The SAAAC Autism Centre Goodness Gift Program began in 2015 with two people and the goal of providing employment experience for people from neurodiverse communities who would typically have difficulty finding and maintaining employment. Since then, the program has grown in both size and scope.
The onset of the pandemic has only made finding and maintaining employment even more difficult. According to an August 2020 Statistics Canada report, one-third of people with disabilities surveyed reported a temporary or permanent job loss due to the pandemic.
Even during these difficult times, SAAAC's Goodness Gift Program continues to expand and evolve. It's a social enterprise that allows neurodiverse individuals to learn soft skills like team building, communication, and time management, as well as hard skills like how to use spreadsheet software. Those very skills that employers look for, said Pravena Udayakumar, SAAAC spokesperson. "We have a lot of hard and soft skill training programs that are integrated into our sessions. So we're really getting them ready for the working world."
Michael Tucker, an individual with exceptionalities, works at Goodness Gift. He'd been with the program for three months after coming from a job funding club when interviewed. Michael found the posting on a job site for the position at Goodness Gift and, after applying, got the job. "I've worked at other jobs," he says, "where you're working at a sprint pace. That's hard to maintain. Here, I get the support that's tailored to me and other people."
Because of the pandemic, Michael comes to work two days a week to free up needed social distancing space for his co-workers.
Since 2015, both SAAAC and the program have expanded their outreach to the broader neurodiverse community. Initially, said Pravena, SAAAC's founder, Geetha Moorthy, was attuned to the needs of the South Asian community. "But when we started understanding the needs expressed by diverse populations, and the lack of resources that existed for everyone beyond just the South Asian community, and we opened for everyone. So that is why I am here at SAAAC. It's just everywhere."
"We're taking historically underprivileged populations out of this marginalized aspect," she says. The goal, she says, is to foster an inclusive work environment for the neurodiverse, where traditionally employers may have not been so inclusive.
How many Goodness Gift boxes the initiative produces depends on the circumstances. "For example, in November,” said Pravena, “because it was still a little way from Christmas, sales are a little slower. But since we're in Christmas season now and it's December, we're sending out a lot more boxes, and a lot more people are coming in wanting to buy gifts."
The pandemic has slowed their program somewhat, but Pravena remains confident that things will pick up again.
"It's so humbling," she says. "It makes me very hopeful and excited to see where this goes, because the program may not have been here in 2015 when I first started, but I have been through the evolving process, and to see how we've changed the lives of these individuals, but also the social impact that we're creating. It means so much."
As she's out in the community, Pravena meets people who are presently employed and have gone through the Goodness Gift program. "Industries are now more aware and educated on how to train and employ individuals on the spectrum. We are creating an impact, and it just makes me so hopeful for the future."