Petstuff on the Go
Petstuff on the Go is an employment social enterprise located in Dartmouth, who provide practical workplace training for people with mental illness and learning disabilities. Petstuff is a part of Affirmative Ventures, an organisation created in the 1990s by Dr Norman Greenberg, a psychologist at the Nova Scotia Hospital who saw a real need for employment training opportunities to allow people with mental health challenges to lead independent lives.
Petstuff has evolved since then from a series of employment training models and has assisted hundreds of Nova Scotians to develop the skills to attain and maintain employment. Running a 12-week ‘Way to Work’ programme, the pet shop is the ideal setting for individuals to improve a wide range of skills and abilities at a pace best suited to them. For people beginning their journey into the employment market, Petstuff offers high-quality training and work experience in a range of behind-the-scenes and customer facing roles, offering the chance to start small and work big, gathering confidence and experience in each activity, from shelf stocking, to cashier work, to home deliveries.
“Seeing, ability, not disability.”
Lori Edgar, Director of Operations at Affirmative Ventures and Petstuff on the Go, believes that the main challenges for individuals who join them aren’t task-oriented, but attitude-oriented. The biggest obstacle for individuals who walk through their doors is changing their mindset to realise that they can achieve whatever they set their sights on. The continued growth of mental health social enterprises will continue to catalyse a change in dialogue surrounding employment opportunities for people with mental illness or disability, and to encourage mainstream employers to see ability, not disability.
Each individual at Petstuff is connected to a job coach and clinician via provincial mental health services, with each participant receiving regular 20-day check-ups from staff at Petstuff to identify strengths and challenges. A key goal for Lori and other mentors is to help their employees become confident in what it means to be respected and valued in a workplace. The blend between human service, program-running and business can be difficult to manage, especially with people who may need more time to adjust to a full working day, so flexibility in working hours is a crucial element, as it is in most businesses, of their enterprise. After the 12-week programme has finished, participants are assisted to find permanent employment in the community. When outside employment is found, job coaching continues at the new placement to ensure that the individual is thoroughly confident and happy in their job.
Affirmative Ventures has a housing initiative which they began in 2007 to offer affordable accommodation to mental health consumers. Affirmative House is a ten-unit independent living apartment building in Dartmouth which offers tenants security in a lease of up to 5 years, and a series of programs which encourage social interaction and develop a strong community bond between residents. Affirmative Homes is a similar but separate initiative, which provides supported housing for individuals with mental illness. Apartments are co-habited which encourages residents to form mutual support networks and meaningful relationships with each other, countering the isolation often experienced by individuals living with a mental illness.
"Hey, I think we're a social enterprise!"
Petstuff on the Go celebrated its 25th anniversary this year but didn’t always identify as a social enterprise. Formed out of a social need for more inclusive employment practices, Affirmative Ventures was well into its mature years until Lori and others realised, with the growth of the social enterprise movement globally, “Hey, I think we’re a social enterprise!” Petstuff on the Go is connected to Buy Social Canada, a grassroots movement with the social mission of connecting socially conscious suppliers with socially minded buyers. For Lori, this is a fundamental part of social enterprise engagement, and they try at every opportunity to engage with local, like-minded organisations and businesses to spread social value.
Ultimately, Petstuff on the Go is a business plan that has evolved and changed, simply by seizing opportunities as they’ve come along and staying tuned to changing needs in the community. With this philosophy, Affirmative Ventures has grown into a vehicle for inclusivity, offering successful employment training and affordable housing initiatives. A testimonial from Amy Farrell, resident of Affirmative Homes and participant of ‘Way to Work’ Petstuff on the Go program highlights the impact that Affirmative Ventures have had on her life:
“Living and working with Affirmative Ventures has completely changed my life. In a world where a lot of people have given up helping people with mental illnesses, it completely changes things when we have people who not only believe in us, but take the time to help us build confidence, make friendships, develop work skills, give us a place to come home and most importantly give us hope. Because that’s what Affirmative Ventures has given me, and I cannot thank you enough.”