LIVIN’ THE DREAM WITH A FESTIVE THEME

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - BY SAN­DRA WALNECK Pho­tog­ra­phy To­masz Adamski

Adult sur­vivors of ac­quired brain in­juries find work and a place to fit in

Hun­dreds of shiny stars are be­ing as­sem­bled and glued, an­gels are wait­ing pa­tiently for their wings and Christ­mas trees are re­ceiv­ing fi­nal touches of shim­mer­ing swirls and dots.

The spa­cious work­shop at Livin’ the Dream De­signs in Kitch­ener is def­i­nitely the place to be if you’re look­ing to get in a festive mood – even on a hot sum­mer day.

The women cre­at­ing these beau­ti­ful fused-glass or­na­ments re­quire a steady hand, an eye for de­tail and, for much of the year, a gen­uine ap­pre­ci­a­tion for all things merry and bright.

The work­room is quiet, and the floor ap­pears to sparkle due to tiny frag­ments pro­duced when glass is cut. Near the open roll-up door are dozens of plas­tic bins of fin­ished prod­uct, all care­fully or­ga­nized and la­belled.

Un­cut pieces of glass in a mul­ti­tude of colours are neatly ar­ranged on one wall along­side the cut­ting de­vice. The in­di­vid­ual work sta­tions are at the back of the room, near the two glass kilns; every­thing is or­dered and tidy.

Owner Patti Lehman started Livin’ the Dream De­signs in Novem­ber of 2015 af­ter more than 30 years as a so­cial worker. Lehman’s ca­reer was ful­fill­ing, but she had al­ways nur­tured her cre­ative side.

“I have a back­ground in art,” she says. “I have

par­tic­i­pated in dif­fer­ent art walks and dis­played in art gal­leries.”

Lehman is an ac­com­plished painter, and en­joys work­ing in clay. But her abil­ity to vi­su­al­ize colours and work with tex­ture is most ev­i­dent in the stun­ning glass pieces she has cre­ated.

Choos­ing the name for her busi­ness ven­ture came eas­ily to Lehman.

“When­ever I saw my friend she’d ask how things were go­ing,” Lehman re­calls with a laugh. “I’d al­ways say ‘I’m livin’ the dream!’”

Choos­ing the em­ploy­ees who would help achieve her dream was just as straight­for­ward. The work­ers are adult sur­vivors of an ac­quired brain in­jury.

As ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Brain In­jury As­so­ci­a­tion for Water­loo Welling­ton, Lehman, 54, un­der­stands the chal­lenges her staff mem­bers face in find­ing re­ward­ing and steady em­ploy­ment. But she also has high ex­pec­ta­tions.

“My phi­los­o­phy with them is that ‘You are no dif­fer­ent than me,’ ” she says. “‘Yes, you have had an ac­ci­dent that changed your life, but it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.’ I hold them very ac­count­able.”

But Lehman’s tough talk and no-non­sense ex­te­rior are just a front.

“Ul­ti­mately, all any of us ever wants is to fit in,” Lehman says. “Here, you’re OK the way you are, we will help you fit in.”

In the early 2000s, as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Brain In­jury As­so­ci­a­tion, Lehman was in­stru­men­tal in cre­at­ing an in­no­va­tive day pro­gram for adult brain in­jury sur­vivors. “These peo­ple were sit­ting at home with no safe place to go,” she re­calls.

“When I took over it was a small lit­tle of­fice that ran two sup­port groups per month and had a monthly newsletter,” Lehman says. She in­creased pro­gram­ming and client num­bers and cre­ated Mak­ing Head­way, a recre­ational day pro­gram.

When Mak­ing Head­way out­grew its space on Park Street, it moved to a larger fa­cil­ity on King Street and was re-named The Op­por­tu­nity Cen­tre.

“On av­er­age we had 35 to 40 peo­ple per day,” she ex­plains. “We were the largest day pro­gram for ABI sur­vivors in On­tario.”

Lehman’s clients ran their own leisure pro­grams. “It was the first of its kind,” she says. “Peo­ple came from all over On­tario to see it.” Al­low­ing clients to pur­sue their own in­ter­ests gen­er­ated in­spir­ing re­sults. Lehman re­counts that this even­tu­ally led to the for­ma­tion of a band called The Op­por­tu­ni­ties. “They even pro­duced their own CD,” Lehman says with a smile. Brain in­juries can cause sur­vivors to strug­gle in so­cial sit­u­a­tions while they learn to cope with di­min­ished ca­pac­i­ties or dif­fi­cult emo­tions. This can lead to out­bursts and what Lehman de­scribes as “tantrums.”

