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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Youth Force
Teen overcomes learning disabilities to earn paycheque

By Linda White
Special to The Sun

As an animal lover, working at a pet store was a natural fit for Shane McCowan. He enjoys taking dogs for walks and keeping their cages clean. But it's his desire to work and drive to overcome challenges that most impresses his teachers and employers.
Shane McCowan


"When Shane came in for an interview, I was really impressed with his enthusiasm and motivation," says Parker Pet Care manager Julie Martin. "Many teens work because they have to, not because they want to. Shane was always happy to be here and truly enjoyed working and taking care of the animals. He also did a great job."

McCowan has a moderate learning disability and is in a work skills program at Maplewood High School in Toronto. His reading skills are around the Grade 4 level and he has the comprehension level of a Grade 3 student. As part of Passport to Prosperity, McCowan participates in a co-operative education program and has landed part-time jobs at Parker Pet Care and Toys R Us.

"Work is good but sometimes it is difficult and challenging," McCowan told employers at a recent Passport to Prosperity forum. "The things I have found difficult are multitasking and remembering. For example, when I do a job like stocking or pricing and then get called to customer service or when customers come to me, I might forget what department I was in or what job I was doing."
Shane McCowan (centre) recently spoke at a Passport to Prosperity event for employers and human resources professionals, designed to provide practical information about the variety of school-work opportunities and how to create meaningful experiences for students in the workplace.

The 19-year-old has found ways to overcome those challenges. He checks at the front desk to find out which departments he was working in that day, for example, or writes down on a piece of paper what he was doing. His goal is to land a full-time job at the zoo.

"Employers can help (the learning disabled) by first opening their doors to them," says Debra Malandrino, McCowan's teacher and coach. "There is a learning process for them. As an employer, you can write out what that employee needs to do or train them a little at a time, because they learn well through repetition."

The benefits are many. "You have a worker who wants to be there, as opposed to someone who has to be there. These are the employees who show up in the snowstorm, who come in with a positive attitude," Malandrino says.

"I'm told they change those around them by making others look at themselves and how they look at their jobs ... Shane took three buses from his home to get to Parker Pet Care for 8 a.m. Talk about diligence."
  • Passport to Prosperity is a provincial campaign that helps high school students explore career options and develop workplace skills.
  • School-work opportunities include workplace tours, job shadowing, mentoring, co-operative education and the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program. They can vary in length from one day to several weeks or semesters.
  • To learn more about offering high school students work experience, call Ellen Kalis of Passport to Prosperity at 416-598-5777 or e-mail

  • With support, guidance and encouragement, McCowan enjoys the confidence that comes with the satisfaction of a job well done and earning a paycheck.

    "My work experience has been a good one because I learned new skills," he says. "I learned that I enjoyed working with animals and people and that I like to learn new things ... I believe I can hold a job and I feel very proud of myself. I don't have to stay at home when I graduate. I can work, too."

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