In the beginning, there was a three-year pilot project located in four cities across Canada that were funded by the federal Opportunities Fund through the National Network of Mental Health (NNMH). Their purpose was to increase the low participation rate of individuals with mental health issues by offering specialized self-employment services that would combine business expertise and mental health supports. St. Catharines was chosen as one site by NNMH.
They met with the advisory committee of Innovative Enterprises, a consumer survivor organization with a history of starting social enterprises to jointly plan for opening the project. The first meeting of the Start Me Up Management Advisory Committee was held on October 15, 1998 with the target date for opening set for March 29, 1999. They set up terms of reference for the committee, established a work plan, and got to work. They established operating guidelines that included the participation of mental health consumer survivors on the advisory committee and as employees. Start Me Up had three years to develop this new program, achieve the goals of the project, and become financially sustainable.
Start Me Up opened on schedule in a bright fully-equipped office at 288 St Paul Street with a new staff person hired because she had community connections, entrepreneurial experience and was not connected to the formal mental health and social work sectors. A course outline and list of possible participants was provided and helped get the project underway.
Six brave souls with varying business ideas and mental health issues signed up for the four week business development course. Presenters with expertise in business delivered information daily. Unfortunately starting a businesses with little or no capital seemed impossible to them. They had difficulty recognizing participant strengths and assets. The business ideas that ranged from tax auditing to a travelling nanny required different support. Varying levels of mental health required accommodations around group participation and time lines.
Start Me Up Niagara offers services and programs to individuals who face significant life challenges to provide them with opportunities to stabilize, participate and grow.Learn More
However these participants who lived with incomes below the poverty line were experts at finding ways to solve problems in daily life. Their common link was the impact of poverty on their lives. Precarious housing. Precarious health. Precarious employment. Precarious everything! Negative consequences on their health, their relationships, community participation and employment were evident and discussed openly. They needed income and wanted to get their businesses started and if that did not work they would look for a job. The one size fits all course did not work. Another approach would be needed. Soon two staff were added to meet the increasing number coming for services.
From these early days it defined a model of service that is individualized, recognizes strengths, acknowledges impact of poverty, provides appropriate practical support and works with participants to achieve their goals and set their own definitions of success. The individual is at the centre of its services.
Start Me Up Niagara was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in the fall of 2000 and received charitable status shortly thereafter. This made it possible to develop new funding sources, expand programming when the pilot project ended. It opened a second location at 234 St Paul Street, Work Action Centre. Funded by the federal Homelessness Initiative it offered a wood working shop, a store front for crafts, a kitchen and weekend lunches for people who had no other place to go. It was a hub of activity until 2006 when its lease ended and no other funding could be found. It was a very sad day.
At the same time the employment programs were being reorganized at both the federal and provincial level causing a serious cash flow problem for Start me Up Niagara’s employment programs that now offered self-employment and traditional employment programming to cross disability groups. No income for six months stretched our creativity and resilience to new lengths. ‘Everyone not being paid but still working, rent forgiven, and the Board of Directors holding on’. It was a terrible time but it actually gained us the respect of the community, funders and participants who erroneously thought we would just go away.
With the new model for funding in place SMUN became a fee for service provider for the Ontario Disability Support Program. This enabled it to rehire and increase staff all of whom were paid! With several other proposals approved a pale version of the Work Action Centre opened days at the Swamp. It became the place to go for people without housing.
SMUN’s Board engaged a consultant to complete a strategic plan. Its first goal was to move both program locations into one building. With the Swamp being sold and the lease at 288 St Paul Street expiring the time was right for a move.
In 2009 Start Me Up Niagara moved to 17 Gale Crescent leasing then purchasing with help of a generous donor. This was a very significant move. Located in a priority neighbourhood it was able to receive funding through the Niagara Prosperity Initiative and begin offering supports to address many of the social determinants for health. Within a year the number using its services doubled.
Housing. Employment. The Center with its range of supports to help people stabilize life conditions, improve health, connect to services 7 days a week.
With the rapid growth of employment and tight space at 17 the dream of reopening the Work Action Centre was realized. It would be a place that would be all about earning income. It offers traditional, self-employment support programs, a bicycle shop, a creative space for artists, a storefront, computer lab and commercial kitchen as part of SMUN’s Green Garden project.
Start Me Up Niagara has been closely connected to the issue of homelessness. It is contracted by the Region of Niagara to operate a seasonal emergency overnight shelter at Westminster United Church modelled on the Out of the Cold program. It will begin offering this same service in Niagara Falls at St Andrews United Church November 2020.
Partnerships with other agencies provide complementary services on site. Community connections are an essential source of volunteers, in kind and monetary donations. Long term relationships are key to success.
Its participant pathway STABILIZE | PARTICIPATE | GROW supports its vision of a community where everyone belongs and its mission to increase the level of self sufficiency for people with mental health issues and those lacking the necessary social determinants of health by providing opportunities that improve health, increase the level of community integration and support employment.