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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Growing the distance

By Carter Hammett
Special to the Toronto Sun


Even before she was diagnosed with clinical depression more than 20 years ago, Maggie Griffin had struggled with "the great unknowable." Hospitalized as a teenager, she continued to struggle with maintaining both jobs and relationships in her life, before finally obtaining some stability through self employment as a landscaper and caterer.

Then things changed.

Landscaping company

A few years ago, she joined a little landscaping company called Parkdale Green Thumb Enterprises, a business which, in recent years, has grown in leaps and bounds through partnerships and contracts with several business improvement areas (BIAs) in Parkdale, Liberty Village and Roncesvalles neighbourhoods.
Parkdale Green Thumb staff pose with Mayor David Miller (middle back row) and Councilor Sylvia Watson (second from right). Maggie Griffin (in the middle of the photo wearing glasses) is part of the "little landscaping company that grew," which is run by psychiatric survivors.


The story of "the little landscaping company that grew," isn't so unique. What makes this success story different is that, from the top down, the entire enterprise is run by psychiatric survivors. Griffin felt she'd finally come home.

Recently appointed interim business manager for Green Thumb, the 40ish Griffin says, "working here, for the first time in my life, I felt I belonged. I work with people who get it."

By "get it" she refers to the acceptance and sense of community from others who understand the stigma attached to mental illness. It's estimated that one in five Canadians struggle with some form of mental health disorder, a lengthy list that encompasses everything from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder. Until the last decade, this was a community that in many sectors, was largely thought to be unemployable. Many post-hospital "consumer-survivors," languished on family benefits, losing jobs, homes and self respect along the way. It's a situation that spirals into something mental health activists have called "the poverty of the soul."

That is, until the Ontario Council of Alternative Businesses (OCAB) was formed in 1993 as an umbrella organization to oversee the development and sustainability of several consumer-survivor run enterprises that include The Raging Spoon and Out of This World cafes. Other affiliations include enduring businesses like Fresh Start Cleaning and Maintenance and A-Way Courier Express. All of these companies began as community economic development (CED) initiatives, says OCAB's general manager, Dini Densmore.

"CED means using the economy to build community," she says. "All stakeholders are consumer-survivors who make decisions about business start up and conduct their own market research. It's a long-term process that can take up to a year to plan and develop."

Collectively OCAB's businesses employ more than 250 people and generate approximately $1 million in revenue. Densmore says all workers receive market-value wages, paid for by company revenues.

"It's incredible to see the change in mindset that occurs in workers," she says. "When Out of This World Cafe was starting, we went to every funding meeting and some individuals began to speak out and take ownership of the whole process. Through this, we'd identify leadership; some people became spokesmen."

Another unique feature of the businesses is that accommodations are provided to maximize job performance. Accommodations are legally-required modifications to either a job description or work environment that enable an employee to perform the essential duties of the job.

'Special needs'

"We understand that we work with people who have special needs," Griffin says. "One day your meds may be off, or maybe you're dealing with insomnia. We understand if you can't come to work."

Employees, as in regular companies, are still expected to give notice if they can't come in one day, knowing they'll still have a job to return to the next day.

These days, OCAB focuses its energies on enhancing existing businesses, rather than developing new ones. "We have lineups for people who want to work, but we can only have so many businesses," Densmore says.

But the jobs that are generated by OCAB businesses are life-altering. "Getting this job allowed me to see how far I've come," Griffin says. "Transitions occur in little increments.

For some, it's a long struggle, and they'll never come off their meds. My staff are great; the better they feel, the easier it is."

For more information on OCAB check out their website at http://www.icomm.ca/ocab/.



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