What if all youth with special needs weren’t destined for limited lives, dependant on disability pensions and family?
What if youth who have challenges with reading, writing and social interaction had the opportunity to bring their individual strengths and giftings to the marketplace, and in doing so serve their communities, own a business, and have the chance to become financially independent?
My name is Melissa Cassidy and “What If?” is the name of a game that my family & I have enjoyed playing over the years. When my children were small we would cuddle as a family and each take a turn at answering the “What If?” question. There were no limitations on money, time, ability, or reality. When we played “What If?” our imaginations could take flight and we could voice whatever our hearts desired without judgement or fear.
As my children have grown, the game is still in play. In real life there ARE limitations on money, time and ability. All children begin their journey with internal and external factors that influence their futures and every human being lives with varying combinations of situational circumstance and personal choices. In the case of my son, Trysten, there are some developmental hindrances that have held him back in certain areas but as a family we believe that he has a God-given plan and purpose for his life and we are devoted to helping him find and develop it.
Today, I am going to tell you a story of how we discovered one of Trysten’s initial contributions to the world and how an Ontario government program named Summer Company gave him the opportunity to develop and explore that gift in a meaningful way. The experience I’m about to describe is one that has impacted Trysten positively, not just for one summer but certainly for many more years to come.
Like many youth in our generation, Trysten was enthralled with the idea of owning an iPod Touch and wasn’t shy about voicing his desire. Now we love our children and work hard to make sure they have their needs met, but at 14 years old, an iPod Touch is not a necessity. A want, yes. A need, no. Christmas and birthday money had been spent and there were many months before Trysten would have the opportunity to make such a large purchase. So as many a parent might do, I told Trysten that if he wanted an iPod Touch, he needed to get a job.
“What would I do?” he asked.
“What do you want to do? What do you think you could do?” My questions were almost rhetorical because although I believed my son had lots of potential, we hadn’t seen much maturity yet.
“What could he do to earn money?” echoed in my own mind.
“I could mow lawns”, he suggested. A friend’s son had mowed our lawn the previous summer and Trysten had been watching.
“I’m not sure about that…”I hesitated, “We’ll see what your dad says.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted my son operating a dangerous lawn mower and what if he ruined people’s lawns? All sorts of mother fear was coursing through my veins.
Later, my husband took Trysten outside, showed him the ins and outs of the mower and how to do the lawn. Trysten proceeded to mow our lawn…and he did a very good job!
Despite our innate fear for his safety and the potential risk of property damage we decided to practise bravery and give him a chance to pursue this employment opportunity.
Ironically, in the year that followed I listened to an audiobook on Steve Jobs and was unaware that Trysten was also actively listening and gaining inspiration from the life story about former Apple tycoon who followed his dream.
We made a chart for Trysten to track his earnings as it brought him closer to his desired iPod and cheered him on with every successful lawn mowing. Trysten got the iPod and experienced for the first time the sweet rewards of gainful employment.
Once we realized that Trysten was serious and capable of mowing lawns, we invested in buying him a cart to hold his mowing supplies and purchased a better mower that he could use. He already had a pedal cart which turned into his towing vehicle. In return for this investment our lawn became part of Trysten’s regular chores as part of his contribution to our family. At this stage he was only mowing for us and our immediate neighbours but he was already experiencing the pride, joy, and hope that comes from knowing that you are capable of doing something truly productive.
While this growth in Trysten was a blessing, there are always obstacles in business. Trysten’s least favorite activity was riding around the neighborhood and knocking on doors to see if anyone needed his services. Sometimes a neighbour would flag him down and ask him to mow their lawn but it was random so we began teaching Trysten about the need to initiate and persevere if he wanted to find more customers.
One afternoon I went out with Trysten as he knocked on doors and was shocked when some neighborhood “friends” laughed and called him a loser right in front of me. I encouraged Trysten not to listen to them or feel rejected by the “no’s” he was getting at almost every door that day. We talked about the reality of having to face a lot of no’s as part of moving towards our goal of getting a “yes” and that it was a very normal part of the process. Thankfully, Trysten did not allow the ridicule to stop him from following his dream and I had some conversations with those boys’ mothers later that day.
We attended a “Life After High School” event that winter. We weren’t sure what to expect or even if any of the services being promoted would be beneficial. Looking back I am so glad we went. After hearing about the adult “day camp” services and other programs, we didn’t feel there was much that would apply to our situation. We happened across a table featuring Summer Company and met Diane Malenfant from the local Small Business Centre, the regional program provider of the Summer Company program. I picked up a flyer and asked a few questions almost jokingly but I left feeling that we had found an opportunity that could help Trysten progress in his dream of expanding his lawn mowing business to a more professional level. We are so grateful for that event and how it impacted our son in the summer that followed.
When we got home and told Trysten that the Summer Company program could potentially pay for the riding lawn mower he was dreaming of as part of their $1500 business start-up grant. He was hooked!
