For Karen Coehlo, it was a young man named Ben who attracted her to a role in the community living field, and provided a valuable perspective for supporting families as a CLBC facilitator. “Ben became part of my family. He was part of my life for pretty much all of growing up, and I credit so much to him,” says Karen.
When she was 13, Karen joined her mom to be trained as applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapists, and began working with Ben, who has autism. “Working with Ben and his family, we became very close with him,” says Karen. Through a special needs foster agreement, Ben lived half time with Karen and her mom, and half time with his biological parents, who were also raising two younger children.
Though non-verbal, Ben had no problem expressing himself to Karen. “He has very discerning taste. We’d play all sorts of music and he would let us know what he liked and didn’t like. Phantom of the Opera, for example, he loved to listen to.” This had a positive influence on Karen. She notes, “I was quite a shy person when I was younger, and having him in my life kind of brought me out of my shell.”
Seven years ago, when exploring career opportunities after university, Karen saw a posting for a facilitator position in CLBC’s Port Moody office, and it was Ben who came to mind. “Working in community living wasn’t anything I was really thinking about while in school. But when I saw the posting, I thought of Ben, and though if I can do this with him, then I’m sure I can do it for other people as well.”
A valuable perspective
Karen’s relationship with Ben has also informed her understanding of the challenges that families go through as their children enter adulthood. Five years ago, Karen was able to transfer to the CLBC office in her home town of Kamloops when her husband pursued an educational opportunity at the local university. In a “full-circle” moment, this was at the same time that Ben was completing the transition to adult services with CLBC.
“As part of my foster brother’s life, outside of my formal CLBC role, I was part of helping Ben with his transition to adulthood, doing things like setting up a microboard and applying for Persons with Disabilities (PWD) funding,” says Karen.
“It does put things in perspective when it’s somebody that you love. I know it’s different than being a parent, but my own experience helps me to relate to families I work with; to understand the anxiety they have about transition, and help them navigate some of the stresses and frustrations they are facing.”
Supporting personal successes
Along with supporting families, a highlight of the facilitator job for Karen is the chance to be part of people’s personal growth and success. “I was invited to a ceremony between two young women I’ve got to know really well to celebrate their relationship. As a same-sex couple, that took a lot of confidence for them, and was special to be a part of.”
As part of the Community Action Employment Plan, Karen served as the regional employment coordinator for three years, and witnessed the positive impact that a job can have in a person’s life. “To see someone who didn’t have much to look forward to in the morning, go from that to having a full life and connections with their coworkers is quite amazing.”
One of the first people Karen worked with when she returned to Kamloops was Krystian Shaw. Over the course of a few years, Krystian went from struggling with social anxiety to being the publisher of his own newsletter (The Kamloops Self Advocate), winning a Social Innovation Youth Award, giving interviews to local and national media outlets, advocating for inclusion and accessibility and being featured in a book marking Canada’s 150th birthday.
“He’s grown leaps and bounds. I’m just blown away,” says Karen. “The key was just finding ways to support Krystian to focus on and pursue the things he feels passionate about.”
“When I first started my newsletter, Karen supported me connecting with Open Door Group, and helping me get a referral to Community Futures,” says Krystian, who took that opportunity to develop a business plan for his newsletter, now marking its fifth anniversary this month. “She really helped me a lot and cares about me and my well-being.”
Karen’s advice for families on planning
This fall, CLBC will be introducing a series of Welcome Workshops for people new to CLBC.
Karen shares some advice for families taking part in the workshops:
“If you’re open to it, there’s always an opportunity to get connected to someone you didn’t know before. It’s kind of a hidden benefit of completing this work that people don’t always consider.
The workshops are very informative, but they also bring together families and individuals who share common interests. Whether it’s connecting with other families, a STADD navigator, or groups like People in Motion or the Community Companions program here in Kamloops, there are so many things to learn about that go beyond paid supports.
It’s really a great way to connect with other people and discover resources in your community.”