“When I went to grade school, kids with disabilities were in a separate class. I’m from that era,“ says Lisa Vezeau-Allen. “I didn’t know what autism was until I had a child on the spectrum.”
Vezeau-Allen, whose son will soon turn 17, was concerned about what happens when he ‘ages out’ of the system.
“When I went to an information session on [my son] transitioning to adult services, I was blown away,” she remembers. “Myself — and every other parent in that room — we were just like deer in headlights. There’s definitely a lot of anxiety.”
Vezeau-Allen, a Ward 2 city councillor, decided to channel her dread into productive action. Her initial idea was to start a social enterprise that would employ people who want to work but have been effectively shut out of the workforce.
“It's about identifying people that need that extra support, and giving them a positive work environment. It also helps them to build their career,” she explains. “Having my own child on the spectrum, I know that there are limits as far as opportunities,” she says. “So I thought, let’s create some change. Let’s make something happen.”
Earlier this month, Vezeau-Allen saw her idea to fruition: Grocer 4 Good (133 Gore St) celebrated its grand opening. The store hires people who face barriers to employment; including those with ASD, intellectual and developmental disabilities, newcomers, and the chronically underemployed. Here, they can grow their skills and on-the-job experience while demonstrating their value to potential employers.
Additionally, the store offers fresh and nutritious foods in an area deemed a ‘food desert’.
The store currently employs a team of 10 and carry the usual staples; they’ve also partnered with Big Lake Cabin to buy fresh produce, and stock specialty items; like Hogan’s Homestead Maple Products and Sweet Change Chocolate.
As of Tuesday, the store remains open with reduced hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's open from noon to 4 p.m. daily, except for Sundays and Mondays, when the shop is closed.
Vezeau-Allen believes the grocery store is the ideal model because there are a variety of tasks involved.
“If someone's nonverbal, they can stock shops, do inventory control. You don't have to be working the cash register or doing customer service,” she says. “We’re able to create an environment for success; depending on what supports are needed for that person to be employed. We have one fellow who was a dishwasher for 10 years, but he wants to be working with the public. So through Grocer 4 Good, he can get that experience, because he didn't have that opportunity before.”
Over the past couple of years, Vezeau-Allen has been busy assembling a board of directors, incorporating, and securing the partnerships that would make the project happen. It all started to gel at a particularly tumultuous time; she had just received word of her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. But it was the overwhelming community support that kept her going.
“It just snowballed. A random Facebook message from somebody I didn't know that says ‘I'm going to donate startup money’; the space becoming available on Gore St.; financial help from district social services, PUC, Algoma Autism Foundation; even Dan Boston — who's a grandfather of a child on the spectrum — he built the countertops, and got stuff donated. It made me realize that everyone is invested in this, so it’s going to work.”
After securing charitable status in July, she realized they were off to the races.
“Life is all about timing and opportunity. Even though there were so many other things going on in my personal life at the same time that I was trying to get this going, [launching Grocer 4 Good] was probably what kept me sane.”
Vezeau-Allen, a long-time volunteer in the community, wants to make the Sault a better place to live because “it’s home,” she says. “I see its potential.”
Grocer 4 Good fits into a larger undertaking that she hopes to roll out by the end of the year: developing a municipal autism strategy.
“We have an issue, and not just our community; it’s pretty much every community in North America. So this [Grocer 4 Good] is a model that I'd like to see in other communities.”
“It’s ironic because I told my son, ‘It's a conflict of interest, buddy, you can't work there — you can volunteer there,” she laughs. “But it's not about my kid. It's about every other human being in this community that has not had opportunities.”
“I couldn't have done it without a bunch of people around me, supporting me getting things done,” she explains. “To create real, sustainable change, you can’t do it alone. I'm thankful everyday that we could make this happen.”