Anthony At Your Service

Two months before my son, Anthony, was to graduate from high school, I had a very scary nightmare. I dreamt Anthony died. It was a terrifying dream, but, as a former psychotherapist, I knew this dream was about my fears for Anthony’s future.

For most families, high school graduation is a time of achievement, pride, looking toward the future, and maybe a little bit of relief. Maybe our graduates will go on to further education or employment training. Maybe they will get a job or take a gap year. We see our kids moving out, getting careers, finding partners, and eventually starting families of their own.

For us, it was different. Anthony has significant autism. That meant there was no more school for him to attend after high school. He was not going to go on to work, to have a career, or to start a new family. There were no available spots in any day programs, no educational options, and no employment training opportunities for Anthony. Resources for adults with autism, or other developmental disabilities, were extremely limited then and they remain so across Alberta. Even where they exist, programs are not always of the calibre families would choose for their loved ones. Few adult programs, if any, are geared for the way people with autism learn.

Without school, there was a big void. We were staring at being personally responsible for figuring out how to occupy every minute of every hour of every one of Anthony’s days for the rest of our lives and beyond. It was overwhelmingly frightening.

Anthony, however, was undaunted. Speaking is very hard for Anthony, but he made sure we knew what he wanted: “New school,” he would say, “grade 14, grade 15. New school!” We heard this many times a day, day after day, week after week. Anthony forced us to create something out of nothing. Eventually, we went to NorQuest College and, after some talks, enrolled Anthony in their Adult Literacy Program. He loved it, and he was successful!

But we knew Anthony would need more than school. Eventually, he was going to need a job. So we started thinking about what he likes to do: driving around listening to music, helping people, carrying things, checking out new places but not staying very long.

When Mike Hamm, Anthony’s assistant, suggested he could do deliveries, it clicked. Deliveries are special, and special people can do deliveries. You can ride around, carry things, help people, and move on. It was perfect!

So, Mike made a video to show potential customers that Anthony could do real jobs that would make a difference. When he put the video, called “Meet Anthony”, on YouTube, it went viral. There was so much goodwill toward Anthony that it launched his little delivery business called Anthony at Your Service.

It’s a good thing it did, because this spring NorQuest’s Adult Literacy Program was cut. There is no more school for Anthony right now.

Anthony at Your Service gives Anthony something to do that keeps him in the community doing real work, for real businesses, for real money. It gives him purpose, and it helps him have a good and balanced life. Anthony delivers birthday cakes; takes packages to the Post Office for mailing; picks up groceries; delivers lunchtime sandwiches; drops off and picks up shirts for dry cleaning; delivers photographs, gift baskets, balloons, tailoring, orthodontic moulds, advertising, and more. In fact, Anthony will pickup or deliver anything that can fit in a car.

This fall, Anthony at Your Service had more jobs than Anthony could do at one time. So we’ve found other adults with autism and intellectual disabilities to do the jobs that Anthony cannot do, either because he doesn’t have the time or because he doesn’t have the skills. Andre Boutin, a 20-something man with autism, found himself postering on Whyte Avenue this fall because that job didn’t fall within Anthony’s abilities.

Businesses often have small, but regular, jobs that don’t have enough hours for a full or half time employee, but need to be done on a daily or regular basis. These are perfect jobs for adults with developmental disabilities. So are jobs that individual citizens may have: walking dogs, taking items to recycling or to various charities, dropping off a birthday cake or bottle of champagne for a loved one. Anthony at Your Service is always open to new, interesting ideas that we may not have anticipated.

What’s clear from our experience is that Edmontonians are definitely open to hiring persons with intellectual disabilities, but sometimes people are afraid to do so because they don’t want to do something wrong. Hiring Anthony at Your Service makes it easy to be inclusive, because a knowledgeable assistant accompanies each adult. If there is a unique behaviour, the customer doesn’t have to worry about how to respond. The assistant will model an appropriate response. Also, hiring Anthony at Your Service gives some small businesses the opportunity to be inclusive without the need to re-jig the workplace or devote staff time to supervision of an employee with an intellectual disability.

Apart from being inclusive, what are the benefits? Guy Thaller, Manager at Val Berg’s, says, “We don’t use Anthony at Your Service out of a sense of charity. We use Anthony because he’s capable. Anthony isn’t going to lose the merchandise. I know he will deliver it straight from the store to our customers. Anthony at Your Service is very reliable.” Sherry Kohlman, Office Manager at Shores Jardine LLP, also likes the fact that she can build a relationship with one particular delivery team. She’s enjoyed getting to know Anthony and Cathy MacKay, who also does Shores Jardine deliveries for Anthony at Your Service.

That’s a benefit to everyone. Adults with autism and developmental disabilities get out in the community. They get known for providing quality services. They get paid, and they build relationships. Businesses benefit from receiving high quality service from people they know they can trust, and whom they get to know as individuals. That’s where truly inclusive communities begin: workers, businesses, and citizens get used to hiring, interacting with, and getting to know persons with intellectual challenges who make positive, paid contributions to our city and to our economy. At the same time, people with developmental disabilities become an expected and accepted part of our society. Anthony at Your Service might be a small step, but it’s the way of the future!