17 Inclusivity and Meaningful Employment for Youth with Intellectual Disabilities with Social Enterprise Do Good Donuts’ Melanie Cote
Melanie Cote from Social Enterprise Do Good Donuts is using donuts to teach young adults with barriers to employment job readiness skills. In this episode, we talk about the realities that Melanie faces as the parent of a child with Williams syndrome and learn how she’s changing how people think about hiring youth with intellectual disabilities. We discover why youth with these challenges face an 85% unemployment rate, how Do Good Donuts connect their trainees with fulfilling and meaningful work in their community, why this inclusive employment matters to all of us, how business owners can support these initiatives and why, they’ll want to, why Melanie chose to start with donuts, and how she’s used the pilot program to bake hopeful futures.
If you want to learn more about Melanie and how she’s helping youth with intellectual disabilities to train for mainstream jobs visit https://www.dogooddonuts.org/ Want to help support the trainees by ordering some donuts for yourself? Or have the team train some young people for your company? Interested in having us train young people? You can connect with Melaine and follow along on her mission to bake brighter futures on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram
About the Host
I’m Jennifer Myers Chua. The Host and Producer of the Cost Of Goods Sold podcast. I’m an entrepreneur, a creative, a cookbook fanatic, mother. I have always been interested in hearing people’s stories and I’ve been determined to change the world for as long as I can remember.
You’ll find me at home in Toronto deconstructing recipes, listening to podcasts, enjoying time with friends or wandering alone through a big city. I’m excited to have you here. Let’s do better, together.
[00:02:28] Jennifer Chua: If you’re visiting a farmer’s market in Toronto on a Sunday morning and happen to come across a booth selling donuts, it’s worth taking a closer look. You may stumble across some delicious flavors like Mohito, blue slushie, lavender, lemon sugar, rainbow sprinkles or even creative seasonal favorites like Turkey stuffing. And you may be enthusiastically greeted by Alma an eight year old. Founder Melanie’s daughter and the reason Do Good Donuts exists.
Do Good Donuts focuses on more than just these classic confections. It’s an employment social enterprise that hires and trains young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Offering them the job before the job to help bridge the gap between programs and the employers that are waiting to hire them. Do Good Donuts has just wrapped their pilot program. They hired three young people with disabilities and ran a booth at a local farmer’s market all summer.
Melanie Cote is a mom of two. She has Alma and then also an 11 year old son. She spent her career in advertising, working on copy and creative strategy. But when Alma was born with intellectual disability, Melanie wanted to do something to improve the outlook for her daughter’s future. So three years ago, she began to look into ways to help young people who are at the age now where employment can make all the difference, knowing that she needed to do something to create change in this world. For Alma, for her son, for her community, her family and other families facing similar challenges.
Melanie grew up in the town of Espanola. If you listen to the episode with an Anong Beam from Beam Paints, it’s near there, in Northern Ontario. Located close to Manitoulin island, Melanie’s father was a high school teacher there and the coach of the basketball team. The school was located near a first nations reserve and half of the kids he taught were indigenous. He helped them with basketball. And then also with their homework and encouraged the kids to continue their schooling. When he passed his funeral was held at the church on the reserve. And Melanie recalls that it was full of former students. Now grown men, recounting the stories of how her father had profoundly influenced how they thought about their futures. How he had changed their world. And how his support had meant everything.
[00:04:47] Melanie Cote: I think it matters. My dad was a teacher and his approach to teaching was very inclusive and to make sure that everybody, who wanted to, got to college, even if maybe didn’t look like it was their path, like he was very committed to making sure his students got where they wanted to go in life. And I think that rubbed off on me and onto my sister, she’s a teacher. And I guess in some way, right now I am too a little bit. So there you go. I never thought of that before.
[00:05:14] Jennifer Chua: When you hear Melanie’s story, it’s obvious to see her father’s influence. She’s providing opportunities to young adults who otherwise would be left behind. She has a lot of ideas of how we as a society can support these initiatives. And we’ll go into that in a bit. And Melanie’s week with her trainees is jam packed. It’s her intent in the next session to find ways to scale back on her incredibly long hours and spend more time at home. The piece of Melanie’s story, that is the most interesting to me, is why she decided to do all of this in the first place.
[00:05:49] Melanie Cote: Do Good Donuts. My favorite topic.
