I’m Mary Sunarho, the owner designer artist behind the label “Harvest Collection”. I collaborate with my son Jonathan, who is 10 years old and is in the autism spectrum. We are passionate about art and about building hope in others, especially those with disability. We want to show people the possibilities of living life with a purpose, in the midst of all limitations by focusing on our gifts and strength.
Through my blogs and youtube channel, I’m going to share with you personal inspiring stories, of hardship, challenges and triumphs. Not just of mine but of others around the world who have been further ahead in the journey, so that we can learn from each other and support one another. These stories might give you ideas to implement into your own lives. Let us learn to think creatively to find solutions, to see beyond the obvious limitations and to see possibilities,.
So in this part 2 of my series "Employing Disability", I'm bringing you the story of a young girl named Emma Lynam from Townsville Australia. I spoke to Jo Lynam, Emma's mum about their inspiring story of conquering hardships and achievements.
She has down syndrome, she is in the autism spectrum, she is deaf, born with cleft palate and cataracts, She also has some foot deformity. Oh, she is also not able to read and write. She can’t talk clearly, she can’t climb well nor walk distances. She also needs a wheelchair. When she graduated from school, her mum Jo struggled to find her a job. So Emma stayed with her mum for 2 years at home. Despite all of her limiting conditions, her mum never gave up on Emma. She believed Emma was here for a reason and she can and she will contribute to the society. But what gift could she possibly contribute?
Imagine for a second that you are a recruitment agent, or a parent/ carer for a person with these list of conditions. What solution could you possibly think of for her to get an employment opportunity? Is it possible or is it too hard? Can you see the possibilities beyond the sea of impossibilities?
Fortunately for Emma, her mum, Jo Lynam has a never give up attitude. She has a strong belief that her daughter is here for a reason and she is able to serve her purpose for the community.
If you at this stage wonder how did I even get to know about Emma, let me tell you a bit about the background story. In my young business, I regularly go to trade shows and markets. And whenever and wherever I go to any events like these, I always share with people about our vision to highlight the abilities and to shed some positive light of people with disability. Visitors and other business owners who hear me, would often share their own stories. They might know someone who has disability or they themselves have a child with disability. One of them told me about Emma and she gave me her contact detail. Curious by the little I heard about Emma, I gave Jo a call to find out in more details of what they went through. And I'm grateful for her willingness to speak to me and share their story.
How The Business Idea Began
Over the phone Jo told me a story of when Emma graduated from school, how she struggled to find Emma a job. Emma has many substantial disability conditions that many people see as an impossibility. On top of that she can’t read nor write despite having spent thousands of dollars on tutoring to help her achieve this necessary skill. It was very devastating for Jo that despite her hopes and continuous efforts, she still could not get her daughter to learn this essential skill of reading and writing. “What future could she possibly have?”, Jo often found herself wondering with worries.
After graduating from school, Emma stayed at home for 2 years without a job, going along her mum to do daily routines like going grocery shopping, running errands, and household chores. But Jo, determined to help her daughter to live her life and serve her purpose on earth, she kept thinking of ways to make it happen. One day, an idea came to her mind about a shredding paper business for Emma.
“Who would be better to shred confidential documents other than someone who can’t read or write? I reason that solicitors and other businesses would not want any of their confidential documents to leave their premises. So I thought, OK…what if we go to them? That is how the business ‘Master Shredder’ was created”, explained Jo.
Surrounded By Negativity
But I got curious. Surely there is an easier way than creating your own business. It is one tough gig for anyone to start their own business, let alone someone with disability. I asked Jo if she did ever try to first look for help from disability employment providers before she embarked on this business. To which she replied, “I did approach them. They told me that Emma had too many issues that nobody would take her on.”
Months leading up to her final days at a special school, she was told by the school “Jo, you got to be realistic. It’s admirable that you are hopeful, but you need to look for some kind of day service or somewhere Emma could go. They suggested a place and we both went to have a look and we both hated it. And I knew that’s not what she’s going to do.”
