The 'soul of Mount Royal' celebrates 40 years of inclusion

Transitional Vocational Program supports adults with developmental disabilities as they build work and life skills

A group of MRU students hanging-out near Charlton Pond.

Since its founding in 1980, more than 4,000 adults with developmental disabilities have built life and works skills through the Transitional Vocational Program at Mount Royal.

The year was 1980. In Calgary, 11th Avenue SW was known as Electric Avenue. Gas cost less than 40 cents per litre. The Flames played their first season in Cowtown with a roster that included Kent Nilsson and Jim Peplinski. Ralph Klein began his reign as mayor. And at what was then Mount Royal College, the Transitional Vocational Program (TVP) was launched.

A quick scan would show that TVP provides unique programs to adults with developmental disabilities. Keep looking, though, and you’ll see a rich kaleidoscope of empowerment, teamwork, professionalism, accountability and respect. These are TVP’s values and the program lives those tenets in everything it does, which all come together in an embrace of community and inclusion.

Forty years ago, Calgarian Gerry Law co-founded TVP with Mount Royal and later led a fundraising campaign that provided more than $1 million for the program. Part of the campaign created a legacy endowment that still exists today. The cause was near to his heart, as Law’s son Jamie was born with cognitive and developmental disabilities. After Jamie was one of the first students to complete the program, he went on to work at Safeway for more than 30 years. His mother, Margaret Law, vividly recalls the day her son told her he got his first job.

“When he got his job at Safeway, they still used the word retarded. I can still remember him telling me, ‘I am not retarded any more.’ I thought, ‘Oh, that tells the whole story.’ He realized immediately that he was accepted. He could be a part of the community,” Margaret says.

How society views the developmentally disabled — and the language in that conversation — has evolved. Now, the conversation starts with members of the developmentally disabled community and touches on every aspect of a fulfilled life. That is reflected in TVP’s programming, which has grown through the years. It has become a more student-focused approach that emphasizes independence and reflects current learnings in community-based rehabilitation and disability studies.


TVP is made up of two parts ― the Employment Preparation Certificate, a full-year certificate program that prepares students for competitive employment and community living with a combination of on-campus instruction and community-based work practicums; and part-time studies, with courses such as functional literacy and math, learner’s licence test preparation, life skills, introduction to computer coding, basic living skills and more.

While Jamie was one of the first students to benefit from TVP, he was far from the last. The program has supported more than 4,000 adults with developmental disabilities in building skills that help them realize their potential. Margaret recalls that one night, prior to MRU becoming a university, Gerry and former MRU President David Marshall, PhD (2003-2011), were discussing the program. Gerry was concerned that TVP might be left behind. “Dr. Marshall told Gerry, there is no way they would be getting rid of TVP. It is the ‘soul’ of Mount Royal. And I thought, ‘Oh boy, that was so beautifully said,’ ” Margaret says.

After Gerry passed away in 2016, the family received a letter from then-President David Docherty, PhD (2011-2019). It said that what Gerry started was more or less what Mount Royal University wants to accomplish. “It’s about inclusion and the chance for everybody to get an education. As the slogan says, ‘You belong here,’ ” Margaret says.

Supporting TVP

One of the main reasons the program has been successful for four decades is the unwavering support of the University and the Faculty of Continuing Education and Extension, explains Craig Baskett, current program administrator and longtime TVP staff member. “There used to be nine TVPs around the province, now there are only four. There is always demand for this program, but you need institutional support,” Baskett says.

“A commitment to diversity and inclusion is hard-wired into the culture at Mount Royal. It’s also a part of our strategic goals, which really says a lot about who we are as an institution.”

TVP is not a traditional core program of an accredited university, so over the years there was the risk of it being cut. And the students it serves may not always have had a voice or been able to advocate for the program. However, the support and the sense of community at MRU has always been phenomenal, Baskett emphasizes. From Big Bob’s BBQ  — an annual fundraiser started by Security Services’ Bob Charlton (AKA "Big Bob”), and Custodial Services’ Stu Gauthier — to the sales of holiday floral centrepieces to students working in various areas of campus, the Mount Royal community holds TVP close to its heart.

“For four decades, TVP has led by example, with its promise to students of empowerment, teamwork, professionalism, accountability and respect. I am proud of our institution’s 40-year history with the Transitional Vocational Program,” says Brad Mahon, dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education and Extension. “While Mount Royal is no longer a community college, as a university, we’ve maintained our community roots and that is reflected in TVP.”