[00:05:52] Jennifer Chua: Could you tell me how you came up with the idea to create basically a social enterprise that’s focused on donuts. And how you actually move that forward into an idea?
[00:06:03] Melanie Cote: Do Good Donuts, a social enterprise that sells donuts. First of all, people love donuts. Secondly I really wanted to create an employment skills training program that would be relevant and lead to jobs that already existed. So when you’re pushing water uphill, I think you pick the smallest tail to start. And a small hill for me is seeing that there are always job postings for people looking for people to work at McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s and burger king and Starbucks, and second cup. Those that those jobs were available. And despite the branding difference between them, a lot of the tasks are the same.
So if you teach someone how to prepare the ketchup and napkin and cup station at McDonald’s, you’re also teaching them how to prepare the sugar and stir stick packets at Starbucks and you’re teaching them how to do the little stand with the garbages at Tim Horton’s. And when you think about making a sandwich, you put something on the bottom and then you put a thing in a thing and a thing, and you put something else on the top, but you make an egg sandwich and a breakfast sandwich, the same way you make a pizza the same way you make a sub the same way.
So how could we create somewhere that would cover as many of those job tasks as possible to allow people to then be ready to work at any number of businesses. And how could we do it in a non-branded way so that Starbucks and McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s and burger king and pita pit and pizza, pizza, and subway, and the little family restaurant down the street, who’s always really appreciated their neighbor with down syndrome, but had no idea how to welcome them in the restaurant,could all see that they had the skills they needed to be effective more quickly at work and be ready to succeed and not needing that three or six or nine months of more supported employment to be able to be a valuable member of their staff. So the idea for Do Good Donuts was, first of all, people love donuts and it’s fun and it’s friendly and welcoming and they’re not perfect.
So if our staff is starting out and they’re doing donut finishing no donut is perfectly perfect. They’re all a little bit unique and it’s okay. that they are maybe are a little bit lopsided or there’s too many sprinkles, or there’s not quite enough sprinkles. It’s a safe space for learning and I donut shop and cafe has the ability to be a donut shop, but also do other baking also make sandwiches also have soup. So food prep, and beverage service and hot beverages and cold beverages. So the idea for Do Good Donuts was really how do we create a lab, that serves food, that has all of these skills checked off. And then what menu do we need to create to be able to teach all those skills? So it’s almost a backwards process of how do we build the training program that the hiring partners need, and what do we need to make in order for the people to be able to practice the skills.
[00:09:12] Jennifer Chua: Your daughter who inspired really you to go on this journey? Can you tell me a little bit more about her?
[00:09:18] Melanie Cote: Oh, my gosh Alma. Alma’s syndrome, Williams syndrome is sometimes called the opposite of autism because kids with Williams syndrome, generally speaking, not all, have an insatiable social drive. The need to connect with people is one of the driving forces of her life. And yet the inability to read social cues, the inability to follow social norms, a lot of those same challenges that are associated with autism. And that makes it difficult for some people who are autistic to make connections, exist within people with Williams syndrome only they’re overly friendly and overly social. It’s that next step? How do you then make a lasting relationship? That is a big gap in her learning. So she is both a fluffy ball of sunshine and light and very sad that she doesn’t have a best friend. She is doing really well in school all things considered. She does have a, very large nonverbal learning disability. She has some other things that make it hard for her at school, but all in all her health has been good, which is excellent. 80% of kids with William’s Syndrome I’m have open-heart surgery in the first year and ongoing heart surgery throughout their lives. And she’s so far in the 20% that has not required heart surgery, which is amazing for us. I’m very grateful for that, but she is just so delighted that Do Good Donuts exists. She comes to the tent, she yells “welcome to Do Good Donuts”, to all the people. She tells everybody at school to come and get the donuts. My son wrote a report on Do Good Donuts last year. It has been really something that’s brought us together and has allowed us to have a common interest and a common goal. It’s certainly become a big part of our family life. But even more than that, our kids recognize it as something where we have a donut shop, but it helps people. And so they’re really seeing that social enterprise connection in it, which I’m also excited about. That that’s managed to shine through for them is really meaningful to me.
[00:11:25] Jennifer Chua: I’d like to discover more why you chose to start a social enterprise.