“I didn’t know what she could do, I didn’t know what would work, but I knew I would find something. I just didn’t know what it was. I was prepared for whatever struggle. But I knew this little girl put up a hell of a fight to stay on earth."
Despite all of the negativity surrounding her, Jo believes Emma was here for a reason. “If she wasn’t here to serve the community then she could have left. She was born premature and fighting for her life to survive at the hospital. But she didn’t leave. She stayed. She knew there is a role for her here.”
Jo shared how she came to a point when she realised that none of Emma's conditions matter. Her gifts are still there and that's what she chose to focus on.
And The Light Started To Break Through The Dark
Soon after Jo had this business ideas, she dived straight to work. She got Emma a small shredder machine. In the beginning she got her started out shredding paper for her own home and neighbours. Then she prepared her to move into the wider world, which at first Emma was reluctant to do.
She started by sending hundreds of letters to businesses, but they were not effective. So she changed her method by ringing and eventually she got a solicitor who agreed to engage Emma’s service. She found out he had a brother with disability, so Jo thought he might be receptive to employing her daughter. And he did give her the opportunity for her to come in. At a later stage, Jo sent a letter to Credit Union and her letter arrived at the right time when the business was looking into diversity in the workplace. The CEO and the HR manager interviewed them and they agreed to engage Emma’s service.
In the beginning of the business, they had 1 client a day per week. Then that client referred another client, so Emma got to work 2 mornings a week. Fast forward to now, Master Shredder now has 28 clients. Her shift would start from 9am and finish around 2pm. This all happens very slowly over time.
In 2015, Emma paid $5000 for her big commercial shredder. She has a Tarago, which was fitted for her wheelchair and the shredder fits into the back of it. She learnt how to manage her support staff who work with her in her business. One worker would support her at the clients’ premises and one would help her at home. She is very independent.
Is it a deficit or is it a strength? It’s your choice how you look at it.
I asked Jo about the issue of being unable to read and write. In this day and age it’s almost unthinkable to not have this skill to survive in this world. But Jo had a different perspective. She saw this as a gift instead of a deficit. It is this gift of not able to read and write, that enables her to do this business of taking care of the shredding of confidential documents.
Jo mentioned another condition that people might see as a deficit - the repetitive nature that Emma had. But even that can be seen as a strength. Emma can work 5 hours straight. She’s focused and she won’t quit until the bin full of paper is empty. This strong focus is a gift. She doesn’t check her facebook. She doesn’t go on a ciggy break. She doesn’t go on long toilet breaks. Her clients love her because they know she is loyal, honest and focused in her job.
On Sunday nights, Jo and Emma would sit together and discuss her work calendar. Jo would have photos of the premises of where she needs to go. And they discuss the scheduling to see what she can fit in. And Emma would respond, “yes, that the one… that the one” to indicate whether she could handle the schedule. Emma knows how much work she has in a day and her responsibilities and she gets on with it.
Changing Perspective In The Community
In 2015, the ABC television did a story on Emma. Having her stories told has such amazing impact for her. Ordinary people like friends, families and neighbours, now saw Emma in a different light. It changed everyone’s perspectives. The story changed how she looked at herself, how she looked at others and how others look at her. And she grew her confidence. She took on more clients.
When Deficit Turns Into Strength.
In 2017 Emma moved out of her parents' home. She rented a place in the city to live on her own. In June 2018, she managed to buy her first home, a small 2 bedroom duplex, where she lives on her own. It’s all made possible because of her work, with the recognition she received from the community.
Towards the end of our conversation, Jo closed it with "Work is a powerful force for all of us. With her getting a job, having her own business, moving to her own property, all of these have been so powerful for the family. Her two brothers are so proud of her for what she’s done and achieved."
I couldn't agree more!
Well done Emma! Well done Jo!
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