CommuniTEA Coordinators Present at Edmonton’s Next Gen

On October 24th, 2017 Co-coordinators of the CommuniTEA Infusion Project, Larry James and Paige Reeves presented at Edmonton Next Gen’s Pecha Kucha 29 Event. In this dynamic and engaging speaking format, Paige and Larry creatively crafted their words to a series of pictures playing on a screen behind them. Showcasing 20 slides, 20 seconds each, for a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds, they discussed the importance of community belonging and the role of the tea van in breaking down social barriers between people with and without disabilities. Read on to see their full presentation.

Perhaps a good place to start this presentation is with the concept of community belonging. What is it? And why is it important? Community Belonging is about feeling a valued member of the community. It incorporates our relationships and roles in a community (who we relate to and what we do).

The Community Foundation of Canada reminds us that there are two parts to community belonging:First, How much we believe we ‘fit’ in a place or group. And second, how much the place or group welcomes and includes us . So, community belonging is not all about an individual ‘fitting into’ an environment. It is also, about an environment being welcoming for an individual.
In our fast paced society there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to connect with community. We tend to rush about our daily business, fly home in our vehicles, park in our attached garages, and disappear into the solitude of our homes. We believe this is a problem.

Science tells us that belonging matters. In fact some scientists suggest belonging is a fundamental human need akin to food or water. When we feel as though we don’t belong, our mental and physical health suffers. However, when we have a strong sense of community belonging we feel happier, more satisfied, and as if our life has more meaning.

Research also tells us that people with intellectual disabilities face loneliness and social isolation at rates much higher than people without disabilities. They report few or no significant friendships and a very low sense of community belonging in general.

We believe this is a problem.

There are many reasons people with intellectual disabilities (and other groups) may face barriers in finding a sense of community belonging. Some may be cultural factors like our society’s shared values and beliefs surrounding what is considered ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ within a community.

Today, we want to let you in on a little secret. At Skills, we know people with disabilities have many unique gifts and talents to offer their communities. But we also acknowledge that not everyone knows this. There are still a lot of negative stereotypes and myths out there surrounding disability.

We believe, one way to bust these stereotypes and break down social barriers between people is to create opportunities for meaningful social connection. But how do we really achieve that? How do we bring people out of their homes to meet their neighbors? How do we bridge conversations between people of all abilities? This is where things get interesting.

Introducing CommuniTEA Infusion! The communitea van creates a pop up town square like atmosphere where people gather, chat, and share in conversation over a cup of our signature iced tea. The cool thing about the project is that it’s run by people with disabilities.

The premise is quite simple really. Draw people in with a cool set up, eye-catching colors, and friendly smiles.

But what is achieved is so much more. The van is the impetus for connection; sparking conversation and setting the stage for community members with and without disabilities to get to know one another.

A key ingredient to the van’s success are community builders; people with disabilities who are hired to make and serve the tea. Community builders bring enthusiasm and warmth to the space, welcoming people as they approach the van and striking up conversation. These are 2 community builders who work the tea van.

The van does two types of events. Each with a unique purpose. The first is visiting larger local events and festivals. We’ve set up shop at Hip Hop in the Park, Kaleido Family Arts Festival…to name a few. Here people with disabilities are hired as community builders to make and serve tea and interact with people as they approach the van. Showcasing their talents as citizens.

The 2nd type of event we do are community block parties. These are so much fun! The events are hosted by individuals with disabilities supported by Skills. They create the opportunity for people with disabilities to host a vibrant community gathering, drawing people out of their homes into conversation with one another- neighbor to neighbor.

CommuniTEA Infusion has been running for over ten years now. Bringing good cheer, conversation, and sweet iced tea to neighborhoods and events all around the city. Our 2017 season is coming to a close, but we’ve accomplished a LOT this year. This is Ben, who was a big part of launching this project 10 years ago.

Before we tell you about our current season. We’ll fill you in on how the van works. People plan an event or block party. They shoot us a call or email and invite the CommuniTEA team out. We roll in with the van, a driver, Larry, a community builder, our sweet iced tea, and our super awesome pin making machine!

This year, we were invited to over 25 events. We connected with a number of local organizations including Community Options, Inglewood Community League, Edmonton Down Syndrome Society, Boyle Street, the Winspear, and the Running Room. We employed 12 people with disabilities and served over 1300 glasses of iced tea!

To end, Larry is going to share some of his experiences with the tea van: One of my favorite parts of working the van is having conversations with other people. I like sharing stories about life experiences. The van is important and should keep going because it allows people to meet. People start with a small conversation and for some people it may grow into a new friendship.

The CommuniTEA van is safely tucked away now for the winter months. But keep your eyes open for it’s return in early May 2018!