A new type of networking event that’s inclusive

Members of 18 Networking, which brings together young people who want to break down barriers, are seen at their booth at “Future Ready,” clockwise from left, Jade Hill, Rachel Hadef, Elia Nissan, Eva Levin and Hollis Crosby (holding sign). (Janice Arnold photo)

The young people who crowded into the WeWork across the street from the Bell Centre seemed like any such age group relaxing at an after work event.

At the trendy office-sharing space they gathered around the bar, assembled their own poke bowls from the buffet, and lounged on comfy sofas. The volume of chatter and laughter was high.

They had come for a workshop on how to launch their careers, to browse information tables on employment services or chat with industry representatives.

The young people were a mix of those who have special needs and those who do not. No distinction was made between the two; everyone listened to the talk given by a bank executive, filled out the same questionnaire on defining their strengths and aspirations and took part in the discussion.

That was precisely the goal of Mushky Paris, director of FCConnect, a division of the Friendship Circle. FCConnect seeks to create an inclusive social network for young adults in their 20s and 30s. It’s an extension of the mission her parents, who founded the Chabad-affiliated Friendship Circle in Montreal some 20 years ago, of bringing together children and teens with special needs with “friends” their age from the wider community.

The event at WeWork, entitled “Future Ready,” was co-sponsored by FCConnect and RBC. The workshop, led by Alex Caron, the bank’s senior facilitator for human resources, stressed understanding oneself first before deciding what type of employment to seek. Participants were invited to reflect on their interests, abilities, values and personal qualities, and how they fit in a rapidly changing work environment.

The entire program was interpreted in sign language by Nathalie Constantine.

FCConnect events in the past have generally been social and recreational activities, such as movie nights, barbecues, museum hopping and a brewery tour. While this one was similarly welcoming and relaxed, it recognized that young adults with special needs are also concerned with vocational opportunities.

“We want to see a more inclusive and diverse workplace, where each person is truly valued,” Paris said.

Caron agreed that employers have “a social responsibility” to be inclusive and that they will benefit, too.

Gathered at FCConnect’s career launch event are, from left, Gabe Elberg, Sima Paris (Mushky’s mother), Robin Westhaver, Mushky Paris, Alex Caron and Leibel Rodal.

Friendship Circle program director Racheli Edelkopf said people with special needs are aware that their peers network at programs like this. “But they are usually not accessible to them,” she said.

For others, “it was a chance to mingle and get to know people who may act or look a little different.”

Adena Scharch, who is employed at the JEM Workshop, was delighted with the evening, “I learned a lot from it. I know what I have to look for now in the future.” She especially enjoyed the socializing and the ambience, “I’ve never been to anything like this.”

The event was held in collaboration with 18 Networking, yet another outgrowth of the Friendship Circle’s work with children.

This group brings together teens who have disabilities and those who do not.

It is one of the projects made possible by $435,000 federal grant one year ago that helped launch FC Revolution, which involves a total of 60 youths aged 15 to 30.

The money was earmarked for “a revolutionary project to break down barriers and empower youth with and without disabilities as leaders of inclusion.”

Over the past year, FC Revolution participants have been examining the issue of diversity and inclusion and coming up with practical ways of giving meaning to those words.

The culmination of the project is a video that will premiere March 26 at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim that chronicles what they have been doing. Filmmaker Shalom Serraf was at WeWork shooting some final footage.

Marianopolis College student Rachel Hadef, 18, who is part of 18 Networking, said it has been an extraordinary experience of discovery.

The fact that no one was in a hurry to leave after the formal part of the agenda and hung around to shmooze some more, convinced Paris that the evening was “a huge success.”

“RBC has been a big supporter of FCConnect, as well as a pioneer in creative inclusive opportunities,” she said. “One of the founding vision of FCConnect has been to lead learning and development initiatives, peer networks, and creating vocational opportunities for both volunteers and members with special needs for a more inclusive and diverse workforce.”


For more information, visit www.FCConnect.ca.