For decades, Vancouver Community College’s (VCC) Community and Career Education department (CACE) has provided top-quality job training programs for adults living with disabilities. A major benefit of these programs has always been multiple workplace practicums throughout the school year with a wide variety of employer partners ranging from coffee shops to clothing stores.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, however, these service-industry practicum opportunities disappeared. “When we lost our last work experience, we were kind of stuck,” says CACE Career Awareness instructor Beth Beeching.
VCC’s CACE programs were also among the first to return to on-campus learning in September 2020 – a necessity for students living with Down syndrome, autism, and other cognitive disabilities who may have challenges with computers and literacy. “We were on campus mostly by ourselves,” says Beth. “It was an odd year!”
Later that term, as student practicum placements remained limited, CACE instructors reached out to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank about volunteer opportunities. The response was enthusiastic – the Food Bank is running, it’s a large warehouse where people can spread out, and the help is needed.
VCC’s CACE Retail and Hospitality students were the first to volunteer. Then, in January 2021, for the first time, all 15 members of Beth’s Career Awareness cohort completed their three-week work experience together at the same location. “It was super successful,” says Beth. “The Food Bank team was amazing in supporting our students on their employment journeys.”
In this teamwork-oriented environment, students with varying abilities gravitated towards different tasks. Some enjoyed sorting, some checked expiry dates, others carried pallets. “I learned about working and helping at the same time and packing snacks was fun,” says student Joanna.
According to Beth, the nature of the work at the Food Bank was also eye-opening for many students. “A few students had used the Food Bank themselves,” she says. “They got to learn how it works from the other side.” For many, the experience also changed their views of who uses the Food Bank and helped them understand the diversity of people who might struggle with food insecurity.
Overall, Beth says most students came away with the feeling that they had truly helped their communities. The VCC instructors were also thrilled for this chance to teach students about giving back and bring themes of global citizenship into the program.
Since that first visit over one year ago, VCC’s CACE students have continued to work at the Food Bank as part of their programs (even earning VCC a shout-out on the Food Bank’s “Group Volunteering” webpage) and will continue to do so even after the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the CACE instructors, it has always been important to make students with disabilities visible and active around the college, and they are thrilled that this new Food Bank partnership extends that principle into the community. “It shows them that they can be part of a society that cares,” says Beth.
VCC offers career-oriented programs that provide access to meaningful employment for students of all abilities. Register now for September 2022.