[00:11:30] Melanie Cote: There were a number of things that happened. There was sort of a, a slow and steady climb up of a rise of stairs. When my daughter was five months old, we learned that she had a genetic condition called Williams syndrome, and that was really going to shape her future and what her life would be like. But it was also going to shape our future and what our lives would be like as a family, as her parents, my son’s life as her sibling. So that was sort of the first moment of change in my life. And then as the years went by, I spent a lot of time volunteering for the national syndrome that supports her disability. I met a number of other people who were at different points in the journey. I’ve met people right when they were diagnosed where I was all those years ago, and also people who are much further ahead of us on that journey, which is a really interesting window to the future.
So the more I learned about that window to the future was sort of the next step on the journey. And then the third step that I think probably the, the one that was the most. Influential in this decision where on one hand I had this incredibly deep and interesting and somewhat painful conversation with a family who were moving out of their town because their late teenage daughter was never going to be able to find work in that community.
So they were uprooting themselves from this place. They had lived for many years to move to a larger center where there might be a possibility that she might have a job one day. And to me, that was a heartbreaking thing because at the same time, in that week, in my career in advertising, I was working on a corporate social responsibility campaign for a large corporation who was partnering with the special Olympics and really excited to talk about the hiring program they were putting in place to ensure that young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities would have the opportunity to work.
And the town, this family lived in, had two outlets of that large corporation. And yet at the ground level, they knew that they wouldn’t hire in the community because they were hiring other teenagers. Their own kids’ friends. They were hiring the kids from the football team. They were hiring other kids.
And the huge disconnect between what the corporate world was doing in terms of taking credit for all of this hard work and ensuring that people would have jobs and how that was actually translating to the families was a broken system. And I wondered if there was a way to create something in between that could serve the young people and serve their journey on their way to employment, but also catch the eye and understand what those national hiring partners needed for the people who were actually interviewing and doing the jobs to say yes. And in that moment, the germ of an idea, the seed of Do Good Donuts came to life. How could we create something that bridges all of the work that I’ve done in my volunteer life for, and around, and with, family supporting people with disabilities and all the work I was doing in my corporate life to build, to build a bridge?
[00:14:36] Jennifer Chua: So before your daughter was diagnosed, did you ever think about this whole concept of like barriers to employment? Did that ever come up in your life
[00:14:46] Melanie Cote: No, no, I never thought about it. I did have a small glimpse in high school. Because in high school, I wanted to start a high school newspaper. And to do that, you need to have a staff member. A teacher has to be your advisor, and all of the teachers were already doing other clubs. And the only club, or the only teacher that wasn’t involved with the club was the life skills.
At that time, we call it the program life skills teacher, and he agreed to be the advisor, as long as I would put some of his students on our staff, because they had never been at a club before? And none of the other clubs had made space for them. And of course I have a Rebel’s heart and I didn’t know that they didn’t ever have a club.
And so of course I, I hardly agreed and they were amazing members of our staff. They did the photocopying, they did the stapling, they did all the organization. They deliver the papers to all the classrooms. And at the end of that year and the following year, I was the editor for two years. They had their picture in the.
In a club photo, which they, up until that point had only had their one personal photo in, you know, in their grade level. And for all of them, they were so thrilled because it was the only time they appeared in the yearbook more than once. So I knew that there were, I knew that there was things, there were things happening and that there were gaps in the lives and the community, and the sense of belonging for people with developmental disabilities and learning disabilities. But it hadn’t translated into the rest of my life until I had Alma. And then I remembered very clearly how much that picture in the yearbook meant.
[00:16:24] Jennifer Chua: Do you remember how the conversation with that teacher went at all? Like, how that conversation with him would have gone that would have influenced this decision to start this club under his guidance?
[00:16:36] Melanie Cote: I wanted to do something that no one had made space for me to do. And he wanted to do something that no one had made space for him to do, which was bring out a sense of community and belonging to his students. And I wanted to bring some different perspectives to the student body that maybe people weren’t thinking about.
So I, I don’t remember the specific words, but I do remember both of us feeling like the problem we had was the same, even though it was very different. That I wanted to feel like my Merry band of misfits should have a club that wasn’t cliquey and it didn’t exclude people because they were gay. We had a gay writer on our staff who was very quietly gay and not really openly out. We had an indigenous writer on our staff, I come from Northern Ontario, our school was split. It was half people who were not indigenous and half people who were indigenous. There was not a lot of other you know, vibrant backgrounds in small town, Northern Ontario, all that time ago.