Applying to become a Summer Company participant is no small feat for anyone but especially for a 15 year-old boy who doesn’t have all the skills needed to do the paperwork and budgeting etcetera involved. We could have done it all for him but instead we just helped him a lot–but more in a hand-over-hand fashion that kept him part of the process. Although at times we were as frustrated with the process as he was, this was an important learning experience. The tediousness of creating a business plan, speculating on demand and the future and researching how much things would cost is part of the work of owning a business and if he was going to reap the rewards, he needed to take ownership of the work…all of it, even if he wasn’t doing it all alone.
It takes a village. No-one accomplishes great things in life alone. At home, Trysten received help and guidance from all of us in his family and from Aaron, our respite worker. We all contributed when and how we could. Sometimes he treated us to Tim Horton’s Ice Caps or gave us 10% of his mowing fee as “payment” for our services and sometimes we were just there for moral support. No-one mowed a lawn for him but there was plenty of things we were able to help him with behind the scenes.
As you can see, applying for a Summer Company grant is a lot of work and takes a great amount of commitment to see it through. As Trysten’s pit crew we were equally committed to help him fulfill the requirements needed to begin and complete the program. This was an investment in Trysten’s success that helped set a foundation of excellence for his mowing business practises. Every business needs an initial push and time investment to get off the ground.
It was an emotional experience for me when the day arrived for me to bring Trysten for his interview with Diane Malenfant and the Summer Company Mentorship Team. I knew whether he was accepted or not, this was an invaluable experience for him.
Once Diane called Trysten and relayed the news that he had been officially accepted by the Ministry into the Summer company program, we were all ecstatic. Now it was time to put the business plan into action as we purchased all the equipment and supplies we had projected he would need, made up his business posters and begin the process of finding customers. This was definitely more fun than the research and development part we had just finished! Trysten started with putting out mowing flyers on the
Advertising, advertising, advertising! While assisting Trysten with putting out flyers in our immediate neighborhood I remembered that you can put out “Press releases” when you want to announce something to the community. Sometimes local papers will feature your announcement. This form of advertising doesn’t cost anything so I wrote out a press release and sent it to the Windsor Star and LaSalle Post. We were beyond thrilled when both papers featured elements of Trysten’s story. Later we took an ad out for Trysten in the LaSalle Post and he got quite a few customers as a result!neighborhood mailboxes and handing out flyers door-to-door. As part of the summer company agreement, it was necessary for him to track the time he spent mowing lawns and trying to find new business. Time spent doing behind-the-scenes paperwork, banking, training, meetings etc. were also part of that time quota as well. Trysten rolled up his sleeves and began the work.
Summer Company is more than just about giving students money to start their own businesses. They offer entrepreneur training and mentorship sessions where business owners and previous Summer Company participants impart to the students what is needed to be successful in business. Trysten attending these sessions every other week very enthusiastically. We are so grateful for Diane Malenfant and those who reached out to him and gave him the opportunity to be part of a team. We were even more honoured and excited when Trysten was invited back as a mentor this past summer.
It was a busy summer. Trysten purchased a used riding mower and spent his 8 weeks of summer break mowing, weedwacking, putting out posters, attending meetings and operating his business. His dad & I drove him to properties outside his working range when we could and Paris took calls while we were at work and helped direct his schedule. We all worked very hard but it was exciting and fun.
It was also great to meet people in the community and experience their support and generosity as they helped Trysten towards his stated goal of mowing 200 lawns. It has become normal for Trysten to return from a mowing job with cans of pop, candy bars and other gifts from his customers who obviously dote on him.
We discovered a difficulty in communicating Trysten’s schedule and which properties he was supposed to mow and when. We found a solution to this problem by taking photos of every customer’s property and labelling their name and address on the back of the photos. Dad would look at the schedule in the morning and lay out the photos in the order they needed to be mowed. A general talk with Trysten saying “these ones need to be done before/after lunch and these ones before/after dinner” seemed to work. Sometimes Trysten needed a call from us to prompt him that it was time to go mow a lawn. Even though Trysten didn’t recognize street addresses, he was able to associate the location of a property just by viewing the picture so this part of his business operated much smoother with the photos.
He would leave the money out by the photos on the table when he was done so we could help him record who paid what and track his earnings.
This year we helped Trysten mail Christmas cards to all his loyal customers.
In addition to being able to keep all profits from his mowing venture, Trysten received another $1500 upon completion of the program. His desire for an eBike had fueled his energy on those hot, summer days working when other boys his age were playing video games indoors. We were very proud of his determination, hard work and for not giving up. This past summer Trysten was able to save up for and buy a RC car that he thoroughly enjoys.
Summer Company, an initiative of the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment, is a program for all Ontario students between the ages of 15-29 years old who are in between school semesters. Although this program wasn’t created and launched with special needs individuals in mind, the facilitators recognize the contribution that all youth provide to the teams and to the community. It is important to discuss all the aspects of the Summer Company program with the regional facilitator before and during the application process to assess whether this opportunity is right for you and your youth.
We hope you enjoyed hearing our story. It is our hope that you will be inspired and encouraged and to ask “What If?” in a new way when it comes to those with special needs and business.
~ Thank you