Finding happiness, purpose and family at Sea to Sky Community Services

Today, families come in all sorts of wonderfully diverse shapes and sizes. There are nuclear families, single and same-sex parent families, mixed families, extended families—and everything in-between. But for Mary Cassell and Julie England, family was unexpectedly found where they work at Newport House, a group home in Squamish for adults with developmental disabilities.

“This place is really more like a second home for me,” said Cassell, who for the past 27 years has provided care and support at Newport House, which is managed by Sea to Sky Community Services (SSCS). “Working here is not like working, at all.”

When Cassell first began her job at Newport House nearly three decades ago, she already had real-life experience and an affinity for adults with developmental disabilities.

“I had an uncle with disabilities,” she said. “Whenever my grandparents would come over to visit or when we would go to their house, we would hang out and play games with my uncle. He always seemed so happy.”

Back then, care homes such as Newport House didn’t really exist.

“They told my grandparents to put my uncle in an institution,” Cassell said sadly.

It was those childhood experiences that inspired Cassell to seek out a career working with disadvantaged individuals with developmental disabilities.

“I always knew I wanted to do something around caring for people,” she said. “It just seemed natural.”

Since starting at Newport House, Cassell has seen residents come and go, and the house evolve into a real home.

“When I first got here, I was quite shy and was told I may not last,” she said. “But I have stayed longer than anyone. It’s very satisfying work. Our first four residents were all non-verbal, and they had no families of their own at all. We really had to be able to interpret body language to know what they wanted. As one would pass away and a new resident would come in, it was always interesting to see the changing dynamic of the house.”

England, who has been at Newport House for six years and is currently the home’s residential supervisor, also came on board with a wealth of experience as a caregiver for those with special needs.

“I began my career when I was 20, and I had a job at a place called Participation House in Mississauga,” she said. “There, I worked with a range of different individuals who had a variety of disabilities. After that, I moved back to Squamish and started working with a local woman whom I still work with 15 years later. She has been a huge part of my success and taught me so much about breaking through social barriers and about showing the world that a person with a disability can actually lead an active and happy life.”

And every day, the staff at Newport House works hard to help their residents in living happy and active lives.

“Here, they can be seen as more than people with disabilities,” said Cassell. “Here, they can be adults, have jobs — such as collecting mail, laundry service for SSCS daycare groups, grocery shopping for the house, or serving coffee at the SSCS Mom & Tot program — and be part of their community.”

Helping residents to achieve that sense of belonging is critical to anyone’s happiness, said England.

“It’s important because our residents, like everyone else, deserve their own life, and as much independence as we can offer,” she said. “We try to tailor their lives here to their own unique needs and try to give them more personal satisfaction.”

Newport House has its own needs though, as well, as support workers continuously try to deliver the highest quality care.

“In the summer I would have said we needed new air conditioning,” said Cassell with a laugh. “But now I would say our greatest need is for a new wheelchair van, so we can continue to bring residents out into the community, and on field trips where we have picnics, go bowling or berry picking.”

As house supervisor, England is also concerned with her staff and making sure they are also taken care of.

“I would say my biggest challenge is staffing,” she said. “It is difficult to find qualified staff considering the cost of living in this area. So, help with wages is definitely needed.”

England said people always seem to have a completely wrong impression of what it’s like to work with adults who have developmental disabilities.

“We always get asked if our job is sad or depressing,” she said. “There is absolutely nothing sad about working in this field. In fact, it’s the opposite. You end up becoming so close to the people you work with and care for, and their families. Everyone at Newport House, we’re all a family. I really love it here. We are so very lucky that, really, we get to hang out with these amazing people, and live and experience their lives with them. I’ve worked in a lot of different environments and settings, and I can tell you this: Newport House is a very special place.”

Newport House is one of more than 40 social services and programs provided by SSCS, ranging from childcare and early childhood development, to affordable housing for low income earners, counselling services, homeless outreach, and a range of supports for individuals, families, youth and seniors.

To support the not-for-profit SSCS and Newport House, go to www.sscs.ca/support-us-donate.