But there were cliques, there were norms, there were ways that people fit in. And, and me with my combat pants that my dyed black hair and my Merry band of misfits wanted to have a club where we could be who we were and that we could express some opinions that probably other people had, but just didn’t really feel like they had the time and space and, and the platform to be able to express that it was okay to be different.
And I think that Mr. Debo really understood that we would be welcoming to different in terms of his kids, because that was really what the newspaper that I was starting was all about. It was about talking about all those other little things happening at school that, the most popular kids just didn’t see or tramped over or possibly caused.
[00:18:22] Jennifer Chua: You’re selling your donuts at farmer’s markets. Why did you make that choice?
[00:18:27] Melanie Cote: I started out at an initial incubator through the Toronto enterprise fund, and then I got a very small grant and wrote a business plan and a feasibility study and did all of the background work. And then I got all ready to go to pitch for funding on March 6th, 2020, which as you can imagine is a terrible time to have been finally ready to pitch for funding for a food service business that supports marginalized people at high risk with COVID. Bad news.
So rather than. Again, push water up a hill. That’s not going up. We took a break, we worked on governance. We worked on our board of directors. We’ve worked on other things and on a whim, I applied to my local farmer’s market. And part of the reason is their head volunteer is someone who has the same syndrome as my daughter, Corey has Williams syndrome. So I’ve known him a long time. We frequent the market. We’re big supporters. And I thought, why not? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen. Really at that point, the worst that could happen is we get in and we have to be ready to go in nine weeks, but you know, how could they possibly say yes, we, we don’t, we’re not even a thing yet. We just live on paper. And email came saying, congratulations, you have a spot at the farmer’s market. And I thought we have nine weeks to go from a plan on paper, to a working food service program and be prepared to hire trainees to start a training program we haven’t done yet. Surprise. So. Really the idea to apply for the farmer’s market was a way for us to start. We just needed to get started.
[00:20:03] Jennifer Chua: And where are you finding your trainees?
[00:20:05] Melanie Cote: We put on a large call far and wide. We put a job poster and application out through groups that support people with various disabilities. So we sent it to the down syndrome association. We sent it to some groups who support people with autism. I sent it through the Williamson community, people we know at special Olympics. We sent it to our local service providers and some other foundational partners that we’ve met along the way. And try to see who would come forward and apply. We weren’t sure if people were ready and willing to join a new program during the pandemic, or join us on this uncharted journey, we just kind of got out a megaphone and said, we have this new thing who wants to come on the journey with us. We did get 10 exceptional applicants. And we interviewed everyone. It was really hard to decide. It was a really hard to make a choice. We had the budget worked out to hire two people and we hired three because we had three exceptional candidates and it’s only money. And we held their start date until they could join us in person. So we’ve run a completely in person program and we pay them $15 an hour because that’s what people make.
[00:21:15] Jennifer Chua: When you began to look into employment opportunities for young people, when you were doing all of this research and maybe looking for trainees at that point, did you find anything surprising?
[00:21:26] Melanie Cote: I think the thing that’s most surprising, and the thing that continues to surprise me is that 85% of young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed. And 15% of typically developing young people are unemployed. The gap for employment for young people with disabilities is cavernous and devastating. Of the young adults who are living with those disabilities now will never earn a paycheck in their life. And for someone like me who had a career who really valued work and being part of a team and being part of a community and being someone who contributes to something and who had a sense of independence and how little money in my pocket, it was really heartbreaking to me to think that that entire experience skips over so many people.
[00:22:18] Jennifer Chua: What are some of the costs we are not considering associated with leaving those with barriers to employment out of our workforce.
[00:22:27] Melanie Cote: Any times when a young individual finishes school special education can go up to age of 21. So they could be anywhere from 18 to 21. When they finished school, they have to go somewhere or do something or be with someone generally speaking.
So the costs are programming cost to the families and also to the social service system are the day programming and ongoing program supports that keep people living more vibrant lives, they’re expensive. There are barriers. They generally are populated with families who have strong advocate parents, which is a real privilege to be able to take the time to become a strong advocate. There are the costs associated with the family member who has to ensure that the person is safely able to go to and from the program, the program may be a half day program. A lot of times, one of the family members leaves work when their child finishes school because they need someone who can either ensure that they can get to their program.
