Helping students with intellectual disabilities to explore interests and roles in the community is what the Student Links Program is all about.
“We work with students between the ages of 14-21 and we try to connect and introduce them to people in the community who share a common interest in the hopes that they can be further informed about choices they might want to make for their future,” says Community Living Program Coordinator for the North Bay Region, Meghan Davis,
She adds, “It allows the students to really explore things they might like, and also as important, things that they don’t like for themselves.”
The Student Links Program is specifically run through the provincial organization with different coordinators in regions across the province who facilitate the program.
Davis says, “Student Links is run through Community Living Ontario, a not-for-profit organization. We’re Ministry funded and we have certain targets and goals we need to maintain and reach, but the nice thing is that we can be quite flexible in the structure of the program, allowing us to completely meet students' needs.”
Davis says for some students that would mean getting together once a week with their mentors for up to a year.
“After the year, they can still continue on in their connection but the coordinator would no longer be coordinating those meetings,” says Davis.
“Some students only do Student Links for five or six months, while other students want to explore a few different options with their mentors. We can really structure this based on what the student wants and what different mentors are able to offer.”
Davis says it can be similar to a co-op or placement but with more opportunities for students to consider different career roles or hobbies.
“It’s beneficial to be able to get that first-hand experience to make sure it is something they are interested in. I always say to the students that it is just as important to find something you don’t like so that they know what it is and can move in a different direction,” she says.
Davis says in North Bay and the surrounding area there are lots of opportunities for these students.
“There are so many amazing talents in and around North Bay. The people we pair our students up with, we frame them as ‘mentors’ and I find that that word carries a lot of weight,” she says.
“People don’t necessarily see themselves as mentors or that they are capable of being in that role, but what it really means is that you’re able to share an experience with a student and I feel like that’s the best way that people learn, sharing those discussions and those experiences together.”
Davis says many students that have gone through the program are able to build from their experiences.
“I’ve had a student who was interested in photography and she’s now had her own works published in the paper. I’ve had another who was interested in wedding dress design and was able to connect with an award-winning designer out of Toronto. So, there are amazing experiences happening all the time and it’s great to see those students who go on to keep those connections.”
Davis says they had to be flexible in the last two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic but adding the virtual option actually opened some new doors for some students.
“All of our programming turned into virtual platforms and some people were able to connect with mentors in different areas around the province and even outside the province and I’ve had a few very successful mentorships that have just been completely virtual,” she says.
“For example, I had a mentorship where a student was voice acting and this student was incredibly talented and amazingly skilled at doing different voices and character creation. There is a lot of technology that allows you to do that kind of work online and that has allowed us to expand what kind of mentorships and connections we can offer the students.”
Davis says going forward they can now offer a hybrid model for those students who prefer virtual connections or a combination of virtual and in-person connections.
Born and raised in the Chisholm/Powassan area, Davis says she has spent almost her whole life in the Nipissing region. She says that has helped in this role when it comes to knowing certain contacts her students could be interested in connecting with.
“A lot of our student contacts happen through the various schools in the area, but I will often get referrals from local organizations, while people can also email me individually,” she says.
“We’re always welcoming new students and new families that want to get involved. The nice thing is we can have reoccurring experiences for students, there just has to be a one-year break in between the mentorships.”
Davis has been involved in the social services sector since graduating from Canadore College’s Social Services Worker Program, after previously doing a double major in Psychology and Gender Equality and Social Justice at Nipissing University.
“As a young person when I was considering what I wanted to do in my own career, I tended to gravitate towards roles where I was helping people and working with children and youth,” she says.
“I did different summer programming and social service type roles. I did university first and then went to college, which is a bit of the opposite of what most people seem to do, but I found it really beneficial and I would recommend that to people. It was my college experience and taking the social services worker program that allowed me to have a placement, which was able to give me the hands-on experience in a role that I would end up doing.”
Davis says she encourages students who qualify, to explore the Student Links program.
“It is ok if you don’t know what your interest is either,” she says.
“If it’s not the right fit or not something they want to pursue, there is no pressure to continue, we always want this to be a positive experience for everyone.”
Davis adds the ultimate goal is to give a valuable role to someone.
“We all want value for the roles we play whether it’s as a professional, as a student, or as a mother or community figure. Those roles bring a lot of value in our lives and it's my goal to help people think about what those roles can be for themselves and if that gives them value, that is a success as far as I’m concerned.”
Shortly after this interview took place, Davis accepted a new position as Manager within the Student Links program and says she is now looking for a Student Links Coordinator to work in North Bay.
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