“Where are we going tonight? Wegman’s or Market Basket?”
Erik Canada contemplates his options. Fresh out of the office, he’s wearing a three-piece suit and tie, sitting across from his dear friend, Lisa. “I need to buy water,” he tells her.
“What kind of water?” she asks with a knowing smile.
He turns to me, grinning. “I like sparkling water. Perrier or San Pellegrino.”
Lisa smacks the table, tilts her head back, and laughs. “Last time he bought eight cases of sparkling water. We didn’t have to go back to the store for weeks!”
The friendship between Erik Canada and Lisa Carriere is years in the making. During that time, Lisa has witnessed an incredible transformation in her friend.
A Big Discovery
Five years ago, Erik was working in the back offices of NuPath, the nonprofit Human Services organization that would soon help him thrive. Naturally on the quiet side, he kept to himself, but a vivacious care worker took note of him.
Lisa had just started teaching a new program, also at NuPath, designed to help job seekers with disabilities get employed. Participants would meet for an hour on Fridays to work on their resumes, hone their interview techniques, and practice workplace skills. They called it Job Camp. Lisa and another instructor, Bill, asked Erik about his prior work experience, looking to gauge whether he’d be a good fit for the camp.
“And what did you tell us?” asks Lisa.
“I told them I’d worked at Quest Diagnostics for 8 years. And at the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a clerical assistant doing data entry,” he tells me. Lisa and Bill were thrilled. They knew they had to get him into Job Camp and help accelerate his career.
Job Camp is where Erik became a star. “They helped with my resume and I got to practice lots of interviews,” he says. “They even film your interview,” Lisa adds. “Then we watch it with you, break it down and talk about how you can do better. And Bill—the other Job Camp coach—does not hold back. He really pushes them.”
The push paid off. In 2015, Erik landed a job at Boston Appliance where he’s been happily crunching numbers, mailing letters, and working ever since. But that was hardly the end of his transformation—or the end of his relationship with Job Camp. When I ask what was his favorite part of the camp, he tells me: “Coming back. I like making subsequent visits with the new students.”
Between his professional success and his ongoing commitment to Job Camp, Erik shatters any preconceived notions people might have about employees with disabilities and their ability to thrive in the workplace. Last year, he was asked to speak at the Job Camp graduation.
“The right job is out there if you work at getting it.”
What did he tell the new grads? When recalling his speech, he looks focused, as though he was right back up at the podium. “I said, ‘the right job is out there if you work at getting it.’”
Lisa chimes in. “Normally, I help them with their speeches. I would never write it for them, but I’ll ask them a list of questions, write down their responses, and give it back to them. But Erik said no. He didn’t want any help. He wrote the entire thing himself. And when he spoke, it was like he’d been doing public speaking for years. He didn’t quiver, didn’t hesitate, nothing.”
A New Voice and a New Platform
“I’ve seen such a transition in him,” Lisa beams. “He went from not saying a word to the point where now he’s joking around with the guys at his office every day.”
Erik wasn’t just finding his voice. He was finding new ways to share it.
Last year, NuPath adopted the Navigating Life app, and Erik suddenly had the opportunity to connect and interact with his own private social network of friends, staff, and Job Camp alumni. Posting on the app became a daily activity and a declaration of self-reliance.
“I post about my work and what I do during the day. I post family pictures. I post when I go shopping. And I post pictures of me and Lisa, too.”
“Just by using it, I’ve seen his confidence increase,” says Lisa. “And that’s huge for him because he’s very—”
“—private” Erik interjects.
Lisa throws up her hands in mock surprise. “Well excuse me!” She smiles. “It lets people into the simplest parts of his life.”
Those simple moments matter to Lisa. She sees them as the times when we are our most independent selves. “You and me, we take it for granted,” she says to me. “We don’t think about how important it is to be able to go to the grocery store on our own if we want to. Now he gets to show that to other people.”
“It’s a safe space, way more so than other platforms.”
Does he post on other, more public social media platforms, too? Not so much. The privacy that Navigating Life endows—members can create and share with a very small community of people that only they want to see—makes all the difference to Erik. “It’s a safe space, way more so than other platforms,” Lisa explains, “where they can be heard by the staff and peers the know. They know who’s on there. They know it’s okay.”
Erik sums it up simply: “I’m able to be more myself.”
It turns out, being himself is about more than bringing out his confidence. It’s bringing out all different sides of himself, even the parts that can be hard to talk about.
“One day I saw Erik post that he was not having a good day,” Lisa remembers. “He asked ‘anyone want to talk?’” Her eyes glow with happiness. “People wrote back. He got lots of responses. They told him, ‘I’m here for you.’” She smiles. “It’s been good.”