They may only be able to afford to send them two days a week. So they have three days where someone has to be home. They may not be able to send them at all depending on financial situation or space in the program. And so there’s often a loss of one income source in the family. This is extra challenging for families that have only one parent figure in the home because the divorce rate for families raising young people with disabilities is far higher than the average divorce rate.
It’s almost 80% of families divorce. So there are a lot of single parents raising young people with disabilities. And then there are costs in terms of mental health, physical health, which both deteriorate. There’s the ongoing cost of social support for young people with disabilities. Everyone is entitled to social support with a disability with through ODSP, but there are additional costs associated with the ongoing and long-term care.
And then there’s a cost and quality of life for people. If you don’t have a place to go, you don’t feel a sense of belonging. You don’t have purpose. If you’re not continuing to use the skills that you did acquire in school, they start to deteriorate. If you don’t have a place to go or a job or some place that is pushing you to move forward, most of the individuals tend to recede. So reading skills go down, math skills go down, personal independent skills go down. And reading is important. If you can read well enough to read a bus schedule, to understand how to use the bank machine, to read the street signs, to be able to order food, you don’t need to be able to read war and peace, but a lot of these young people’s reading skills will backslide, which means for them to get a job five years from now or 10 years from now or 15 years from now it really lessens that chance for opportunity.
A lot of parents call it the gap or the cliff. Once they leave school, that our society really hasn’t figured out an excellent plan or pathway for adults who don’t fit into the typical norm of the employee or the volunteer or some of the other roles that are out there in the world. Many don’t marry. So it’s not like they have a same age partner in life. So they rely on their parents and siblings to give them that that family structure.
You can imagine everyone who says, Oh, as soon as my child leaves to go to university or college, I’m going to do this. I’m going to fix up my living room or go on that trip I always wanted to take or start to go camping or take up my hobby again, or pick up more hours at work. For many of the families raising young people with intellectual developmental disabilities, that time is never coming. The waitlist for independent living or group homes is about 20 years in Toronto. Once your child reaches the age of 18. They’re often in their forties before they have a space within a group home, which you can imagine if you’ve never left for a college dorm until you were 40, what it would feel like leaving the house for the first time.
Doughnuts are really cute and really fluffy and have lots of sprinkles on them. But what you don’t see behind the donuts is really the opportunity to give someone the potential of having an independent, meaningful life in whatever that looks like for them through work that pays them a decent wage and allows them the opportunity to really integrate into society outside of their family and allows their family to experience what it’s like to have that shift from having children that they care for in their home until they become sort of more independent adults to having an independent adult who is at least somewhat participating as an adult in the world. Like, we were all meant to.
[00:27:22] Jennifer Chua: I know I’ve asked you this, million ways, but I was wondering if I could just ask you one more time Why does this work matter?
[00:27:28] Melanie Cote: This work matters to me because I can’t keep myself from dying and I need to know my daughter’s going to be okay. Everywhere all over the world two o’clock in the morning, there are parents raising kids who don’t necessarily have a place in the world trying to figure out how they can not die. And none of us can. But if we can do enough to know that our kids will be able to take care of themselves well enough to be a statistic. Like 85% of young women with intellectual and developmental disabilities are sexually abused, that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities life expectancy is far shorter. And a lot of the time it’s because their dire health needs go unrecognized by care providers. So they die of things that could easily have been averted, but nobody cared enough to pay enough attention. The level of poverty that is placed around this population based on the constrictions of their social support system means that she will never live a life that she’s accustomed to with us, because she’s not allowed to have wealth that supersedes a certain level in order for her to get social services. And all of that is dependent on government support. If they remove that support, and we’re gone, there’s no one to care for her. Obviously my son will be watching out for her, but there’s no way for her to independently, with support, improve her situation based on the construct of the world, unless she can have a job unless she can work.
If she can’t work, she can’t change how much that check that comes in every month. She can’t change the restrictions on how much she can remove from her RDSP savings program that we’ve set up for her. Those things are all static. What can change is can she earn a paycheck. And if she can earn a paycheck, then she has a whole team of people at work who are looking out for her, might notice her health issues. She has people, peers, who can support her if she’s having challenges with unwanted advances. And if I can’t keep myself from dying. I can certainly create a world that makes room for women like her, for young men like her, for families who can’t afford day programs for families that can’t afford independent living that only have so much savings to go around, who only have one child. There is no sibling. Then who is looking out for someone? If you don’t show up for work for three days, your colleagues figure out where you are. That’s one of the things about having a job. Every cat lady says, at least if I don’t show up for work, someone’s going to come by because they know someone has to feed my cat.
