Once referred to as the “Rick Hansen of Schizophrenia ”, Larry Vandergrift, Executive Director of the Okanagan Mental Health Services Society has made it his mission to provide individuals facing mental health barriers in the Okanagan with opportunities to find a purpose.
A pillar in the community, the Okanagan Mental Health Services Society functions as a non-profit social enterprise, offering programs such as Yard by Yard and Room By Room funded by the Interior Health Authority. These programs offer support with assisted living placements as well as enrollment in a therapeutic work program involving landscaping and janitorial services.
Before starting the organization in 2001, Larry was employed by the Canadian Mental Health Association for the better part of a decade.
When asked what drives his unwavering dedication to mental health, Larry describes his own battle with mental health in the past. Due to his experiences, Larry possesses a deeper understanding of what it means to struggle with mental health as well as what it takes to recover.
For Larry, it was the generosity of family members and the community that allowed him to find meaning in his life again and what ultimately gave him the strength to recover.
Striving to offer this same glimmer of hope to the Okanagan, the Okanagan Mental Health Services Society provides solutions to two major pieces of the puzzle for those facing hard times due to mental health: finding a home and finding a job.
According to Larry, people often forget about the latter. However, “we need a reason to get out of bed in the morning.” We need a purpose.
That is where the work program comes in.
Yard by Yard’s work program is considered “transitional” or a steppingstone toward sustainable employment. It is Larry’s goal that the work program will provide individuals with the stability, transferrable skills, and motivation they need to ultimately rejoin the workforce in meaningful roles.
Once participants have gained the necessary work skills and feel ready to seek out permanent employment, Larry and his team will support them through all stages of the job search process. To aid in this process, Larry provides access to computers in his office space so participants can utilize social media, online education, and all methods of job search.
In addition to preparing for employment, Larry also utilizes the program to instill a sense of worth into the participants.
Most participants are provided with a key to the shop to come and go as they please. Some simply come in early to put the coffee on, while others take out crews on weekends. Larry also elicits consistent feedback to give the participants a voice and improve the program based on their experience.
By offering these seemingly small gestures of trust and respect, Larry ensures participants know that they are valued members of the team and responsible for their own success.
Besides working directly with participants of the program, Larry also takes the time to educate the community and province about the realities of mental health. As Larry states, participants with mental health barriers are often the best workers you can find. They are usually extremely dedicated, hardworking, and grateful to contribute.
Following his own advice, Larry “walks the walk” by hiring especially promising participants as permanent employees following their completion of the program.
While no organization exactly like his exists in the Okanagan, Larry does notice that some businesses and fellow non-profit organizations want to offer similar opportunities but don’t know how. He is frequently contacted for insight into the program’s success and is more than happy to provide advice if it will mean creating more opportunities like his in the community.
Larry’s ultimate hope for the future is that there will be “more than one restaurant in town” for individuals to gain work experience and receive opportunities to participate in the community.
What community leaders like Larry and Yard by Yard prove is that we are not all helpless to the issues that face our community.
With the proper education and a willingness to provide opportunities to those who need them, we can all make a difference, one yard at a time.
Written by: MacKenzie Verhelst, BAPsych, CVRP-TSA
MacKenzie Verhelst is a Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant for Creative Therapy Consultants. MacKenzie is a Certified Vocational Rehabilitation Professional (CVRP) with Transferrable Skill Analysis (TSA) certification and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from McGill University. She demonstrates expertise in vocational assessment, resume/cover letter development, interview preparation, active job search support, and job sustainment services. MacKenzie is passionate about helping others reach their utmost potential and advocates for finding joy in work. To learn more about Vocational Rehabilitation services, please visit click here.