Lehman be­lieves that be­ing with other sur­vivors is key to learn­ing how to ad­just.

“Be­cause they are sur­rounded by their peers, their peers will usu­ally gov­ern their be­hav­iour,” she ex­plains. “They will say ‘You’re go­ing to ruin this for ev­ery­one.’ It al­ways works!”

One chal­lenge in the early years was find­ing cre­ative out­lets. In­stru­men­tal in solv­ing that dilemma was Di­etlind Stager, who had joined Mak­ing Head­way in 2002. Two years ear­lier a car ac­ci­dent had left her very ill and feel­ing iso­lated and alone.

“I was scanning the In­ter­net and look­ing for a place to go where I could fit in,” Stager re­calls. “I went to Mak­ing Head­way and met a whole slew of peo­ple who were just like me.

“But we needed an adult craft,” Stager

says. “Higher-func­tion­ing sur­vivors can’t be mak­ing things from pop­si­cle sticks.”

Stager, a for­mer fam­ily stud­ies teacher, looked for ideas.

“In 2007 all of us took a pot­tery class at the Bre­i­thaupt Cen­tre (in Kitch­ener),” she says. “Then we no­ticed in the back­room that there was a fused-glass class go­ing on.”

Stager and Lehman en­rolled in a class, and “fell in love with it.”

They started small with sim­ple pen­dants and Christ­mas or­na­ments so that sur­vivors could give gifts to friends and fam­ily dur­ing the hol­i­days.

“Then com­mu­nity mem­bers saw them and wanted them,” Stager re­calls.

They started sell­ing at lo­cal craft sales and fes­ti­vals. Lo­cal phys­i­cal re­hab clin­ics of­fered to sell them from wicker bas­kets placed at their re­cep­tion ar­eas. More busi­nesses took part and de­mand grew.

In 2014, Lehman de­vel­oped a vo­ca­tional pro­gram for her clients who were look­ing for em­ploy­ment. She hired Rob Sil­ver as her vo­ca­tional in­struc­tor, and the two kept their work­ers busy with the fused glass as well as piece-work for a lo­cal tro­phy com­pany, Al-Fran Tro­phies.

Around that time Lehman de­cided that it was time for a ca­reer change. When the op­por­tu­nity arose to pur­chase Al-Fran, she and Sil­ver didn’t hes­i­tate. By Novem­ber of 2015, Livin’ The Dream and Al-Fran moved into their Kitch­ener lo­ca­tion.

In re­sponse to cus­tomer de­mand, their work has ex­panded to in­clude dif­fer­ent hol­i­day themes such as Hal­loween and Canada Day. They make all sorts of an­i­mals, bugs, flow­ers, birds and even mu­si­cal in­stru­ments. The gui­tars are al­ways a big seller at Kitch­ener’s Blues Fest.

Lo­cal char­i­ties of­ten ask for spe­cial or­ders for fundrais­ers, and Lehman is de­lighted to as­sist.

Lehman cred­its Stager with be­ing the cre­ative mind be­hind many of the de­signs, and calls her “my cham­pion of the busi­ness.”

Un­able to work reg­u­larly due to her in­jury, Stager vol­un­teers when she is feel­ing up to it. She en­joys de­liv­er­ing their bas­kets to lo­cal busi­nesses, and at Christ­mas can barely keep up with the de­mand.

But what Stager loves most of all is the cre­ative as­pect of the busi­ness.

“I will start some­thing and Patti will add to it,” she says. “We play! I love it but we don’t have enough time to play.”

Lehman cred­its lo­cal per­sonal in­jury lawyer Ge­orge Di­et­rich with un­fail­ing fi­nan­cial and moral sup­port for her pro­grams.

“Ge­orge has been a sup­porter of my work for about 15 years,” she says. “He was the only lawyer who did not ask for any­thing in re­turn. He truly be­lieved in us and didn’t care about ad­ver­tis­ing and get­ting clients from us.”

For Di­et­rich, see­ing the di­rect ben­e­fits of his do­na­tions was re­ward enough, es­pe­cially as some of his clients are sur­vivors of se­vere brain in­juries.

“We all want to do the right thing when we do­nate,” he says. “But we have no way of see­ing how funds are used. With Patti, I al­ways saw it. It ben­e­fits them so much.”

Even af­ter Lehman started the busi­ness, Di­et­rich helped out fi­nan­cially wher­ever there was a need. And he was de­lighted to re­ceive a gift from Lehman’s group as a thank you.