And that is also part of work. It’s a fabric within a community that gives you a place. And so it would not be nice to never die, but for, for none of us that’s happening. But for all of us worrying about these young people, knowing that they could have the ability to work and there’s a world that makes space for them, within that very important societal construct. Maybe we won’t wake up at two o’clock in the morning anymore.
It’s more. It’s the paycheck is nice, but it’s really about having a meaningful place in community where you feel like you belong and you matter. And you’re independent. And people want to get to know you better. And you have inside jokes. And you have somewhere to be at a certain time and you might get invited out to go for a coffee with the team afterwards, or go bowling or have a Christmas party. Like all of those things that are tied to work when you can’t easily make friends and connections outside of work. for the rest of us, I work from home, and I have communities of people that I have found and made. But for a lot of times with people with. Various social anxieties and disabilities and, and things that make them quirky, the construct of work breaks down those barriers so that you can form those relationships despite the quirks. When you are outside of that construct, making those relationships is really hard.
[00:31:47] Jennifer Chua: And so You’re giving your trainees skills, which is really, really key, but are there any other ways that you’re helping the trainees or people in your community find meaningful employment?
[00:31:58] Melanie Cote: Our program works where we do skills training, but then we do on the job training as well. So basically we talk about something in our training day and then we practice it in real time. Actually doing the work. So, our trainees have had growth in every area of our business. They do everything from mixing recipes independently for cookies, mixing the cookies, they are glazing, finishing and packing donuts as assistant bakers on the donut side of our business, they’re running our POS system, punching in the orders having tap, making change, they’re speaking to customers, thanking customers, taking the orders down.
They’re really an integral part of everything we do. And when we interviewed them and asked them what they felt they would be able to do, it was a very small part of what they’re doing now. They have exceeded our expectations, they’ve exceeded their own expectations. They’ve exceeded their parents’ expectations. So I think in addition to giving them that work, we’ve given them confidence. We’ve given them independence. They feel like they’re part of a team. They feel like they’re part of what has allowed Do Good Donuts to come to life, breathing life into something that’s helping them, but will help other people in the future. Having conversations with employment partners. I had an amazing conversation with Loblaws yesterday. One of the person from their diversity equity and inclusion team is going to be taking that further up the food chain to Loblaws to see how we can work together.
And I think the hardest part and the one part that’s really causing them to struggle is that the market ends. We don’t have a program for them anymore. And that was the plan. But our program works when we have a working food service business. So anytime that we’re quiet, we can’t be offering impact. The one downside is until we manage to raise the funds and get all our ducks in a row to have a full-time bricks and mortar cafe and donut shop on you know, main walkable street in the city. There will be times where we can’t help anyone. And so that’s, that’s kind of sad.
[00:34:02] Jennifer Chua: I’m wondering if once you started the program with actual people on site, if you learned anything from them that has shifted this program while it’s gone forward?
[00:34:12] Melanie Cote: Oh my gosh, I learn stuff every day. I think I have learned that the expectations we all have for the young people who might be in this program are too low. I realized I had very high expectations and they weren’t high enough. I realized just how beaten down the parents are and how low their expectations are -not for their kids, but for the potential of any program, to be able to finally make a difference. And I think there’s not much I can do about it, but I think as society, as a whole, we, as the village that raises a family should be more there for the parents raising their kids to this time. I have realized that on one hand society is really not ready to accept that it’s possible for these young people to work. And on the other hand, there’s an army of individuals, leagues of people who are so excited at the notion that this is possible that their passion will outweigh the naysayers in the end. And I thought that maybe I was alone and I learned that I am not alone, that many of us believe it’s possible.
[00:35:39] Jennifer Chua: I love that you get to connect with these bright, vibrant souls that are teaching you so much about running a social enterprise and making a difference. But how has this affected your journey as a parent with a child facing similar barriers?
