Non-profit in St. John's recognized 'as a leader in the world' with international award

·3 min read
John Pike/CBC
John Pike/CBC

A non-profit group in St. John's that helps people with developmental disabilities find long-term employment is getting global recognition.

The Autism Pilot Employment program, designed by Avalon Employment Incorporated, connects people with autism with prospective employers. The organization has been selected as a 2021 Zero Project Award winner, an accolade handed out by the international foundation that partners with the United Nations to further the equality and rights of persons with disabilities.

The distinction is offered to groups around the world, but only after a rigorous process whereby more than 1,000 international experts evaluate and vote on the nominees.

There's no prize money involved, but winners present at a conference in Vienna, Austria each year, and get the chance to share ideas.

More than distinctions

Award or not, for 20-year-old Nicholas Griba, the Autism Pilot Employment program means everything.

Griba works at Mr. Lube, and underneath the vehicles, changing fluids and looking for leaks, is a door that opened for him through Avalon's program.

"To be honest I've never had great self-esteem. But being able to work, to get stuff done, I find it just really helps me with my confidence," he told CBC News.

"I just feel like I'm happy with myself because I feel I've been able to help people."

Sean Wiltshire, the organization's CEO, told CBC News after this year's success, he plans to bring the program into five more communities across the province next year.

John Pike/CBC
John Pike/CBC

The pilot identifies skills and strengths in its clients, and matches those skills to an employer. Often, Wiltshire says, his clients are accustomed to deftly navigating a hurdle.

"People who have a challenge or disability are innovative thinkers. They got to solve 14 problems before they get out the door. So at work, businesses want innovative thinkers. This is what we see," Wiltshire said.

"Problems aren't solved until we get a new set of eyes on them that think differently. Folks who have disabilities, or who are on the spectrum, process information and solve problems differently. This is a good thing."

The philosophy appears to be working.

'Excellent choice'

Julian Waugh manages the Mr. Lube on Kenmount Road, where Griba works.

Waugh said Griba came in for an interview and was immediately drawn to the garage.

"Basically he went downstairs [to the garage] for a day and he enjoyed it, and we were like, okay fine, he wants to be downstairs," he said.

"He's been really good, in regards to hands-on. He learns very fast, so it was an excellent choice for us having him here."

John Pike/CBC
John Pike/CBC

Griba said he's lost track of time while working at Mr. Lube, nodding to its collegial environment.

The job has launched him on the road to becoming a mechanic.

"Even if you are nervous, push yourself. God knows I was certainly, certainly — boy was I nervous. It's amazing what you can do if you give yourself that little push," he said.

As for the program, Wiltshire said it's been a stunning experience having Newfoundland and Labrador receive the recognition.

"Having that opportunity to be recognized as a leader in the world? This year Newfoundland and Labrador sat on the world stage, and we measured up," he said.

"We have some of the best stuff going on in the world, and that's pretty hard to imagine when some days you think about some of the challenges. So it's pretty important to both recognize and acknowledge it and celebrate it."

While most years the Zero Project Award winners are celebrated at a conference at the United Nations offices in Vienna, in 2021 the conference will be a virtual one. Winners get the chance at additional programs, partnerships and funding opportunities, according to Zero Project.

In 2020 the Zero Project conference brought together more than 800 experts and leaders from 80 countries, with 86 award winners selected from more than 450 nominations.

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