“They made us a beau­ti­ful piece of glass sculp­ture which uses our logo in it,” Di­et­rich says.

Al­though $5 or­na­ments and jew­elry are the bread and but­ter of the busi­ness, there are of­ten re­quests for larger pieces. Rheo Thomp­son Can­dies in Strat­ford or­dered snow­men-themed glass plates for Christ­mas of 2016.

“It chal­lenged us!” says Lehman. This sea­son will be no dif­fer­ent with an­other large or­der.

Their pro­duc­tion num­bers are im­pres­sive when Stager breaks them down.

“We have 700 stars or­dered in dif­fer­ent colours, and an­other or­der of 400,” she says. “We prob­a­bly sell about 1,000 an­gels each year.”

Ev­ery year they re­tire a cou­ple of de­signs, and come up with new ones.

This sea­son they have added a lit­tle raz­zle daz­zle to their de­signs. The trees have adopted a mod­ern twist, and the snow­men and an­gels are more elab­o­rately dec­o­rated with wires and shim­mery glass.

There is a univer­sal ap­peal to their or­na­ments. The snow­men have win­ning smiles, the pen­guins are sim­ply adorable, and the rein­deer have a goofy as­pect to them. Al­though not iden­ti­cal, there is a con­sis­tency that is a tes­ta­ment to the women who cre­ate them.

One of the women, Paula Ma­honey, is gre­gar­i­ous, with a hearty laugh and a twin­kle in her eye. On this day, she is work­ing on

the stars and ges­tures to the large stack of cut glass still wait­ing to be glued. Al­though it seems a daunt­ing task, she doesn’t mind.

“It doesn’t take a lot of mind work, but I get to see a fin­ished prod­uct,” Ma­honey says. “It gives us some­thing to look for­ward to.”

Ma­honey de­scribed her life as a “roller­coaster ride” since her in­jury at the age of 13. Now 51, she rel­ishes be­ing with peo­ple who un­der­stand how every­thing changes af­ter a se­ri­ous brain in­jury.

“Your be­hav­iours change, your view of the world changes, and there’s a men­tal change. Here, we can show our dif­fer­ences,” Ma­honey ex­plains.

For Ma­honey, a re­tired cus­to­dian, find­ing com­pan­ion­ship at Mak­ing Head­way was the first step.

“We all felt alone in our in­jury,” she says. “My first visit, I played pool.”

Re­bekah Haynes, 40, also re­calls her first visit in 2008.

“I found them by ac­ci­dent,” she re­calls. “I saw the place and worked up the nerve to go in. I hadn’t re­ally had much of any­thing then.”

Find­ing friend­ship and un­der­stand­ing opened up new worlds for both women.

“I went through al­most two years of com­plete iso­la­tion,” says Haynes. “I came in, and they were re­ally nice. It was such a dif­fer­ence to con­nect with peo­ple.”

Haynes is frank about how mak­ing plans be­comes dif­fi­cult with a brain in­jury like hers.

“There is so much more in­volved in try­ing to make some­thing work out now,” Haynes says. “It is more com­pli­cated and more stress­ful.”

As a for­mer pas­try chef, Haynes rel­ishes the artis­tic as­pect to her work. De­spite join­ing the group af­ter they took the fused­glass course, she caught on quickly.

“I thought I can do some­thing,” she says. “It changed my per­spec­tive.”

For Haynes, com­ing to terms with the ef­fects of her brain in­jury was key to her re­cov­ery.

“It means truly ac­cept­ing your­self,” she says. “‘This is me’, in­stead of try­ing to do some­thing the way you knew how be­fore.”

An­gelina Scar­fone fits in well with the group. Scar­fone, 21, has autism and strug­gled to find re­ward­ing work in a sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment.

“I like be­ing cre­ative,” she says. “As long as I get a mix­ture of things I don’t get bored.”

To­day she is at­tach­ing or­na­ments to cards, but she will also do glu­ing and wiring.

“Closer to Christ­mas it gets busier and I will start com­ing in more days a week,” she says hap­pily.

Ev­ery­one laughs as Lehman jokes that she is a suc­cess be­cause her dream was never to make lots of money.

But her real suc­cess is in giv­ing her em­ploy­ees mean­ing­ful work, and their dig­nity.

“When they find some­one to be­lieve in them, then they own it,” she says.

Star or­na­ments are as­sem­bled at Livin’ the Dream De­signs in Kitch­ener. Re­bekah Haynes (left) and Patti Lehman work in blue, while Paula Ma­honey gets cre­ative with pink.

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