Reducing barriers for Special Olympics athletes

Donning his favourite blue ‘Summer Games’ bowling shirt, Robert Tarko smiles when asked whether he’s competitive.

The Special Olympics British Columbia athlete has participated in every summer sport imaginable, plus curling, and is currently competing in five-pin bowling. When he’s not yelling “strike,” he’s advocating for the non-profit organization.

“I’ve been enjoying Special Olympics all my life,” he shares. “I’m 57 years old now – going on 58 soon. It has had a big impact on my life and my family’s. I enjoy being with all of the athletes – they’re all friends – and then getting to compete against them is a lot of fun!”

Special Olympics offers those with an intellectual disability the chance to participate in year-round sport, youth and health programs, as well as compete at local, regional, provincial, national and international levels. Through sports, the organization’s athletes see themselves for their abilities, not disabilities; their accomplishments empower them and increase their confidence. Athletes also make new friends in the highly inclusive environment.

Coaches, volunteers and the community as a whole take great pride in the organization, according to Special Olympics BC – Trail coordinator Jakki Van Hemert, who has had the pleasure to support Tarko at the local level.

“Robert is outgoing and personable; he’s always willing to help promote Special Olympics and anything he’s involved in,” she adds. “Anyone who has met him knows he loves to talk! His outgoing nature is great; it helps him spread awareness about Special Olympics and shows other athletes, potential athletes and volunteers how amazing the organization truly is.”

Tarko is not one to shy away from centre stage. He’s become a spokesperson for the Trail group, which is one of several in the region to receive financial support from the Columbia Basin Trust’s Basin PLAYS initiative, which promotes safe, inclusive, and quality sport and active living programs. Trail, Castlegar, Nelson, Creston, Elk Valley, Golden, Invermere, Kimberley/Cranbrook and Revelstoke received support from the Trust to help facilitate their programs.

“The funding we receive is invested locally to help our athletes; it allows us to keep the programs free, or as close to free as possible,” says Van Hemert. “The money goes toward travel to regional and provincial sporting events, safe sports equipment, venue rental costs, and coach and athlete development and training.”

Special Olympics strongly supports the full participation and integration of people with intellectual disabilities. It’s long been an integral part of the movement to eliminate the stigma, stereotypes, isolation and discrimination that people with intellectual disabilities face—most importantly, around access to sport, health, and education opportunities and services.

President and CEO of Special Olympics BC Dan Howe started with the organization 40 years ago, when the former physical-education teacher was inspired by the group’s mission. He remains committed to enhancing the lives of individuals through sport.

“When I see the impact our programs have on people, and how much we can support family members – including parents who have had to fight for their child’s rights for their entire lives – I’m moved,” he explains. “Seeing everyone cheering for our athletes is incredible.”

He credits sponsors like the Trust with removing financial barriers to participation, and adds volunteers are also an essential part of the organization.

“We hear from community volunteers all the time that they initially signed up to help people with intellectual disabilities, but they quickly found that it was those individuals who were helping them,” he adds. “They get so much more out of it than they expected. It’s a dynamic, positive and wonderful organization that affects so many people’s lives.”

While Special Olympics athletes do participate in summer and winter games, the program’s main goal is to improve individuals’ health, fitness and skill levels, all while building an inclusive community environment. Athletes of all ages – from infants to seniors – and at various ability levels can choose from nearly 20 sports.

“While the financial aspect of engagement by organizations like the Trust is critical, so is the acknowledgement. When someone like that contributes to Special Olympics, what they’re saying is that we’re a credible organization that’s doing good work – and they believe in us and our outcomes,” explains Howe. “Some people with intellectual disabilities have fought their whole life to have credibility – to have respect and dignity – and when an organization supports them, it’s validation. We really appreciate the Trust stepping up; it not only allows us to do our work, but it also says to the volunteers and athletes, ‘We believe in you.’”

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COVID-19 Response

While we’ve halted face-to-face interactions during this COVID period, we certainly haven’t closed down our operations. We’re doing as much as we can to keep people engaged, active and moving ahead; we’re just doing it differently.

We’re offering online home fitness and activities that anyone can use for skills development and fun, whether you have an intellectual disability or not.

It’s vitally important that we don’t forget people with intellectual disabilities, because they don’t always advocate for themselves. We encourage everybody to stay active and to stay connected. Isolation can be a big challenge, so our coaches and volunteers are checking in with our athletes. Luckily, we have the ability and resources to help because of terrific partners like the Trust.

Dan Howe, President and CEO of Special Olympics BC

Slam Dunk for Salmo Centre

In the Salmo Valley Youth & Community Centre, kids toss basketballs. Some shimmy hula hoops around their waists. It’s the place to go to play ultimate frisbee, or for seniors to take fitness classes. There are youth drop-ins and professional development day camps. As part of a former high school, the gym is a huge space frequented by people of all ages. Now, thanks to two upgrades, the place is even more usable and inviting.

Portable Dividers

Step one was to divvy up the spacious gym “so there was more opportunity for multiple programs to be happening at once,” says Laurie MacDonald, Centre Coordinator. Before, even small groups using the gym meant the space was inaccessible to everyone else. This issue was particularly noticeable to the many youth basketball players. “Their drop-in would potentially get cut because another renter was using it.”

The solution was a set of portable dividers. The Salmo Valley Youth & Community Centre Society purchased these with a grant from the Trust’s Basin PLAYS Initiative, which provides resources and support to help kids get active and lead healthy lifestyles.

Now, basketball players and others can still use the gym when other events are happening on the other side. One young player, Jesse, says, “We are stoked that we can now play more basketball because of the gym dividers. Before we would have our times cancelled so other groups could use the gym.”

MacDonald also sees the broader benefits for local youth: “It’s creating more opportunities for them to be active and take part in the activities that they love.”

A New Drinking Fountain

Step two was a drinking fountain. MacDonald is very descriptive about the need: “The drinking fountain that was in the hallway was quite old and dysfunctional and kind of gross, so no one used it.” The bathroom sinks didn’t fit water bottles well. One boy even went outside to fill his bottle with snow.

It was the youth themselves who came up with the idea of buying a drinking fountain/water bottle filling station. They and all gym users can now adequately refresh themselves while being active. “It’s so used right now,” says MacDonald. “It’s amazing.”

As a bonus, there are positive impacts on the environment. The station records each time someone fills a water bottle, which it then translates into how many single-use bottles have been kept out of the landfill. After only a few days, there were 35 bottles saved. Now, it’s inching toward 600. “It’s pretty significant, considering it’s only been a few months.”

MacDonald and Jesse aren’t the only people excited about these improvements, which have paved the way for even more satisfied gym users. “We’re getting tons of feedback,” MacDonald says. “People are really pleased.”

A Nelson Business Overcomes Growing Pains

Some of North Mountain Construction’s work is highly visible in Nelson, including the new Kootenay Co-op building and the Savoy Hotel. Other work isn’t so visible, including a huge mountaintop mansion. From luxury custom homes to commercial projects, the business has made a name for itself—which meant co-owners Gabe and Rikki Tyler needed to rethink operations so they could meet demand and tackle the future with confidence.

About three years ago the company began a period of substantial growth. The owners, neither of whom had business training, found themselves taking on far too much.

“It wasn’t at the point yet where things were failing,” says Rikki, “but our stress levels were definitely going up. Our solution was to put in more hours and work harder. And you can only do that for so long.”

The Basin RevUp program guided them toward a more sustainable solution. The program helps non-technology businesses that are poised for growth with customized support, training and networking. It does so by connecting business owners or managers with experienced mentors and provides customized growth plans, coaching, training and engagement with peers.

Although they already had up to or over 30 employees, depending on workload, through the program the Tylers realized they required more support for business operations. They needed to hire more people to help them operate the business including an administrator and project manager. Rikki says, “The mentoring was really critical in convincing us that we had to hire more people to do things that we previously thought ‘We’ll just do it ourselves to save costs.’ It was a big step for us to get over the hurdle of spending what we thought of as overhead costs.”

The Tylers also took action in other ways, like improving how they tracked their financials, becoming bonded so they could take on larger projects and creating a business structure that can grow in scale as the company grows. Rikki moved from bookkeeper to controller, and Gabe now oversees the company’s project managers rather than doing the everyday tasks himself. This gives him more time for bigger-picture items like client management, high-level problem solving and working with engineers and architects.

“I had a very tight grip on everything in the company,” Gabe says. “RevUp taught me to relax that grip. It showed me the things that were missing and helped teach me to grow a company.” The daily demands, too, are much more manageable for the co-owners, who are also parents to two young children. “Day-to-day,” Gabe says, “life is much better.”

Now Gabe has set his sights on even more impressive commercial projects, like multi-storey buildings, which are often built by non-Nelson contractors. With key systems and a strong team in place—and plans for another hire in the near future—the business has more chance of achieving this goal than ever.

Raw Success

A passion for pet health and happiness inspires a booming raw pet food business

With a passion for promoting healthier pets, Sherin Laurie and Rob Eamon are growing their two-decades-old family business with the same mission and commitment as when they initially launched: producing a top-quality, healthy product for a reasonable price.

Top Hand Supplies in Cranbrook, and its raw pet food brand, Pets Go Raw, began when Laurie and her former partner started making food by hand in their home kitchen for their beloved Shiba Inu show dogs. “Shortly after one of our show dogs began eating a raw food diet, we were so impressed by his coat and condition that we changed his diet permanently to frozen, raw food,” says Laurie. “That is where it all began.”

The couple wanted a product that could be fed to both mature dogs and weaning puppies. They settled on a recipe, bought a small grinder and bagged the raw food by hand. It didn’t take long for others to notice. Wanting similar healthy results for their dogs, friends and acquaintances started requesting Laurie’s pet food.

To meet the increasing demand, Laurie worked evenings and weekends, producing in her kitchen until she was no longer able to keep up with production. It became clear they needed to expand. The successful, yet still fledgling, business incorporated in 2004 and moved to a building in Cranbrook. Since then, the company has continued to grow.

By spring 2018, with the help of new Vice-President and Laurie’s son, Rob Eamon, Top Hand Supplies was ready to take the business to yet another level. They knew they’d need help, and found it through Basin RevUp.

According to Eamon, “The program is great for small businesses. It has helped us focus attention on what we should be doing as opposed to just day-to-day operations.”

The Trust introduced the Basin RevUp business growth accelerator program in 2018. It helps Basin businesses that are poised for growth to address their individual challenges so they can grow, thrive and obtain future success.

Developed by Accelerate Okanagan, the program connects these businesses with experienced mentors, called executives-in-residence, and provides customized growth plans, mentorship and coaching, tailored training opportunities and peer-to-peer engagement.

For Top Hand Supplies, the program was a great fit given Laurie and Eamon’s vision of where the business needs to go. According to Eamon, “We had to stop thinking ‘mom and pop’ and look beyond, much bigger.”

“One of the most important things we took away from the program was that a new model we were considering wasn’t right for our business at that time—our best move was actually not to do what we had planned,” explains Eamon. “Through the assistance of Basin RevUp, we enjoyed higher-level business management mentoring. Our RevUp team taught us how to analyze the numbers and data and apply proper thought to all aspects of the business.”

Excited about the future, Eamon says, “We look at Top Hand Supplies as a legacy—something we want to grow and continue to pass down.”

COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges for people and communities in the Columbia Basin and our Basin RevUp program is changing how we are supporting businesses because of this. We know that businesses are dealing with the challenges and impacts of COVID-19 and our team is here to help. Learn more here.

Biology Intern Set on Career Course

Jeremy Benson spent most of his summer on the Koocanusa Reservoir, but he wasn’t camping or pursuing other recreational activities popular in the area. The Junior Biologist collected important water quality and biological samples that will help industry with environmental monitoring projects.

Benson is an intern at Cranbrook’s VAST Resource Solutions Inc., which provides natural resource consulting and engineering services throughout BC and Western Canada. When VAST’s senior fish and aquatic biologist retired, the team had a hard time finding an experienced replacement, primarily due to the competitive market for qualified staff.

“After a year of advertising, we decided to start looking at hiring and training a junior person instead, but one of the issues was the cost,” says Ben Meunier, Fisheries Biologist. “In addition to training expenses, a junior person is typically not immediately billable to our clients because of the steep learning curve required to become familiar with all the sampling techniques, industry standards and environmental regulations we work with on a daily basis.”

Then VAST came across the Trust’s Career Internship Program. This program gives employers wage subsidies to hire recent post-secondary graduates like Benson for full-time, career-focused positions that lead to permanent employment. The program helps employers expand their teams and capacity at a reduced cost; it also supports graduates in finding employment in their chosen fields.

“When a junior person comes in who doesn’t necessarily have experience working in the industry, it takes some time to get them up to speed,” says Meunier. “Having additional funding available so Jeremy could slow down and take the time to learn really helped.”

The internship has given VAST the ability to train a less experienced individual; assess his skills, abilities and aptitude; and determine how he best fits into the firm.

It has also enabled Benson to work in a dynamic setting under the guidance of an experienced mentor, benefit from hands-on field work, and gain transferable industry skills and knowledge. After spending the summer on the Koocanusa Reservoir, he has now moved indoors to do analysis in the Cranbrook office, where he’s developing new skills such as project management.

“Being able to work for a local company is great. I’m from Cranbrook, so when it comes to field work, I’m familiar with a lot of the areas and systems we’ve been studying and working in,” says Benson. “Transitioning from school to work has also been good; I’ve been working my way through various responsibilities as I get more comfortable.”

The time and resources VAST has poured into his development has Benson’s career swiftly flowing on course for long-term employment.

Career for Kootenay Carpenter Apprentice

After completing a business degree and working in sales for a decade, Michael Greenfield was more than ready for a change. The mountains were calling, and answering that call led him to a new lifestyle and career that turned out to be exactly what he was looking for.

“I knew there was a high demand for carpentry work in the Kootenay region, and I thought it was a viable and interesting career for me to jump into,” he says.

It was Greenfield’s sense of humour and attitude that caught the attention of Alan De Chezet, the owner of Ruby Mountain Builders.

De Chezet wasn’t actively looking for an employee when he met the apprentice carpenter, but instantly felt a connection. When he found out Greenfield was attending Selkirk College’s Carpentry Apprenticeship Program, De Chezet handed over his business card, sensing he’d be a great fit for his team. Columbia Basin Trust’s School Works Apprentice Wage Subsidy Program, which helps Basin employers hire first level apprentices, was a further reason to hire someone with less experience—and he’s glad he did.

“His youthful energy and his physicality, combined with his intelligence, makes Mike very valuable to my business,” says De Chezet. “I’d be happy to hire him long-term when he gets out of school.”

Greenfield rounds out De Chezet’s four-person crew, which builds residential and smaller commercial projects, primarily in the Nelson area. Since starting in April 2019, Greenfield has pitched in on all facets of each build, including labour and carpentry tasks like framing and concrete pours. He’s pleased with the hands-on work experience, citing the advantages of learning from expert tradespeople.

“I’m lucky my colleagues support me,” he says. “I’m constantly learning something new every day. Plus I love the camaraderie!”

“You’re only as good as the people you hire, and that goes beyond technical skills,” says De Chezet. “I have a fantastic crew, and Greenfield adds so much to my team.”

Greenfield is thankful for the opportunity the wage subsidy program created and is enthusiastic about his future.

“The program is making it easier for builders to employ trades apprentices,” he says. “It’s definitely given me a leg up in my carpentry career. Without it, I think it would’ve been much more difficult to find an opportunity like this—there’s no question.”

City of Nelson Creates Student Opportunity

“We didn’t realize how much we needed this person until we met them.”

