Joan Lee who is the Executive Director of Vecova explains that “people need to be in the community…it is important for all of us to connect and it is just as important to people with disability.”
Vecova’s mission to promote an inclusive society – meaning that all people are entitled to the same opportunities to partake in daily community life – came at a turning point for the organization. Originally the Vecova building was used for residential living and sheltered workshops, but it was soon realized that integration into the community was essential for disabled persons to lead meaningful lives. As Lee notes, “Back in the 1970’s and 80’s, parents wanted an alternative to institutional living for their sons and daughters…we closed the residences and workshops because we know that it is important to be an active member in your community.”
Vecova now provides community living, access opportunities such as volunteer work and post-secondary education and facilitates leisurely and art-based activities for their clients. Their services are uniquely customized for their client’s own wants and needs while encouraging them to be a contributing community member.
Since the inception of their organization over 40 years ago, Vecova has also been a leader in the field of disability research and is closely tied with the University of Calgary. Their research has enabled them to implement current information on disability care into their services. One of the areas they are looking at is becoming a knowledge mobilization hub, in which information can be received, generated and shared with the public.
With innovative research and a great shift in their structure, Vecova has had the opportunity to become laser focused on how to create and run their social enterprises. “We have to operate them like a business to be viable and productive,” say Lee, “but also that they have a social purpose and are mission connected, along with serving the clients we serve.”
With many active social enterprises under their belt, each plays an integral role in the Calgary community while also providing jobs for their clients. Take for instance their onsite Recycling Bottle Depot which processes over 14 million containers annually using quick-skilled workers and the latest technology that serves also as an environmental connector for people to take charge of their impact. Or how about their bottle pick-up service, where they supply you with the bag and bin, pick it up from your home when its’ full and issue you a tax receipt.
Once all your bottles are cleared, check out their fully accessible Recreation Facility which has a warm water pool and plenty of classroom and studio space for recreation enthusiasts to use and rent out for lessons, day camps and community classes.
They also have a partnership with the Calgary International Airport for their baggage cart retrieval, in which they are on task moving carts to key locations around the airport 24/7.
Despite their success in running multiple social enterprises, the challenge for them has been not always having the resources to market effectively, “but that allows for more partnerships with people who have excellent communication skills”, notes an optimistic Lee.
In terms of keeping their current social enterprises healthy, Lee explains that the company had “to really learn to plan ahead and have a solid business case.”
“We always assess whether or not our social enterprises are still viable, relevant and serving our mission. We have had to close and update a number of enterprises over the years.”
One such enterprise was an onsite gas station, which had proven to become irrelevant to the needs of the community and contradicted their environmental values. So they shut it down and sought new enterprises that met with their mission of community service and environmental sustainability.
What Vecova has demonstrated is a willingness to explore their ideas to their fullest potential but to also not be afraid to let them go if they fail to serve a purpose. Lee offers this word of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs:
“Keep your idea in the foreground, don’t lose it, don’t give up on it. Pursue it and experiment with it. Talk to others about it and don’t think of the challenges as insurmountable. Keep it there and if you still think it is a good idea, pursue it.”
Vecova has secured the land they are currently on for another 50 years and they are looking forward to coming up with new and fresh ideas to connect people of the future.
Case Study by Jasmine Retzer, Student, Mount Royal University