Renfrew – When Sherry-Lynn Shalla accepted the Renfrew Chamber of Commerce’s new award recognizing social inclusion in the workplace, she understood the importance of the moment.
As the representative for McPhail Perkins, one of Renfrew's oldest independent businesses that can trace its roots back to 1883, Ms. Shalla said her company was honoured and proud to be selected as the inaugural winner of the award.
Not only has the company benefitted from its employment culture, but more importantly she said the ability for their employee to be an active participant in the operations of the generational business is a testament to his desire to lead an independent life.
Thomas McNulty, the young man hired in late 2019, said the opportunity to work both independently and alongside others is what prompted him to seek employment with the furniture store that has built its reputation on its commitment to showcasing quality furniture and taking value in its employees.
"I was nervous when I came here for the interview because it was something I had never done before and it was my first time applying for a job, so I knew it was pretty important," he said. "But when I met with Sherry she made me feel okay and after a while I was not nervous at all and that really made me want to work here even more because she and the other staff are nice people and they made me feel welcome."
Anyone who has ever walked by the storefront displays at McPhail Perkins will immediately take notice of the pristine state of the furniture on display and once inside, the high-end furniture pieces, including sofas, bedroom suites, dressers, tables and much more are free of any dust or a hint of dirt. Mr. McNulty smiles when that observation is made to him.
"When I come into work at 10 o'clock in the morning, I start my day by carefully dusting and cleaning all the furniture and I take a lot of pride knowing that all the furniture is clean because that helps when customers come in to buy something” he said. "I also sweep all three floors and I like my job because even though customers come and go through the day and I will say hello to them, I actually get to work by myself and for me it is much better that way."
When the Chamber of Commerce created the new award, there were specific requirements in the nomination process and most of the traits contained in the award are on full display by both employer and employee.
One of the goals of the award is to highlight a company that seeks to create positive changes in the employment situation for persons with disabilities and recognizing the efforts of local employers.
It only takes a few moments watching the interaction between Mr. McNulty and Ms. Shalla when it becomes apparent the working relationship is built on a strong desire to allow him to work independently and he takes great pride in his work.
For Ms. Shalla, it reinforces her decision to hire him when she could have easily sought out an employee using traditional employment practices.
"It is natural for some employers not to consider hiring a person with a disability because, quite honestly, they may have never even thought about pursuing that route," she said. "But for us, Thomas has been a perfect fit. He is reliable and we don't have to worry or wonder if he is going to show up for work because we know he will be here on time every week. If there was ever a time he was not able to work, it would have to be a pretty good reason because he is so committed to his work and for him, it is also a matter of pride to come here and start his tasks right away without us having to worry about it."
Like thousands of other employees across Ontario, Mr. McNulty was ordered to stay home during the first province-wide shut down since last April as a result of the COVID pandemic. For most individuals, the forced shutdown was an inconvenience that was offset by various government aid programs and they adapted.
However, for Mr. McNulty, an only child who was diagnosed with autism at an early age, the inability to come to work was a major disruption to his daily routine, and as anyone who has a family member with autism will attest, it is the constant of a routine that helps an autistic child navigate their daily functions.
"I was a little lost when I was told I could not come to work," he said. "I don't drive and we were told to stay home to help stop the spread of the virus so I played a lot of video games and I really missed coming to work. But when Sherry told me after a while that the store would reopen again, I was so happy to be able to come back and get to cleaning all of the store again."
Like any other first time employee, Mr. McNulty has a big smile on his face when he recalls opening up an envelope and seeing his first pay cheque.
"It was so exciting to see my name and the money I earned by working here," he said. "I should remember to thank the people at OnTrac for helping me get ready for a job and they helped me come here for my interview. I really enjoy working here and I can tell people that I work and a few years ago after high school I wasn’t sure if I would actually have a job. But today I do and when I come to work I make sure to do what is asked and I make sure it is done right."
Ms. Shalla said Mr. McNulty settled into his role quite easily and other staff and customers do not treat him any differently than anyone else.
"Thomas is shy by nature and can sometimes get nervous when there are a lot of people or noise but he deals with it very well,” she said. “There are times when a customer will come in and go to him inquiring about our services and Thomas is quick to point them to our main desk, and he does so politely and with a smile and that is a great asset for us."
When asked if he had any advice for a person with disabilities who is considering looking for a job, Mr. McNulty was quick to respond.
"Don't be afraid to look for a job if it is something you want to do," he said. "I was nervous, but I also knew it would be okay no matter what happened and all you can do is take it one day at a time and just keep trying."
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader