We spoke to Jill Baxter, Executive Director of Conway Workshop in Digby, Nova Scotia about the Workshop’s most recent successes and their new Buy Social Certification. Conway Workshop Association is a non-profit organization that provides residential and employment/vocational training programs for individuals with disabilities. Their mission is to serve people with disabilities to develop the skills and knowledge they need to live independently.
The Conway Workshop is a staple of Digby, NS, providing many jobs and services in the area. They operate a sawmill and provide woodworking, firewood and kindling, survey stakes, electronics recycling, baked goods, and more. And all of these services employ their clientele.
They’re quite the operation, and they’re certainly not afraid to continue growing! “I’ve been with the workshop for, well, this is my 25th year!” says Jill Baxter, “and I’ve seen and made a lot of changes - and we’re still doing changes! I’m all about trying whatever we can - finding it and going after it!”
Jill has a few more ideas in the works, too: “I’m hoping before I retire I’ll have another nice social enterprise set up. I was initially thinking thrift store but there’s already one that recently opened up right here.”
Starting a business that’s similar to another local shop is a no-no in rural areas it seems. “It’s tough because in rural areas there is this idea that you shouldn’t start a business if it’s seen as competing with another existing business.” says Jill. “And I don’t necessarily think that’s true. But hopefully we’ll convince stakeholders over time to be more receptive to this; some time you have to take baby steps to make those changes - those changes have to come slowly over time. And with our Government’s transformation we will all have to rethink the initial game plan [of being non-profit] perhaps.”
In terms of employing workers though, Conway Workshop is on top. “We’re one of the biggest employers in the community now that the call centre is gone.” says Jill. “Even WalMart; a large number of our staff work for them as well!”
Speaking of community, the clients of Conway Workshop are more involved in the local community than ever before. There are twelve clients currently out working in the community. This has helped Conway Workshop market their products and services better, and Jill has seen this affect how community members see the Conway Workshop now as opposed to years ago: “We’re coming a long way. The language has changed in the community and now they see the hiring and community benefit work we do. “
The recognition is nice too, says Jill. People notice all of what Conway does now, as opposed to knowing about just the products and services they sell. “It’s nice to hear how the positive impact of our work is now seen and recognized in the community. This recent shift to the positive really makes me smile!”
The impact they have on their clients is certainly positive as well. In fact, the transformation their clients can see is really quite impressive. One man originally had substance abuse issues. “Before he joined with us he was ‘in the ditches,’ so to speak.” says Jill. “People would really take advantage of him when he’d get his social assistance at the end of the month.” Jill encouraged him to take an apartment with their apartment program. “We set him up with some used furniture, and got him a job at a fish plant. That was 8 years ago. Now, his life has turned around! He has not been to the Workshop in the last 3 years - does not get social assistance anymore - has money in the bank, and his drinking is under control!”
There are lots of success stories when it comes to Conway Workshop. Another client came to Conway Workshop through a literacy training program. “He would talk to me about his Dad and things really didn’t seem healthy. At one workshop he came up to me and said he couldn’t go home because his Dad was coming home from travelling. He showed me a bump on his arm from a time when his dad broke it because he went to the kitchen to eat between meals. It was terrifying. So, I welcomed him to stay at my house. He became a client of ours, and lived with me for about two years. Then we set him up in one of our small options homes, and he just grew from there!”
And where is he now? “He’s now on our Wall of Fame in town for Special Olympics. Once he left our homes he went off and found a girl and got married and had kids - and went out West! I just saw him back in town with the kids at Cora’s last weekend! He’s definitely another success story.”
Not everything is coming up roses though. Conway Workshop is in rural Nova Scotia, which on the whole is feeling the squeeze of its aging and dwindling populations. Finding the right staff and even enough clients is challenging, says Jill: “our clients are aging and there are very little younger clients since we’re in a rural area. And our older clients are the hardest-working and most dedicated. Sometimes it’s difficult to instil that work ethic in new recruits.”
Firewood cutting and selling is a big income source for Conway. The shortage of wood supply is also really affecting the organization. It doesn’t stop Jill though - she’s decided to find and manage her own woodlot. “We found a piece of land that can be donated that we can use to get our lumber. This has all just come together this past week actually! It’s very exciting.”
In the long-term, Jill would love to see Conway grow to provide many of the essential services to the community. “I’d like us to be a one-stop shop in the community.”
The only way to do that currently, though, is to increase sales. That’s one of Jill’s biggest wishes for the Buy Social Certification. “I’m hoping Buy Social will help promote us, and if sales go up, we can hire more people to deal with the increase in work.” And if Buy Social could help secure procurement contracts, Jill thinks that will help a lot too. “The NS government agencies had a procurement tradeshow a little while ago”, says Jill. “And that was really helpful - it secured us a large contract to make survey stakes. More of those connections would certainly benefit.”