New summer job program for students with disabilities an ‘eye-opener’ in Huntsville

2 smiling young women stand back to back with their arms crossed in a department store's clothing section.

A new summer employment program opened doors and busted myths in Huntsville.

Community Living Huntsville launched its Youth Peer Job Coach program in May 2023. Funded by a Canada Summer Student Grant and fundraised dollars, the program saw high school students with disabilities supported in their summer jobs by post-secondary school students called peer job coaches. Our staff worked with Huntsville High School to connect with students who would be a good fit for the program. The coaches then sourced summer job opportunities for students with local employers, led students through a month of pre-employment preparation that included activities like mock interviews, effective communication and problem-solving, and workplace scenarios, and then supported students and their employers in the workplace to build skills and confidence until their involvement could fade.

The purpose? To help students find and maintain employment while building employers’ confidence in hiring student workers with disabilities. Two peer job coaches supported five students who worked at either Bullock’s Your Independent Grocer, Deerhurst Resort, or Giant Tiger. For some students, it was their first experience with paid work.

A young woman folds clothes in a department store with another young woman looks on.

Caitlyn Turner (left), a youth peer job coach, says she was excited to watch students, like Kikki (right), grow their skills and confidence in the workplace.

“As a peer job coach, you’re trying to help students who may feel they do not have an opportunity to find a job, help them navigate that, and give them that opportunity,” says Caitlyn Turner, a peer job coach who has returned to Nipissing University to complete Teacher’s College. “And I think a lot of employers have kind of opened their eyes to this opportunity, too, after seeing the students working in different positions.”

At first, the students were nervous.

“We spent a month practicing what you say to your co-workers, what you wear to work, a morning routine, what possible roles could be, how we handle stressful situations, and more. Even in doing just that with them we could see them growing,” says Deahlia Miller, a peer job coach who has returned to Trent University to complete a degree in Social Work. “The first day of work for the students was honestly an amazing experience because we saw them using the skills we had taught.”

A smiling young woman stands in the produce department of a grocery store.

Deahlia Miller, a youth peer job coach, says giving students with disabilities opportunities in employment can dispel a lot of myths about disability inclusion in the workplace.

At work, coaches assisted students to set skill-development goals and timelines, develop communication aides and methods, create self-directed anxiety management exercises to succeed at work, and more. At the same time, students were immediately assisting customers, building relationships with co-workers, and meeting employers’ expectations.

“I think that it’s brought some awareness that, just because somebody has a disability, it doesn’t mean that they can’t do something,” says Miller. One of the student’s co-workers noted she previously had little interaction with people with disabilities and the experience of working alongside a person with a disability had given her perspective. “The co-worker even said, ‘We do the same stuff, and she does it better than me a lot of the time.’ So, I think it has been an eye-opener,” adds Miller.

A young woman smiles with another young woman prepares salads in a department store.

Deahlia Miller (left), a youth peer job coach, says students, like Maddie (right), grew their confidence, independence, and workplace connections throughout the summer with little or no youth peer job coach support needed by the end.

By the end of the summer, all five students were working independently and had either transitioned to permanent employment or planned to continue working part-time as they returned to school in the fall.

One area for improvement? More diversity in job options beyond retail. One student’s parent noted job opportunities in daycare, nursery, veterinarian, nursing home, and other fields would be welcome. Opening those doors will require interest from employers in those sectors.

Community Living Huntsville has applied for a grant and is looking to apply to additional grants and other funding sources to offer the program in 2024.

Are you a North Muskoka employer interested in more information about our Youth Peer Job Coach program? Contact Stacey Bullock, Manager of Children and Youth Services for Community Living Huntsville, at or 705-789-4543, Ext. 214, to start the conversation.

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