March 10 is technically the 20th anniversary of LiveWorkPlay, with our original federal incorporation having been issued on March 10, 1995 (charitable status came later, on May 1). Access the Industry Canada records and you’ll notice a peculiarity: the corporate name history indicates “Keen Learning Centre for Youth (KLCY)” as well as “Special Needs Network (SNN).” What’s that all about, you ask?
Fresh out of teacher’s college, LiveWorkPlay co-founder Keenan Wellar had established a popular tutoring service for students with intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities. “Basically, these were kids that other tutors were either not interested in working with, or parents heard about me from other parents and I was the first tutor they ever hired,” says Keenan.
The beginnings were rather humble. An old computer, a variety of educational materials mostly left over from purchases made during teacher’s college, and a desire to try to make a difference. Thinking this might turn into a career, the service operated under the name “Keen Learning Centre for Youth” and as the list of clients grew, Keenan decided to incorporate in anticipation of an expansion.
Just a few weeks after the incorporation was approved, Keenan was offered a position as a project manager for Ingenia Communications Corporation working on a national education internet initiative known as Canada’s SchoolNet. Suddenly KLCY lived on only in a filing cabinet. But many of the individuals and families were still interested in maintaining a connection, and KLCY soon turned into more of an evening and weekend support and advocacy group, including the newsletter The Keen Connection (later SNNCONNECTS see image above).
Keenan then met Julie Kingstone, who had a background working with economically disadvantaged youth at Christie Lake Kids, and together they started to provide individual and small group supports to youth and young adults with intellectual disabilities.
“The going rate was about $10 an hour, not including expenses” recalls Julie. “Sometimes the costs added up to more than the pay. But we both had other jobs and this was something we were passionate about and so we kept at it, to the point where we decided there was a need to try to do more, so we applied for $10,000 in Ontario Trillium Foundation money.”
The “Get Up Stand Up” grant application to establish a new advocacy and support organization to be known as “Special Needs Network” was not approved – but not because the application was inadequate. Rather, the Ontario Trillium Foundation requested that the application be redone on a larger scale!
While that work was being completed, the existing “Keen Learning Centre for Youth” incorporation was updated to “Special Needs Network” reflecting the new focus on helping individuals and families network with each other, and supporting them to connect with the community resources they needed for success.
By the end of 1996 it became clear that significant Ontario Trillium Foundation funding was coming, and both Julie and Keenan had some difficult choices to make. At the ages of 23 and 27, was this the time to abandon their developing careers, with Keenan still working on SchoolNet and Julie now in palliative care at Bruyere?
As you can guess, since the organization is celebrating 20 years in 2015, they did in fact quit their jobs and commit to the start-up of Special Needs Network in 1997. In another four years there’d be another name change (to LiveWorkPlay) and the organization would undergo many other significant changes: evolving from a support network, to a site-based service provider, and (perhaps finally but who knows?) to a person-centred and community-focused champion of inclusion in housing, employment, and daily life (not to mention 150 volunteers, 80 community partners, and a full-time staff team that could soon reach 15).
But those are stories for another day, particularly June 4 when we will formally celebrate our twentieth anniversary.