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  • Mar27Tue

    Member Profile: Variety Village

    March 27, 2018 Article by: Meagan Gillmore
    Filed Under:
    Abuse Awareness, Vulnerable Sector, Case Study

    A Toronto not-for-profit that specializes in providing inclusive sports and recreation programs has strengthened relationships between staff and clients by increasing its abuse prevention.

    Variety Village runs inclusive fitness, sports and recreation programs for people of all ages.  People of all ages use Variety Village. Programs range from activities for parents and infants to fitness classes for seniors. Elite athletes train there. Children return each year for summer camps and day camps.

    The facility also has programs and equipment specifically designed for people with a range of disabilities. The running track has a guide rail to assist visually impaired athletes or those with mobility needs, and some lanes are designated for wheelchairs. There's also a sensory room. The facility includes basketball courts, three pools, rock climbing walls, a running track and Olympic weightlifting platforms. While there is always an influx of new employees who deliver programs, many of the staff have worked at the facility for more than 15 years.

    This familiarity creates a family atmosphere, so the organization has to be diligent to avoid anything that could lead to allegations of abuse. Today, staff, volunteers and campers congratulate each other with high fives and fist bumps. All participants must check in and check out for camp programs, regardless of how long staff or volunteers may have known the campers.

    Management trusts their employees, said Susan Sanderson, director of human resources. These practices and policies are an additional way to reinforce appropriate behaviour, she said.

    Abuse prevention has been part of staff and volunteer training at Variety Village for years, but in 2015 the organization joined Plan to Protect®.  Initially, management was focused on fulfilling insurance requirements, but after Plan to Protect® conducted an on-site audit, they realized there were opportunities to bolster programs that were already in place.

    “I think we do a pretty good job (of training to prevent abuse),” said Sanderson, who has worked at Variety Village for more than a decade, “but we’re always looking to improve.”

    One of the main improvements was dedicating staff to train staff and volunteers about abuse prevention. Training can get challenging as Variety Village has about 45 full-time staff and 150 part-time staff. Many of the part-time employees are students, which results in regular turnover, as students return to university and new ones come aboard. That’s why the organization has a dedicated trainer, Cathy Price. Price already trains staff on health and safety, orientation, WHMIS and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Now, as a Plan to Protect® certified trainer, she facilitates regular two-hour sessions about preventing abuse for all new staff and volunteers, as well as annual refresher sessions. Some sessions take place in the evening to accommodate staff and volunteer schedules. Price understands the time challenges; she first came to Variety Village on a student placement.

    Having a dedicated focus on training has changed the culture about preventing abuse, said Sanderson. Employees have readily adopted it, and it shows the organization takes protecting staff, volunteers and participants seriously. After joining Plan to Protect®, Variety Village recruited volunteer hall monitors who regularly walk throughout the facility checking rooms, change rooms, closets and watch hallways. Staff and volunteers do everything in pairs to avoid isolation, including taking clients to the washroom. The hall monitors help make sure staff or volunteers are never alone with participants. The organization now also keeps all paperwork because allegations of child abuse can arise any time after an incident. Staff and volunteers take care to avoid hugging participants, or letting children sit on their laps. Instead they fist bump or high-five.

    This was a change for some staff, but Price said there hasn’t been much resistance. After taking the Plan to Protect® training, staff understand the importance of appropriate interactions.

    “Everyone here loves what they do, and understands that (training and following abuse prevention policies) is just one part of making sure that we can offer the very best to the individuals in our program,” said Price. Long-time staff have told her the Plan to Protect® orientation is some of the best training they’ve ever received.

    “I think it’s increased (staff’s) pride in their job,” said Sanderson.

    Now, staff and volunteers suggest ways to improve programming, like removing curtains that divide rooms, taking frosting off windows or installing cameras in the multi-sensory room. They find ways to ensure there’s always enough staff in vehicles when they’re transporting participants.

    Making sure everyone gets proper training is a lot of work, and keeping complete records can be time-consuming, said Sanderson. But this becomes easier once everyone understands why this is important and it’s worth the effort. The organization also benefits by knowing Plan to Protect® staff are there to help with questions or as potential problems arise.

    “The world is a very different place, and you may think that you have everything you need and you’re doing things properly,” said Sanderson. “But I would pretty much guarantee that there can be significant improvements by going through Plan to Protect® and implementing this program.”

    Meagan Gillmore is a writer and editor currently living in Toronto. She has written for community newspapers, national magazines, websites and not-for-profit organizations. She holds an honours degree in English and Journalism from Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford campus (2011) and a publishing certificate from Centennial College (2014).

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