Managing a hidden gem in downtown Brandon that strives to create a more inclusive community, William Johnson is the new head at Avis’s Place.
Johnson took the helm approximately one month ago and is already considering the job one of the more fulfilling experiences of his life.
Named after community services worker Avis Bootsman, Avis’s Place is a drop-in centre for those with intellectual disabilities.
In addition to serving as a drop-in centre, the non-profit organization offers various programming and special outings for members.
Primarily, though, it’s a place for people to come together, make friends and learn from each other, Johnson said.
"You see people come on a regular basis down here who take part in the programs, use the computers or even just watch things together," he said.
"This provides a social outlet and a place to go for positive reinforcement."
Individual accomplishments are celebrated, he said, including one member’s recent success in finding employment at a local pub, which has allowed them to afford their own place and pay their bills —a big accomplishment for them.
Originally from Brandon, Johnson’s professional life has been devoted to "helping the underdogs." Assisting those with intellectual disabilities has also included helping children with substance abuse problems.
"People have got to work, so if I’m going to do work I’d like to do something where at the end of the day I feel that it matters a bit," he said.
For the members of Avis’s Place, what Johnson and others do at the centre matter a great deal.
Between games of Uno earlier this week, centre regular Murray White said that he attends the space just about every day to socialize and help out wherever needed.
Those who visit the centre have varying degrees of social skills, White said, adding that he tries his best to get along with everyone and make them feel welcome, because they are.
"We joke, we laugh," White said, adding that his ability to assist others at the centre is a both source of pride and a role that he takes seriously.
One of White’s favourite activities at the centre is its talent shows, during which he performs a powwow-style grass dance.
After helping out in the kitchen earlier this week, member Adam Boles said that the centre serves as a hub while he’s out and about in the city’s downtown area.
It’s a safe place to be, he said, adding that everyone at the centre is accepting of him, even through communication can be difficult from time to time.
Avis’s Place operates under the umbrella of Career Connections, whose executive director Tracy Williams describes the downtown drop-in centre as essential for many of its members.
Marginalized groups such as those with intellectual disabilities have a tendency to become isolated, with efforts such as Avis’s Place serving to break that dangerous cycle, she said.
It joins other programs, such as the vocationally centred Career Connections, in tackling these barriers and giving people the tools they need to succeed.
Citing several other programs that have emerged in Brandon during recent years to help marginalized groups navigate the system and find success, Johnson said that he’s pleased to see how "socially conscious" Brandon has become.
As for Avis’s Place in specific, he said that after only a month he has seen its positive impacts first-hand and is pleased to play a role in members’ various successes.
"There should be more places like it," Johnson said.
» Twitter: @TylerClarkeMB