Take a glimpse behind the scenes of Wesley Social Enterprises in the South-East – a small operation with a big heart and huge impact.
Ask anyone in the town of Kingston the way to Wesley Social Enterprises (WSE), their face will likely light up as they reel off directions.
They know that behind the unassuming shopfront, WSE provides meaningful employment and activities for people with a disability and the dedicated staff who support them.
The Lawn Rangers, Grandma’s Pantry and Day Options are the main operations for the team, who seem more like family than employees.
The Lawn Rangers mow sites around town including several prominent council parks, while Grandma’s Pantry creates condiments, cookies and other goodies for sale in the community and distribution across SA and other states.
“There’s no other supported employment in Kingston so it’s imperative that we continue to operate our service here,” WSE program manager Sue Chester explains.
“I know Kingston appreciates us for what we provide and the community is very supportive.
“Working with these guys is a highlight in my life.”
It’s hot the day we visit, but that doesn’t stop the dedicated Lawn Rangers crew heading out to mow several parks across town.
Aaron, 31, has been with WSE ever since leaving school at age 18.
“I like going on the ride on mower,” Aaron grins, before taking off to mow an expansive lawn in the centre of Kingston.
“If it’s wet I don’t mind going in the kitchen but otherwise I like being outside and mowing more.”
Back at base, we get to meet one of the WSE ‘originals’ – Matty, who is today in charge of chopping onions for the array of chutneys and sauces sold by Grandma’s Pantry.
Matty, 41, has been with WSE for 28 years and says he “never cries” when on onion duty, making him the perfect person for the job.
Sue explains that Matty spends three days a week working for the social enterprises and two days in the Day Options program, taking part in activities and developing new skills.
“The focus for Matty is on independent living,” Sue says.
“We are focusing on his cooking skills, budgeting and shopping.
“He makes his lunches and on Thursdays he makes a meal to take home with him to share with his mum and dad.”
Gianni, 43, is another of WSE’s earliest employees and he is quick to let us in on a trade secret.
“When we are working for Grandma’s Pantry, if we burn something we put it in the jar and then we get to eat it,” he divulges.
We take note and, after lunch, are delighted when the jar has some cookies to sample that didn’t quite make the grade for sale.
Benita is in charge of chopping tomatoes on the day we visit and says while she sometimes finds the work a challenge, the people make it worthwhile.
“The people here are loving – they understand you,” she says.
“We are very much a family.”
Samantha joined the team in the middle of last year and with support from her supervisor is working on a new line of business for Grandma’s Pantry.
The local pub, Crown Inn Hotel, is trialling small packs of biscuits to serve with coffee to patrons.
“Before coming here I had tried to get work in open employment and didn’t have any luck,” Samantha says.
“Nobody wants to hire someone in a wheelchair.
“Wesley Social Enterprises gave me the opportunity to work and it makes me feel needed and wanted.”
Two staff who joined the team last year – Ron and Greg – are also full of praise for WSE.
Greg spends three days a week supporting the Lawn Rangers and two days supporting the Day Options program.
He has had many different jobs in his life – including as a farmer, black-smith and a plant operator in the mines – but says he is relishing his new role and the ability to make a difference in the lives of others.
He genuinely beams when he talks about the advances he has made with Jason, who he supports through Day Options.
“The other day we went kite flying together and he actually started to look at it and fly it,” Greg says.
“I’ve also modified a game of totem tennis so he can hit the ball now.
“I just like to make him feel good and give him a happy day – and I go home feeling pretty good myself.”
Fellow newcomer Ron became the Business Supervisor for the Lawn Rangers last year, having spent much of his career as a mental health practitioner across the South-East.
Upon visiting Kingston, Ron says he “fell in love with the town” and when he saw the Lawn Rangers position advertised, he knew it would be the perfect fit.
“It’s the best position I’ve had in 50 years in the workforce – we are the ‘A team’,” he says.
“It’s pretty easy to supervise guys who know more about the job than you do.
“There’s no way I would ever leave this … it’s the most rewarding job I’ll ever do.
“I’ll be here until the day I retire or die.”
Wesley Social Enterprises is an initiative of UnitingSA. To find out more about WSE in Kingston, call 8767 2211 or click here to visit their website.