[00:35:58] Melanie Cote: Well, I think the most important thing is it is a lot of work. And I do recognize that my family wishes, I was home more and that they’re still little and they, aren’t sitting where I am looking at the big picture. So finding ways in the next pilot and in the future to make sure that there’s protected time for that is very important as a mom and as an entrepreneur and all of those things. I think all of us face that conversation. And I think over the course of this summer, it was made even more abundantly clear that I need to build that into the plan. But I also think that learning what I have now spending so much time with these young adults, and I feel really bad for everybody who’s about to meet the new me as an advocate, that the school system needs to be doing more. The community clubs who have said they have don’t have space for her, with her disability need to be doing more. I think that the number of small annoyances that I felt before I now see as the building blocks of giant walls, that will keep her out of things in life. And I am no longer going to let them stand in her way or keep her out of doing the sorts of things that would make her ready for the next whole slew of challenges that she will face when she’s 18 to 21.
[00:37:25] Jennifer Chua: So you’ve become an advocate. And you’re making big strides and big impact in your journey, but have you encountered any notable, like really big challenges?
[00:37:37] Melanie Cote: I think the biggest challenge for me can be summed up in one interaction I had where I got some feedback on a grant that I had proposed. One of the comments was at the end of the day, no matter how much training you do, we don’t believe that these people could work in a fast paced environment like McDonald’s. And this was a very large organization. It was an organization that, that is built around supporting marginalized populations. And if organizations that big, who should be the most open-minded and one of the biggest advocating bodies that we have in this city feels that way. The biggest challenge I have is not about money. It’s not about doing, it’s not about anything. It’s about the perception that people simply don’t believe that there is a place in work for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And it’s not all of them, but it is enough of them that it’s pretty clear now why the disparity in employment exists and how many minds will need to be changed in order to make meaningful impact in this area.
[00:38:51] Jennifer Chua: Was there ever a point where you felt differently and felt like maybe you couldn’t make impact in this way and you’d have to shift to a different idea?
[00:39:03] Melanie Cote: You would think that those things would make me question what I was doing? And I think there’s probably about 30 seconds between hearing those things and when my mouth opens, that I have a neutral space that could go either way. But it just makes me so angry that it actually fuels me to show them they’re wrong more than it makes me think I should stop. And I’m really trying very hard to have an open mind about the path to the end. I recognize that I may not be able to do everything as it sits in my mind exactly the way I think it should be. The more peoples give me all the reasons it shouldn’t work. What I hear is them telling me again that maybe these young people aren’t worth the effort to make the change happen. And if they said it differently, if someone had given me an actual reason, like, this is going to cost you $17 million and you don’t have $17 million, then I would think, oh, geez, I guess I have to think about this differently. But all the reasons they keep giving me have to do with the idea that it’s either not the way we do things, that I expect too much of the young people, or there just really isn’t a place for them at work. And those reasons to me are our only reasons to work harder.
[00:40:41] Jennifer Chua: The people in your community and the people that come visit you at the farmer’s market on Sunday do you think that they understand fully what’s going on or do you think they just love your delicious vegan donuts? What do you think the consumers are thinking about when they interact with you and your business?
[00:40:57] Melanie Cote: think it’s both. I think there are customers who’ve just loved the donuts and don’t really care. And I think there are people who really love the mission who buy stuff anyway, even if they don’t need it. Particularly the parents, we have a lot of families who come and they bring their people who have a developmental disability or a learning disability or mental health things within their life that have caused them to see some barriers and they buy everything. So for them, it’s really about supporting the mission. And for other people, I’ve had customers who we’ve seen every single week and just recently are like, “oh my gosh, I didn’t realize you guys were doing this”. Like they didn’t even notice. And I think for anyone who’s thinking about creating a social enterprise, it’s really important to know that you have to have an excellent product because people will support your mission once. But if your product isn’t great, unless they’re hardcore committed to what you’re doing, they’re not going to come back. And there are only so many people who care about your mission. Everybody cares about their own thing. Like this is, I’m really passionate about this. And yeah, I care about the environment, but I’m not going out of my way to support an environmental cause because I’m busy already supporting the thing that’s at the top of my list. So if you have an amazing product, the person who super cares about the environment is still going to buy your product. Not because they care or don’t care about the mission, but because you’re giving them something that they really want. And the next door doughnut shop is an environment donut shop, but their donut isn’t as good… so they may go to that one half the time, but you’re still going to be on the list. And I think it’s important.