This is Joanna Markin, Director of Human Resources Corporate Safety & Technology for the City of Nelson. She is speaking about how a project for the City remained on the sidelines until the right person came along to tackle it. In the case of the City of Nelson, it was a need to audit the payroll against its respective collective agreement.

“I had this project sitting on my desk and knew I needed to find the time and resources to deal with it, but sometimes that’s hard to do,” said Markin. “I knew it was something that needed to be addressed and taken on.”

Enter Harshit Kandpal, a Thompson Rivers University student completing his post-baccalaureate diploma program in human resource management who applied on another co-op position with the City. For Joanna and Chris Jury, Deputy Chief Financial Officer for the City and Harshit’s day-to-day supervisor, it was a bit of a eureka moment.

“That’s when we met Harshit. We recognized that he had an incredible skill set for auditing and realized we had met the right person with the right experience and that we could create a special project for him to take on that would also fill a need we had. We turned to the Trust and applied on their School Works Program to support us in creating an opportunity to hire him.”

The School Works Co-op Wage Subsidy provides wage subsidies to employers in the Basin to help them hire post-secondary students enrolled in full-time education and participating in a recognized university or college co-op education program. The City of Nelson worked with College of the Rockies, who administers the program on the Trust’s behalf, to hire Harshit.

For Harshit, the co-op position at the City of Nelson has been a game-changer on several levels.

As a student from India and new to Canada, it’s provided an opportunity to work in a job relevant to his field of study as well as become a member of a community, not just as a student on campus, but as a resident, employee and volunteer.

“It has been an awesome experience,” said Kandpal. “The co-op position has allowed me to gain real-world experience in Canada in what I want to do professionally. I had never really thought about working for a municipal government before and with this opportunity, I have been able to use my education and previous work experience to do just that. It’s given me the break I was really hoping for, and it’s allowed me to discover a different part of BC and be part of a new community, like volunteering with Nelson and District Recreation and the Nelson Leafs team.”

Similar to the experience for Harshit, the co-op term has been beneficial for the City of Nelson, not just to undertake this special project, but as an opportunity to reflect on internal processes and see a new way of looking at how work gets done.

“Having Harshit in the co-op position allowed us to have a bit of a critical eye on how we did things as an employer,” said Jury. “By mentoring Harshit in his new job, by explaining to him how processes worked at the City, it allowed us to do some analysis on why we were doing things a certain way and ask ourselves – why are we still doing it this way? It’s helped us make some changes for the better.”

Reconnecting and Protecting Grizzlies

For the past 70 years, grizzly bears in the South Selkirk and Purcell mountains have largely been isolated from each other. What was once one population of bears has split over time, primarily due to development in the valleys, leaving the South Selkirk population small.

Since 2004, Kaslo scientist and independent researcher Michael Proctor has looked for ways to restore connectivity between these two populations and help recover the South Selkirk population. At the same time, he’s looked for ways to reduce bear mortality due to conflicts with humans.

In 2012, Michael began working with Trust support to GPS collar and track grizzlies.

His work provided a better understanding of the Creston Valley as an important wildlife corridor for Selkirk grizzly bears. Michael’s research found that 17 individual grizzly bears use this area. More specifically, the data showed that male bears range widely between Creston and Nelson and spend little time in the valley, while a few female bears spend longer periods of time in the valley.

“These bears spend much of their time in the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area, right up to Duck Lake,” says Michael. “They also like to hang out in the Yaqan Nukiy wetland area.”

Radio collaring allows researchers like Michael to track and identify movement corridors between fragmented animal populations, like the Selkirk and Purcell grizzlies. Because these populations were fragmented and movement between each was lost over time, researchers must predict where these corridors might occur today.

“The information we get from collaring animals helps us understand how we can restore connectivity between the Selkirk and Purcell populations,” says Michael. “Radio collaring allows us to create habitat use models and those models paint a picture for how two separate populations once moved in one, unbroken area. It highlights where we should focus efforts to restore or protect habitat that will help support bears to move between the Selkirks to the Purcells.”

