Back to Basics for a Brighter Future
30 July 2014 at 1:59 am
A disability provider turned social entrepreneur is changing the lives of intellectually impaired young people through the simplest of jobs – in the soil and in the sunshine, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
The Compass Institute, opened in 2003, has established a suite of programs on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to provide a new path for the students of special schools once they complete their secondary education.
The organisation established the Compass Farm in 2010 as a place where people with disabilities could gain work experience, learn and enjoy paid employment.
Originally a mango orchard, the farm was purchased with the intent of finding a niche in the market where those with an intellectual and physical disabilities would also be able to perform duties of work. The brokering of contracts with local grocers followed, and the business has since grown to cater for Compass’s young charges in a way that acknowledges their many interests and talents.
The 20-acre farm at Palmwoods is now the crown jewel in the organisation’s suite of social enterprises, and houses Green Thumbs Nursery, which grows seedlings, herbs and a wide range of plants, the property maintenance crew, and Harvest Kitchen, a commercial-style kitchen making chutneys, jams and a range of condiments.
In addition, Compass runs Earth and Wood, a craft workshop at its Caloundra site, and Wabi Sabi, a retail store selling goods produced in all the Compass social enterprises and education centres.
Development Coordinator at Compass, DJ McGlynn, shed light on how this Not for Profit has quietly built a self-sustaining model to provide the kind of opportunities its young people so desperately need.
A New Path
Currently the Compass Institute caters for about 70 young people, enabling them to continue education after their years of primary and secondary education concludes.
McGlynn says lifelong learning is essential for people with an intellectual disability – particularly as many have not reached their greatest capacity for learning by the time secondary school concludes.
“They go to their special schools but then you see them five years down the track and some have almost gone backward. There’s nothing for them," he says.
“If you were to go for a mainstream job…and say you have an intellectual impairment…that resume is going to go on the bottom of the pile.
“For the government to sit there and say ’you’ve had these 13 years of study and now you’re on your own…’ – they [young people] haven’t reached their greatest capacity to learn yet.
“[Compass] calms that anxiety amongst the young people about what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives.”
A key aspect of Compass, McGlynn says, is that its employees are not forced into a particular stream of work and are provided with the chance to not only pick and choose what they would like to do but also to progress.
Positions from maintenance and gardening, to hospitality, retail or woodwork cater to a range of tastes.
“We provide a different avenue,” McGlynn says. “Families really are becoming more savvy in what they want for their kids.
“They like variety – they’re not doing the same tasks over and over. And they like structure, but don’t always want to continue only on the farm.There’s the opportunity to work across a variety of those industries.”
The experience gained is valuable both inside and outside of the workplace.
“Now when Dad pulls out the lawnmower from the shed at home they can say ‘I can do that’ and Dad in turn is able to sit down and read the paper for a while," he says.
“One young lady is now making jams and chutneys at home as well. With some help from Mum and Dad she could develop that into her own internet business.
“The program helps them experience what it would be like to own a business like that.”
The Best Kind of Employee
It is Compass’s aim to treat their young people like any other worker.
“Some really do have the skills to work in an environment of supported employment,” McGlynn says. “We see some businesses who take on people with intellectual disabilities in supported employment, but the numbers who can afford that are getting very very small.
“Young people on the farm receive a small amount of compensation for their work. We want them to feel as similar as possible to Mum and Dad, who get a paypacket at the end of the week.”
McGlynn is in little doubt about the contribution Compass’ trainees make to the workplace.
“They bring great culture to a business. They bring loyalty. Some have been here 10-12 years," he says.
“Ultimately if we can do more and move them to mainstream employment, we do. Given the opportunity these young people can really achieve some great things down the track.”
Speaking with McGlynn, one can sense his emotional attachment to the farm and young people working with him every day.
“They’ll come back past my office and give me hi-fives with big smiles,” he enthuses.
“Working the the soil on a 40 degree day…we’d say, ‘it’s too hard’. It’s not too hard for them, because they love it.”
McGlynn says work in the social enterprises brings newfound confidence and a chance for the intellectually and/or physically impaired to interact with the wider community, particularly in a retail context.
“They’re the first face customers see when they walk in. It’s them [trainees] from start to finish. Some can even give a bit of history on the place!” he says.
“We want them to have the confidence to acknowledge people.”
A Sustainable Business
Compass’s 35 staff, drawn from a range of sectors, work with young people at an unconventional ratio – one staff member to one to three youths.
Yet the organisation receives very limited funding, McGlynn says.
“The majority we put back in has come from fundraising and events. We do a lot of grant writing as well,” he says.
He says the enterprises are making a reasonable amount of income but that Compass still needs to chip in for overheads such as leases.
“The biggest hurdle has been the leases for the retail shops," he says.
“These enterprises were set up to develop the skills of young people, not necessarily to make a squillion dollars, but it is necessary for them to be sustainable.
“We’re continually monitoring expenditure. We just had a review of all enterprises’ income streams. And we’re always looking at where we source products.
“Even with things like glass bottles, unit prices constantly fluctuate, so we’ve got to monitor that.
“Each site has budgets for what they can spend and budgets to reach.”
McGlynn says that in his view the farm has been the most successful enterprise to date.
“We put the time and effort into it. We started with 50 lines of produce, but now we have 14 cash crops which means it’s easier to caretake,” he says.
“I guess when you think of a farm, you just think of a big paddock. But it’s fully accessible, everyone is able to access everything. It’s not just for people who can put on gumboots and walk for a kilometre. We’ve just started introducing chickens, ducks and goats!
“We want to make [the animal enclosure] a bit more user friendly so they can hand-feed, rather than just dumping food scraps over the railing!”
A pie making facility and program expansion are the next things on the agenda.
At present, Compass’s operations are confined to within a two-hour radius on the Sunshine Coast.
“We’re now looking at expanding into other regions of Queensland,” he says. “We designed the model such that it’s easy to pick it up and drop it anywhere in the world.”
Keeping the model sustainable is a top priority.
“They need to be there, so we’ll make it happen.You need to make sure they stay open and give them [trainees] the backing to know it will always be there," he says.
“We want them to be able to be themselves. They really can lead rich and meaningful lives.”
For more information, visit www.compassinc.org.au