When Karin Olsen was a child, she had a best friend named Christa. Christa lived with developmental disabilities and Karin says that Christa’s perspective on life was much simpler than her own.
“I discovered a freedom with Christa that I could not find elsewhere,” she says. “A freedom to laugh and play and sing without concern of what other people would think.”
Karin and Christa would swing on the swing sets at the school playground near her home and sing John Denver’s “Grandma’s Feather Bed” at the top of their lungs. They would roll down the grassy hill, laughing all the way down. It was a carefree and fun-filled friendship. Though Christa lives with developmental disabilities, to Karin that’s just part of what makes Christa the wonderful person that she is. Their friendship has had an influence on Karin in many ways, including her faith in God and her career with Communitas.
“Christa had an honest, confident, open faith in God,” Karin says. “When she prayed, it was a conversation unlike anything I had experienced before. That really impacted me.”
Decades later, Karin now lives on the other side of the country from Christa but still keeps in touch with the friend who made such a difference to her.
Karin recently retired from a career with Communitas Supportive Care Society after more than two decades with the organization. Communitas is a faith-based charity that supports people who live with developmental disabilities, mental health challenges, and acquired brain injury. Karin has loved her work here and as she reflects on both life and work, she tells story after story, all centred around people. They are stories focused on possibilities and opportunities rather than limitations and expectations.
Karin’s friendship with Christa helped her see all that is possible when people live in a supportive community that celebrates abilities in every way. Even so, Karin didn’t expect to have a career in social services.
“I wanted nothing more than to be a stay-at-home mom and home-school my kids,” she says.
But circumstances changed and Karin found herself in a position where she had no alternative but to get into the workforce. She was overwhelmed and unsure of what she would do. It was at a church women’s retreat that she encountered someone whose recommendation would change her life.
“I was sitting beside a woman, sharing my story, and she said, ‘you should come work with Communitas (then MCC Supportive Care Society),” Karin says. “She was so enthusiastic that I decided to look into it.”
Thus began her career with Communitas. She started as a casual Support Worker (RSW), supporting two women, Connie and Kathy. Eventually, the work became part time, working evenings and weekends, which allowed her to support her family at home.
“I loved it,” she says. “It was perfect for me.”
The Challenges and Opportunities
Over time, Karin was asked to consider the position of manager of the small home, a part-time position. She was surprised and not at all sure if she could do all that was required of a manager. That’s because Karin lives with a disability of her own.
“I live with dyscalculia so I was really worried about having to do all the administrative paperwork required in the job,” Karin says.
Dyscalculia is a learning disability in math that makes numerical concepts a challenge. Karin was concerned that she would be unable to handle budgets and ledgers but she developed systems to overcome those challenges.
“I’m so grateful that people saw something in me and gave me the chance to grow into the job,” she says. “It allowed me to work with some amazing people.”
At the same time that she took on the part-time manager role at the home, she also managed the Brain Injury Drop-In group part time, teaching life skills, cooking classes, and bringing her musical gifts to the group.
“I learned so much about how our brains work and how breath work is important for people living with an acquired brain injury,” she says. “Singing, and the way that uses your breath, became a really important part of that drop-in experience.”
Over time, the home where Connie and Kathy lived was no longer appropriate for their needs. Communitas purchased and renovated a home and it is here where Karin became a full-time manager and where she worked until she retired in March.
Karin has developed deep relationships with the people she has served. She talks enthusiastically about the people who live in the home she managed and how they have impacted her life.
“Nick has such a heart for prayer and Patty’s gift is to bring her family together,” Karin says. “Connie has taught me so much about generosity and being sensitive to the needs of other people around me.”
Kathy passed away several years ago but she also left a huge mark on Karin’s life.
“Kathy taught me that God loves each of us deeply and profoundly,” she says.
Just as the children on the playground at Karin’s elementary school did not see the potential in her friend, Christa, Karin says that the world does not always value the contributions that people who live with disabilities can make to their communities. It is a shame, Karin feels, because her experience has been decidedly different.
“I’ve seen over and over again how God is at work in the lives of people like Kathy and Connie, Nick and Patty. They impact us and everyone who comes into their lives,” she says, passionately.
We just have to be open and receptive, we have to create opportunities and be in community, and expect to see God at work. – Karin, manager
It is perhaps the biggest lesson that comes from her friendship with Christa, which remains as strong as ever. Karin smiles as she remembers a more recent experience with her friend.
“The year we turned forty, I flew to Nova Scotia,” she says with a smile. “We found a playground, got on the swings, and we sang ‘Grandma’s Feather Bed.’ It was pretty special.”
As she looks to the next part of her journey, she is excited to see what God will bring. She is taking a break for now and is looking forward to spending more time with her 7 grandchildren.
“It has been amazing to work at Communitas a place that honours God, and where I can use my gifts and live out my faith on a daily basis,” she says, adding that if someone is looking for meaningful work, they need look no further. “This is the most rewarding work you’ll ever do.”
When Adria reflects on her journey towards mental wellness, she recognizes that the journey began with a reconnection to her indigenous roots.
John and his daughter, Himali both work for Communitas. Though their work is in different settings, they’ve had the same meaningful career experience.