Employer support

In addition to support from the University, the community has embraced the program and its goals. After completing the full-time Employment Preparation Certificate program, countless students have gone on to work at meaningful jobs. Employers have been as varied as the students themselves, ranging from office services, landscaping, auto body shops, theatres, dealerships, grocery stores, furniture stores, casinos, restaurants and more.

“We strive to place our students on worksites, not because they are disabled, but because they bring value, like anyone else. That’s the key element,” Baskett says. “Like any employee our students experience struggles and successes on the worksite. We hope that with the support of the program, students eventually achieve independence on the worksite."

IKEA began working with TVP in 2017 and has since hired two greeters and one carts-and-carry-out co-worker. James Radder, people and culture generalist at IKEA and TVP Advisory Committee member, says there are many reasons to hire a TVP student.

“There are, of course, ‘feel good’ reasons to give a TVP student an opportunity, but it’s important not to understate the concrete value they have brought to our business. Because they stay in their role a long time, staff retention in these areas has increased incredibly since they’ve joined us and has saved thousands in hiring,” Radder says. “Since they are eager to perform and help customers, I can also say with near certainty that they have personally contributed to sales and customer satisfaction at an individual level.”

Student success

Many students have experienced success after completing TVP. Graduate William DeLong says he would not be where he is today without the program. DeLong has attention deficit disorder, dyslexia and a mild case of cerebral palsy. He says he always had a tougher time in school than his brother and sister. When he was taking the Employment Preparation Certificate program in 2009, he received excellent support from the staff and instructors, DeLong says. He gained valuable skills such as how to write a resume and cover letter and how to excel in an interview. DeLong had a part-time job as a courtesy clerk at Safeway, but wanted to turn it into something more.

“I remember a few long days in the TVP office where I was almost going to give up hope of advancing my career, but the staff supported me and had the patience to help me through some struggles,” DeLong says. “I managed to advance to a cashier position that was full-time and in a location that was much closer to my home.

“I can stand as a witness to how amazing this program is and how it has helped so many people with disabilities.”

Jeffrey Riddell is another success story. He graduated from the program in 2000 and got a job with the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) as a lunchroom supervisor and office assistant. He quickly progressed to part-time facility assistant, and then completed his fifth class power engineering certificate and a facility management program. Riddell is now a senior facility operator with the CBE and oversees 13 other employees. He still calls TVP administrators regularly with job leads for other students.

“It is important for everyone to have some sort of job,” he says. What stands out the most to Riddell about TVP was the staff. “They do much more than what is listed.”

Staff impact

Everyone familiar with TVP mentions the patience, kindness and dedication of TVP staff, including those involved with the program from the beginning. “Gerry always said that it’s really the staff that kept the program going all these years. They are great and everything they have done has worked out so well,” Margaret Law says.

DeLong adds that every single person who works for TVP is there to help students with challenges succeed in not only getting a job, but growing the next generation into contributing members of society. Baskett has worked with the program in a variety of roles for more than 20 years and says that every single staff member he has worked with has had a passion for working with the students and that their commitment has been remarkable.

“Our team members hold the same values as the program and work together to support our students become more independent,” he says. “There’s constant communication and feedback on student support. Even our offices are set up in an open environment to foster that.

“We are so fortunate to have a legacy of support from the University and the Faculty of Continuing Education. Some that come to mind are Norma MacIntosh, Elaine Danelesko, Donna Sharman, Donna Spaulding, current dean Brad Mahon — the list goes on.”

The future

The year is 2020. After four decades of success, the Transitional Vocational Program continues to thrive. Twenty-four graduating students from the class of 2019/2020 were celebrated in early November with a COVID-friendly drive-in event. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, students completed their studies and gained invaluable work and life skills in the process.

TVP students “love being at university. They enjoy being social, being challenged and being treated like a typical student,” Baskett says. “We have high expectations academically and in the workplace, but we also provide the support for our students.”

In recognition of the 40th anniversary of TVP, the Mount Royal Staff Association is making a $1,000 donation. (Donors can visit a dedicated website to ensure their contribution goes towards TVP’s mission of supporting adults with developmental disabilities to find and maintain competitive employment and build skills for independent living.)

TVP is poised to continue to make an impact on the lives of students, families, staff and employers for many years to come.

“Forty years ago, most of the parents wouldn’t have ever believed that their child would have a chance,” Margaret Law says. “That TVP gave them that chance is simply wonderful.”

Visit to learn more about the Transitional Vocational Program.

Dec. 17, 2020 ― Felicia Zuniga with files from Ruth Myles

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