Jen Stuart has been mowing lawns for 17 years, but four years ago her business changed forever when she hired a worker with an intellectual disability.
“I left school when I was 14,” Stuart says. “Eventually I went to TAFE and got a Certificate III in Horticulture and then Diploma, plus a Certificate IV in Management.” Stuart also tapped into Gold Coast Employment Support Services, a provider of specialised employment services to people with disabilities or barriers.
GCESS offered Stuart the services of a worker with special needs and Stuart took him on.
Today she employs 13 workers with special needs.
“The average Joe Blow does not want to work,” Stuart says. “They just want to be on the dole. You bring them onto a site and they will work for an hour and say it is too hard to work with a shovel. All my boys want to work. They call at night if I have not rostered them on.”
Stuart has since made a decision to run her business as a not-for-profit organisation, and finds her clients are willing to help in her endeavour to provide long term support for her workers.
“For me it is about giving them a chance in life. I never had a chance like that. They get discriminated against something shocking. They get picked on at school and laughed at and bullied, but they are such special, special boys. I hope to spend the rest of my life helping them.”
Stuart is doing so by creating courses for her staff, using her studies for a Certificate V in teaching to develop lessons.
“I’ve put a learning program together because a lot of my boys cannot read or write. I thought there has to be a way to sort this out so six weeks ago I started a words and numbers class. One of the team learned to write the letter K and he was blown away. He was so happy with the achievement.”
The Gold Coast community and Stuart’s clients are warming to her efforts, offering donations to help her out. “Clients want to help,” she says. “Now that people realise what I am doing it is running quite well.”
But Stuart is also conscious that she must run her business well to meet her goals of assisting her team.
“It is hard to get the jobs: you have to keep the prices down. I keep my prices right down and that way I always have work for my team.”
Diversification is another important tactic. “If you have a drought you don’t get much mowing work,” Stuart says. “If you have the other skills you get pruning or paving or garden renovations. That’s why I learned horticulture.”