin and coffee stand at Harry Jerome recreation centre, as part of a social enterprise program. The small profit he makes, Sellars squirrels it away to later purchase guitar strings.

Other days, the 40-year-old can be found fixing broken electronics at the North Shore ConneXions Society’s Summit centre — a hub of education and recreation programming for those with a developmental disability.

In her spare time, Slade, 29, sometimes takes a Zumba fitness class or swims laps. Like Sellars, she is a decorated Special Olympics athlete.

However, unlike Sellars, and most other middle-aged men, Slade has a penchant for soap operas — in particular, Days of Our Lives.

Soon, the other two residents of this NSCS-run group home will come through the front door and extremely narrow hallway.

Residence manager Heather Malvern bemoans Cap House’s current state of disrepair. For starters, there’s the antiquated wiring system, which deprives most areas of the house of adequate lighting.

Meanwhile, the leaky roof on the 50-plus-year-old house has contributed to mould problems in one of the bedrooms.
Remodeling the entire thing is simply out of the question.

“The renovations for this house, it’s just so extensive and the cost would be so great,” says Malvern.

Moving is also not an option, for many reasons, the main one being the lack of affordable housing on the North Shore.
Also, the group home is conveniently situated at the corner of Capilano and Edgewood roads, where there’s an active bus route that Sellars, who is pretty self-sufficient, takes advantage of every day.

As NSCS executive director Mary Mullen explains, those with a developmental disability are very routine-oriented. The current residents of Cap House have lived there since the 1980s.

So now NSCS has come up with a creative plan that will allow them to stay in the neighbourhood for the long term. It’s an all-encompassing sustainability strategy for the non-profit society.

The NSCS is seeking a variance from the District of North Vancouver to subdivide the Cap House property, which they own outright, into two, 49-foot frontage lots.

“So we had all this property that we weren’t using,” says Mullen. “We started working with developers and saw there was the potential to subdivide.”

Using the revenue from sale of the second property, the NSCS would build a brand new, wheelchair-accessible home on their side of the land.  Mullen envisions an elevator, wider hallways and an open kitchen with an island and lowered countertop.

The house would have five bedrooms and a separate suite downstairs for NSCS’s semi-independent living clients.

“We want to build a home that provides for the short-term and long-term needs of our clients,” said Mullen.

She’s alluding to the fact that NSCS has an aging population, with 50 being the average age of their clients.

ConneXions provides full-time care to 54 North Shore residents who have a developmental disability. Each of the 11 homes, four of which NCCS owns, has a trained staff team that provides 24-hour support to the individuals living there.

The group home option offers a respite for the parents as they age themselves, and, at the same time, affords their children a sense of independence.

“We want to set them up to do as much as they are capable of doing, and then hopefully to do more,” says Mullen.

The Cap House variance application is expected to go before district council for a decision on Feb. 3. If all goes to plan, the NSCS would open the doors to their brand new home by the spring of 2015.

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The ConneXions employment program, another valuable resource the society provides, has also grown vulnerable.

Funding for NSCS’s customized employment stream, which has facilitated finding gainful employment for 23 people with developmental disabilities, will run out at the end of March. The non-profit organization is now exploring other revenue sources to start up another job program.

NSCS had received $250,000 per year from the federal Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, as part of a five-year employment project.

The three staff members assigned to the program each have their own clients that they support by matching them with an employer in the community and later providing on-the-job coaching.

But, given the current economy, getting their clients’ foot in the door has proved challenging.

At first glance, Maryam Eshghi doesn’t fit the profile of someone with a disability. The gregarious young woman with big brown eyes and long sleek hair sits at the reception desk at Sussex Insurance headquarters in a business park on Dollarton Highway.

Only after Eshghi stands up, is there a faint detection of a disability. Her limp is a constant reminder of that fateful November evening in 1997.

Eshghi, who was then one year out of high school, had been sitting in the passenger side of her boyfriend’s Honda Civic when a limo with its driver asleep at the wheel came careening towards them, Eshghi was later told. The limo T-boned the hatchback on Eshghi’s side.

Both drivers emerged from the accident unscathed. Eshghi, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky.

She would later look at the accident pictures and the caved-in passenger side of the Civic and exclaim: “Holy cow, somebody came out of that alive.”

Eshghi was hospitalized and needed to use a breathing tube for close to three months. She would then spend the rest of the year in a wheelchair. Over many years, it took a spate of specialists from speech pathologists to psychologists to help her heal.

“Everything was erased at 20 years old,” recalls Eshghi.

For the longest time, she had a sticky note in her bathroom, reminding her to wash her hands and brush her teeth. Eshghi’s short-term memory was shot. She had retreated back to a Grade 7 English and math comprehension level.

Through a lot of hard work, and exercising some unused brain cells, the Handsworth secondary grad was eventually able to take basic adult education courses at Capilano College. From there she enrolled in the Business Fundamentals program. And then the Accounting Assistant program.

“I want to brag about this until the day I die,” says Eshghi.

She explains how got a D on the first test she ever wrote. And an instructor said to her: “Maryam I know your story, you can’t handle this program. I don’t want to see you fail.”

But Eshghi was determined to prove her wrong. She studied relentlessly — day and night and weekends. In the end, she earned her accounting assistant certificate with a B average.

After graduation, she did have a great job with a mining company, until it folded. For two years after that, Eshghi tried to find new employment.

“When they interview five people for the same position and one is limping, who are they going to choose? The world is still like that,” says Eshghi of her job search struggles.

Fortunately for her, and other people with a disability, there many open-minded employers in the community.

NSCS employment specialist Raman Manhas says, while she does get plenty of rejection, occasionally she is surprised.

“With Sussex we got lucky,” says Manhas. “They have made every effort to make sure Maryam’s skills are being utilized.”

Eshghi works as an accounting assistant, and also does administration and reception work for the busy insurance company with 40 locations across B.C.

“I joke with Ken [Armstrong], the boss, you know,” says Eshghi, of how comfortable she feels in the office.

But functioning with a life-long brain injury has not been without its occasional challenge for Eshghi. That’s where Manhas steps in and talks to the staff at Sussex about how they can work together to support Eshghi.

Sussex also employs a NSCS client with a developmental disability who uses a wheelchair.

“It was difficult to find an employer who would work with him,” recalls Manhas.

Sussex stepped up to the plate. For a couple hours a day, that employee helps the accounting department get out from under their reams of filing.

Management have even encouraged him to get his insurance licence. For the time being, he will train to do customer service.

Sussex is among 30 North Shore employers that have taken the call and found jobs for ConneXions’ clients. Grouse and Cypress mountains, Sewell’s Marina, Westlynn Bakery, Denny’s Restaurant, Safeway, Sinclair Dental, North Shore Unitarian Church and Blitz Auto Spa have also come on board.

As Manhas explains, these companies are providing people with disabilities a sense of self-worth, and, in turn, the employees have many skills to offer them.

Eshghi, 36, is hopeful she will save enough money to move out of her parent’s house and buy a condo by the end of the year.

“I look at the glass of wine half full. Sure, I’m not married with kids, and I can’t drive to work, but I can work,” says Eshghi.

mspitale@northshoreoutlook.com

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