By Laura Nichol
All aboard¦for a fun learning experience!
Meet Sean, an incredibly dedicated volunteer with not only a love of history but a serious passion for trains. These days, you’ll find Sean sharing that passion aboard the FEP Steam train, engineering learning experiences for visitors!
Sean started volunteering in 2012 when Ben Weinlick “ his caseworker, a consultant through Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) Family Managed Supports “ approached us about possible opportunities. With the support of his family and especially his amazing mom, Christine, Sean started work looking after a bonfire at Christmas Reflections and had such a good time, he was hooked. The following summer he joined the Visitor Services team on the train platform but it’s long been his dream to get on board the train.
Finding ways to integrate Sean into the volunteer program was not immediately easy. Since Sean is non-verbal, and the majority of the volunteer positions that exist have a significant customer service element that depends on speech, there weren’t any existing roles in which to place him. Fortunately, we received an enormous amount of support from Ben, who not only provided consultation, but also taught a couple of courses to help make staff and volunteers more comfortable in their role working with Sean, and other visitors or volunteers with disabilities. Ben emphasized the importance of building a community around Sean: people who believe in and support his efforts. He also encouraged us to think outside of the box for creative ways to discover and celebrate Sean’s gifts.
When Tom Long, Public Interpretation Coordinator, joined the project, he was encouraged by Ben’s passion and understanding of our objectives; “Fort Edmonton Park has always welcomed visitors from across Edmonton, including many visitors with disabilities. Sean and his team have been so wonderful in working with us to provide these Edmontonians opportunities as staff and volunteers and not just as visitors. They’re so open and confront challenges with such good-natured enthusiasm that it has been inspiring to work with them.” He says that Ben’s efforts to facilitate training and answer questions in an open and honest way have been necessary to creating a comfortable environment to develop Sean’s volunteer experience. Tom remembers “At one of our first training sessions with Ben on working with people with disabilities, he brought up the history of sterilization and other hardships they have faced in the past. We were so impressed that he was speaking to us in our language (history) and he was so impressed that we already knew about eugenics and so many of the stories for which he rarely finds awareness.”
Through a bit of creativity and a lot of enthusiasm from Sean’s team and ours, including Chief Engineer Brooke Edwards, Sean’s dream of working on the train came true this summer. Sean now mans the Train Discovery Station once a week or so with his aid, Martine. Using an iPad disguised as an old-fashioned book, Sean shares train stories and photos by way of a unique program created by Martine and voiced by our Artistic Director, Dana Andersen. Tom says this new role is a big success for the train: “Engine 107 and our Edmonton Yukon & Pacific Train are one of Fort Edmonton Park’s biggest attractions, and rail travel in general is essential to understanding the recent history of Western Canada. We employ Train Conductors to aid visitors in their train ride experience, but keeping visitors safe and helping orient them to the site is a full time job in itself. The addition of Sean as the Train Information Agent gives visitors someone who is dedicated to sharing stories with them during their amazing ride.”
Ben is excited that this project has created work the Sean can feel proud of. “Sean loves having real roles at the Fort where he is relied upon and can contribute positively to the Fort Edmonton experience. Sean and his family want him to be a full contributing citizen in our community and the Fort Edmonton community values his contributions. That is rare and very cool.”
Mom, Christine, agrees that Sean’s work as part of a team has been a huge boost to his ego and has helped improve the way he sees himself. She says “Sean loves to work alongside the engineers and conductors as he gets to be part of a team!” Ben adds that “Sean has found a sense of belonging and pride in being part of the Fort. Fellow Fort Edmonton volunteers are friendly and welcoming and the staff are very creative in how they work with Sean and his supports to build a real role based on Sean’s interests and gifts.”
Ben goes on to celebrate the strides FEP has made in engaging Sean: “Too often people with disabilities live on the margins of society and are not offered the same opportunities to be part of community like any other citizen. Fort Edmonton offers opportunities for people with disabilities to have meaningful roles and be part of contributing to the Fort Edmonton experience. Fort Edmonton is really on the cutting edge in terms of being a creative employer that looks for ways to link a person’s natural gifts with meaningful roles at the Fort.”
Propelled by Sean’s success, Fort Edmonton Park is seeking to expand opportunities for volunteers with disabilities and this summer have added additional roles and made connections with more organizations in Edmonton “ including Goodwill Industries, Chrysalis, and the Alberta Association for Community Living. This fall, a panel of experts including Ben will meet to fine tune our current opportunities and investigate ways that we can grow to continue to support this segment of our community. As Tom aptly says, “FEP’s mission is to connect people of all backgrounds with Edmonton’s dynamic past. We already attract visitors with disabilities, but our staff and volunteer programs allow us to facilitate such a deep connection over the course of the months or years someone works with us, that it serves our mission all the better.”
We are so proud and excited to have Sean and Martine on our Train team and hope they continue to be engaged by this important work for years to come. Meet Sean this weekend and take a ride as the train makes its final run for the season!