The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Swift Current branch has started a new vocational program to give individuals an opportunity to learn new skills and gain work experience.
The Lunch Bunch canteen in the E.I. Wood building hosted an open house on Aug. 29 and officially opened for business on Sept. 3.
The cold food service provides paid employment and work experience to participating CMHA members. Vocational coordinator Jamie Rowe said participants are excited to be part of this initiative.
“It’s a paid position,” she noted. “So they’re really, really eager for that, and to try to learn more life skills and socializing. They’re so excited. They’re just over the moon to try this out.”
There has been a lot of interest in the program and five members were selected. Each one will work one day per week at the canteen, always on the same day. A sixth person will be available to help on any day that somebody cannot make it to work.
The CMHA has a licensed kitchen for food preparation. The vocational participants will start their work day in the kitchen, where they will prepare food for the canteen. The fruit and vegetable trays will then be transported to the E.I. Wood building, where they will assist clients in the canteen.
“They will learn how to make change and learn how to do the best food trays, how to properly prepare a sandwich, the prepping and the wrapping of everything, and making sure the safety food guidelines are handled properly,” she said.
They will work under the supervision and guidance of Rowe or Sylvia Thorburn, who is assisting with the coaching of program participants.
Rowe has a lot of experience to share with program participants, because she has worked in the food service industry for many years.
“I started when I was 16 years old, right at bottom level, and the last 13 years my husband and I owned Johnnie's Lunch Box,” she said.
Johnnie’s Lunch Box was located at the bus depot across the street from the E.I. Wood building and just around the corner from the CMHA Swift Current clubhouse. She already knew a lot of CMHA members who visited Johnnie’s Lunch Box for coffee or a meal, and it was therefore an easy transition when she became the vocational coordinator.
The Lunch Bunch canteen is open every day of the week from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The operating hours and food items provided might change in the future based on client needs.
“Since it’s our first venture, it’s going to be trial and error to see,” she said. “If the demand is for more hours we’ll extend it. We don’t know now. We’re still trying to find our feet, and see what sells. Maybe there’s more people wanting gluten-free options. We can totally look into that. If there is a demand, we will meet it, for sure.”
For CMHA Swift Current Executive Director Jacqui Williams the opening of the canteen was an important step in the creation of a vocational program at the branch.
“It's a great vocational program, because it's food service and we've trained everyone in food safe handling,” she said. “It's also customer service and dealing with cash. So it's a real nice vocational program, because it's got all the fundamental basic job skills that you would need in an entry level job.”
The vocational program already started in the summer, when four CMHA members were involved in the operation of a gourmet popcorn booth, initially at the Ladybug Trade Show and thereafter at Market Square. The idea for the canteen grew from suggestions made by staff working in the E.I. Wood building, where they did not have a canteen service for some time.
The vocational program is funded with a portion of the $125,000 grand prize money that CMHA Swift Current won last year in iA Financial Group's second annual Canada-wide philanthropic contest. Williams is hopeful the canteen will generate sufficient funds to keep the vocational program going beyond the initial two years of funding.
She believes it is necessary to have a vocational program at CMHA Swift Current, because it is a practical way to assist members who are facing barriers to employment.
“It's something they can put on their resume,” she said. “All of a sudden they have a reference who can speak to those skills that you need to maintain a job, and it also builds their confidence. It's not only the employer who is wondering if the individual is employable. The individual is looking at himself and going, ‘I haven't worked in years, what do I have to offer?’ If you can get them out and in the practice of actually doing the job, they build their confidence and they build their skills and they have something then to talk about in an interview and they do better as well.”
The process to build skills and gain experience already started when the participants in the vocational program submitted their applications. They had to apply for the positions, they prepared and submitted their resumes, and they were interviewed.
“So I think it's important for us, because we do have a sector of the community who are under or unemployed and we can make them more employable,” Williams said. “We can help people learn the skills that they need to maintain and to keep a job and to be successful in a workplace. I think that's why it's important here. We need to help our people live their best life and part of living a good life is getting up and having a job to do.”