I started working at CASS in late August of 2013. A friend had suggested I apply to the day program, as I had been looking for work that wouldn’t suck my soul. I ended up getting the job as a Community Support Worker (CSW), and had a caseload of diverse individuals that taught me so much about the nuances of being human. As a CSW, I got to spend my days going to the gym, the zoo, the science centre, and my personal favourite: movie Fridays.
One glorious Friday morning, as I was hanging out with my dudes at a City of Calgary hot tub. We talked about the movie we were planning to see after our soak. I remember thinking that this was the best job I’d ever had. I was actually getting paid to go hot tubbing in the morning, then go see a movie for the afternoon.
Being a CSW was, of course, not without its challenges. Much of my time was spent working with a particularly spicy individual who often told me that I sounded like his mother when I made some supportive suggestions. The lessons I learned from supporting this spicy human were immeasurable though. They taught me how to let go of my own ego and need to be right. A common misconception about support work, is that we have failed if the person we are supporting isn’t successful in the ways we want to see them be successful. I can’t tell you how freeing it is to support people to be their best selves, and let go of how you think things should look for them. We don’t get to decide what someone else’s success is, or what it looks like.
This mentality of letting go of the power struggle has served me in so many ways. My son is now a teenager, and instead of telling him under no certain terms should he drink a cup of maple syrup to prove how “Canadian” he is, I suggest that this is a terrible idea that may not make him feel great. He may choose to drink the maple syrup anyway, but I’ve still done my job. Natural consequences are always the best way to learn.
So, what does a community support worker do? Essentially, a CSW supports someone to do life on their own terms, in the community. We support folks to build relationships, businesses, health, fitness. We support people to be visible in their community, so that they aren’t so vulnerable. We support folks to learn what healthy relationships look like, so that they are able to set boundaries for themselves. We support folks to develop their daily living skills, so that they can be independent. In an ideal world, we would work ourselves out of a job, because the people we supported to be successful, gained their independence and success on their own terms, with just a little bit of help.
Another role of the CSW is to advocate for inclusion and diversity within the community: to help educate the public about disability rights and barriers to everyday living. We do this through both passive modeling, and sometimes more direct advocacy. We teach the community that the disability community are fully fledged humans who do all the same human things that the neurotypical world does. Don’t think for one second that folks in the disability community don’t date. The CADO coordinators often joke about how we should include “dating matchmakers” as part of our offered day program services.
The folks we serve are just regular folks who need a little extra help in some areas. We have one individual who is a seasoned fisherman. They’ve caught some of the biggest fish I’ve ever seen. Their support worker gets to hang out by the river all summer. Another individual wanted to step out of their comfort zone, and started taking stand up comedy lessons with their CSW. They were supported to do a few shows at The Laugh Shop in Calgary. We have many individuals who love animals, and volunteer at shelters. They are supported go play with cats a few times per week. Other individuals are supported to participate in dance classes, do art, or even explore the urban pathways on bike. Day trips to Banff or Drumheller are also pretty common.
Community support work can be so rewarding and fun. Although not without challenges, for the most part, supporting individuals to live their best lives on their own terms has been a tremendous gift. It’s taught me to fully embrace people where they’re at, and appreciate their nuances. I’ve also learned that everyone has the right to choose for themselves, despite whether or not I think it’s a good idea (no one has ever chosen to drink a cup of straight maple syrup though; maybe that’s a teenager thing).
I am now a coordinator in the same day program I started in, almost ten years ago. My days are spent mostly in front of a computer, doing computer things and hearing all the fun things the CADO support workers have up their sleeve. I do miss the fun of being out in the community full time, however, I also take great joy in supporting my staff to also be their best selves. I’ve seen my staff go on to do great things like become a firefighter, or become successful entrepreneurs, go back to school, and even go live their quiet dream life, off-grid. I guess I’ve never stopped supporting people, because I love seeing their success, and being a part of that. I know how important their time has been, working as a community support worker, and how much they’ve gained from simply being there to support someone else. That’s the beauty of community: it all comes full circle, and when we support our most vulnerable, our community as a whole is elevated. When our community is elevated, we can all be supported to do great things. On our own terms.