With a better understanding of how and where bears move within the Selkirk corridor, Michael has also been able to identify how bear-human conflict might arise and find ways to reduce it. The collar data provides information the BC Wildlife Conservation Service can use to support the management of grizzly bears in the Creston Valley.

“It was useful to follow the bears’ movement in the Creston Valley to understand their use of that corridor. It helped us focus management efforts to reduce human-wildlife conflicts,” says Michael. “For example, we now know bears are really attracted to corn fields and cherry orchards. We can go to residents and show them which attractants they should secure to prevent bear encounters. Collaring, tracking and other projects the Trust is supporting, such as electric fencing, help us better manage bears and people.”

Plus, the data he’s gathered will feed into projects like Kootenay Connect. This project has received support for conservation activities in a dozen habitats wetlands and riparian-rich valley-bottoms—one of which is the Creston Valley.

One of the management tools Kootenay Connect uses to enhance connectivity is to partner with organizations to purchase conservation lands that help increase ecological connectivity.  For example, in the Creston Valley, conservation lands in the north portion of the valley have been purchased by the Nature Conservancy of Canada that benefit the endangered northern leopard frog and the Selkirk grizzly, connecting both species’ winter and summer habitats.

Now managed to benefit frogs and bears, these lands also benefit many other species, including elk, deer and small predators.

“The investment by the Trust in our work on the Selkirk grizzly sub-population has supported us in expanding to this next level,” says Michael . “By helping us to understand bear connectivity, we are working to improve the habitats and connectivity or other species across the Kootenays.”

Bringing the Library to the People

In its new location on the top floor of the state-of-the-art Columbia Valley Centre, the Invermere Public Library has expanded its services with more books, activities and programs. It also extends beyond its physical space, providing services throughout the Columbia Valley, from Spillimacheen to Canal Flats, to a population that fluctuates seasonally from 9,000 to 20,000 people.

With minimal staff, developing and implementing new, engaging programs has been difficult. To fulfill the library’s potential, the team needed an additional member—a knowledgeable and passionate person who could help deliver existing programs and develop a host of others.

With help from the Trust’s Career Internship Program, the library created a new full-time permanent position and filled it with their new intern. “The new role boosts our community outreach,” says Nicole Pawlak, Library Director. “After providing community programs only as our limited resources would allow, this is the first time we’ve been able to properly define and fulfill the role.”

The Career Internship Program gives employers wage subsidies to hire recent post-secondary graduates for full-time, career-focused positions that lead to permanent employment. The program helps employers expand their teams and capacity at a reduced cost; it also supports graduates in finding employment in their chosen fields.

A recent graduate of English from Dalhousie University in Halifax, the new Community Outreach Library Assistant, Blair McFarlane, draws on a long history with the library—years as a volunteer and a summer student since 2015. She now eagerly embraces a variety of tasks and responsibilities that broaden both her professional experience and the library’s reach and impact. The program supports the library during Blair’s training and at the end of the program the aim is for Blair to be fully-trained to continue in the permanent role.

“I love the responsibility,” McFarlane says. “Organizing events such as author visits where I get to interact with the writers—it’s exciting to host an event that attracts people who don’t typically come into the library. Developing programs is creative and fun, particularly for kids.”

McFarlane enthusiastically takes the lead on activities ranging from the summer reading program to an upcoming STEAM initiative (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). She also helps promote the library in various ways.

It’s not always about being inside the library, of course. With an eye on community outreach, McFarlane regularly leaves home base armed with books, crafts and other activities to visit more distant Columbia Valley communities, such as to the Village of Canal Flats.

It’s trips like these that excite McFarlane the most. With an inspired gleam in her eye, she often asks, “What can we do next to take the library to the people?”

Growing Affordable Housing Snapshot

Twelve new affordable housing units for families are ready to open their doors in Kimberley.

These are just a fraction of the over 1,000 new affordable housing units the Trust has helped create in the Basin since 2002, in addition to repairs and upgrades to over 1,000 existing affordable units.

Affordable housing is essential when it comes to creating healthy and resilient communities and reducing poverty. The Trust supports affordable housing, including over 500 new affordable rental units that are currently under development in the Basin.