At the end of the day, people don’t buy crappy products, even if they’re doing amazing things, unless they do it once in 10 purchases or once in 20 purchases. If you have an amazing product, people will buy your amazing product eight out of 10 times. And if they love your mission, they’ll buy it 10 out of 10 times. And I think that that really was ingrained into me very early in this journey. And there were people who said that a donut shop that supports people with disabilities simply couldn’t make as much money as one that only had typical staff. And I think that’s more a testament to the idea that other social enterprises that are really focused on their mission and less focused on the product haven’t delivered to their customers well enough to be able to consistently keep a customer base that’s coming, regardless of the mission.
[00:43:27] Jennifer Chua: When we talk about purpose, sometimes we think that purpose has to be this huge thing that is creating so much impact. But for some people, something as small as having meaningful employment can be all of the purpose that changes everything for them in their outlook. And it’s amazing.
[00:43:48] Melanie Cote: It’s amazing. The difference in mental health, physical health, life expectancy, happiness, the status of mental health, the need for medication, the physical fitness, eating, nutrition, the ability to manage money. Like all of those things feel very singular, but they are all the one non-economic benefit of employment. And none of us think of it that way. We all think, oh, I hate my job, but I have to go. And we forget about all the things we get from it. And part of I have to go is I think that our written way of saying. There’s a whole bunch of this. It’s important to me, even though I have a crap boss, or even though it’s a really far commute, or even though I’m underpaid or undervalued, or I really hate the way that the person next to me eats their lunch at their desk. All of those things are very small annoyances within a very large construct that gives us a lot of meaning, like a lot of what we get from work.
[00:44:49] Jennifer Chua: Knowing what you know now about how society treats people with various disabilities and how businesses potentially treat people with barriers to employment. But then also with this delightful experience really you’ve had with the community and with your trainees, are you hopeful for the future?
[00:45:12] Melanie Cote: Absolutely. Particularly at this time when there’s so much discussion around diversity and there’s so much discussion around inclusion and there’s so much discussion around all the things none of us knew that we didn’t know about people who weren’t necessarily having the same life experience as us.
The disability community has been tangentially included in the big discussions that have been happening over the last year and a half in the states and obviously in Canada. And I think that as the need for this inclusion is brought to the forefront. People say, “oh, it’s just like that other thing that I didn’t know that I should be examining within myself.”
And I think the time is ripe for the kind of change where people make space for people who maybe aren’t the best candidate and noting that they aren’t the best candidate, because they didn’t have the same opportunity to become the best candidate, or they’re not the best candidate because in this case, maybe they don’t have the innate ability to just be able to do it now without work. But that doesn’t mean that their contribution isn’t worth the effort. I think the time is now I think that Do Good Donuts has come about at an exceptional time. And I have so many conversations with so many amazing people who say, I never thought of it that way. And I think the work you’re doing is enough for us to be able to find a way to make this work.
That without the go-between without the job before the job, without being able to see the experience that people have had and have the job recommendation and have people be sort of, pre-trained, it’s really hard because businesses need to make money. I get it. And nobody has six months to wait for somebody to become effective. But if we can spend the six months making them effective, then the employer just has to teach them the nuance of how the job is different at the new place. And the ability for the efficacy is so much greater. And the payoff to the employer comes so much sooner. They get to see all the bright spots sooner and spend much less time in the part that’s challenging and the part that they don’t have that much experience in. Let us do that part, let us find the experience to make that happen and let you reap the benefits of… communities rally around businesses that support the community. All of the research shows that if there are two businesses and one of them has a person with an intellectual developmental disability that the public sees, and one of them does not, the public will go more to the one that supports the community than the one that does it. They make more money.
I think it’s important to remind everyone as we have been reminded so many times this year, that we all have a lot of innate biases and we. all have a lot of preconceived notions around things or people or situations or how things come to pass. And I think a lot of people are surprised to find someone with a disability, asking them for their order at our tiny donut shop.
And I really urge people to take another look at themselves and wonder if there are ways or places in what they’re doing in the community at their workplace or within some of their social groups to ask why there isn’t anyone like this on their staff and how can they make a change? Because I really think that for me, and I recognize that I’m biased and also super into this, but really, my employees are my favorite people because they spend so much time building me up and, I made a whole business to try to build them up and I show up and it’s like, this is our favorite place. You’re the best boss. Like they really are such a delight to have on staff.
And yeah, it’s a lot of work and yeah, they’re quirky, and I think just cause the quirks are different than the quirks you’re dealing with now, it doesn’t mean that it’s in any way going to should stand in the way of, maybe making a little extra space. Just, just see if there’s a seat at the table.