CEO blog: Meet Irene Andress, Holland Bloorview’s new vice president, programs and services and chief nursing executive

Irene Andress, vice president, programs and services and chief nursing executive

In October, we welcomed Irene Andress as our new vice-president, programs and services and chief nursing executive, with 35 years of healthcare experience, the last 30 of which were spent at Michael Garron Hospital.

For this month’s blog, I invited Irene to write a guest post and share her reflections on her early journey as part of the Holland Bloorview community.





Well I cannot believe it but it is day 41 of my journey at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital (Holland Bloorview). Though I have been here for just over a month, it feels like I’ve been here forever! It has been such a fantastic transition and that I know is not an accident. Let me tell you why.

Some will know that in my interview process, I was asked to complete a 30-60-90 day plan to demonstrate how I would navigate my onboarding time. This caused me to look at and reflect very deeply on all of the important parts of Holland Bloorview, from the care, the research, the education, to the governance and the philanthropy in addition to all the programs, services, projects and most importantly the strategic priorities and values that make this place so special.

On October 14, my official learning began. My love has always been in practice and leadership and in creating the context for the best care and service. So it is not surprising that it has been an easy transition for me. As I became familiar with the fabric of the hospital, I quickly realized that my personal values align fully with those already established: courage/resilience, compassion, excellence, equity and innovation.

Courage and resilience

Balancing a full-time career and raising three children (all under the age of two at one point) made my husband and I comfortable with “being out of control.” That was not comfortable most of the time but it taught me to prioritize, not take myself too seriously, and to be organized and outcomes oriented. I have learned that it is important to speak the truth, to be honest and transparent, and that this is an art that needs a lot of practice.

I love to ask “why” or as the QI exercise would describe it as “using the five why’s” as this is the path to true understanding. Of course, this always works better when one is well versed in emotional intelligence as the question “why” can spark all kinds of emotions. What I’ve learned is to tell people why I am asking the question or be clear about my intention and not assuming (we know what that can mean).

Excellence and compassion

Just this week I asked a lot of “why” questions while shadowing Sally, one of the excellent nurses on our Complex Continuing Care unit.

In the two hours I spent with Sally and two nursing students, I observed both excellence and compassion. Sally moved expertly between caring for her client, educating and mentoring her students, explaining the “why’s” to the Chief Nurse AND all the while communicating with care and compassion and role modelling “expert” care. The nursing students (one from McMaster and one from the University of Toronto) were outstanding – both able to execute on very specialized skills while never losing sight of the fact that they were caring for a human being with feelings, emotions, need for security and safety. I thank Sally and the students for the privilege of sharing in the bedside care and enabling me to learn their unique set of skills from the best.

Irene shadowing complex continue care nurse, Sally (centre right) while educating two nursing students.

Equity and innovation

I have learned to appreciate that no one person is the same or created equal and the more diverse our teams and environments, the stronger we will be to create innovation and to create a world of possibility for kids and youth with disabilities. This will be the “no boundaries” future that is the hallmark of Holland Bloorview’s strategic vision. There is a lot to learn and I am committed to being part of that future of possibility.  Our work with clients and families and our commitment to inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility will lead us to be system leaders in creating the best place to give and receive care and service.

My commitment

I am committed to be grateful for the privilege to be invited into the Holland Bloorview community. I knew this place was special when I visited the Tim Horton’s on one of my first days. I ordered my usual coffee and was so impressed when Beverley (one of the food services employees) remembered my coffee order and had it ready even before I paid for it. What was more impressive was the next morning, when I saw my coffee waiting for me again, but before I could provide payment, Beverly waved off my money and acknowledged that she had given me the wrong coffee the morning before. I was flabbergasted. How could it be that someone would know that much about their customer? This is just one example of the magic – the “secret sauce” that makes Holland Bloorview so special.

This magic happens with hard work and a commitment to the values promoted across the culture. I am so grateful  for the friendliness and the warmth of everyone that I meet. My commitment is to never forget these moments, to remain grateful and to carry that warmth into everything that I do.


I’m about half way through my onboarding and I have a lot more learning to do. We have a big year ahead of us, with ambitious plans, including (but not limited to):

  • Resolution of the COVID-19 pandemic and getting back to a new post-virus reality;
  • Preparation for Accreditation 2021. We all know the effort that it takes to show the accreditors how great we are;
  • Embracing Caring Safely and all of the evidence based practices to ensure quality, safety and a high reliability organization; and
  • Enhancing the strength-based and solution-focused philosophy and practice integration work.

My job will be to maintain focus, to synergize and simplify our work together.

Irene (centre) with members of Holland Bloorview’s pharmacy team. During Canadian Patient Safety Week, Irene awarded the group with a prize for a virtual care safety initiative.

Thank YOU to Julia, Diane, Golda and the senior management team for welcoming me and teaching me. Thanks to my program leads who have been patient (even when I ask crazy questions!). And special thanks to Claire Whyte – my life saver and partner. She makes my days simple no matter the circumstances.

So I will leave you with the words of Florence Nightingale …

So never lose an opportunity of urging a practical beginning, however small, for it is wonderful how often in such matters the mustard-seed germinates and roots itself.

Let us all be the fertile soil for growth, new beginning and endless possibilities.


CEO blog: Children with disabilities need to be seen and heard, too

For this month’s blog, I’m sharing with you a post I wrote in October for National Child Day, a day recognized and celebrated in Canada on November 20.

This year’s theme, Children should be seen and heard, resonates strongly with our community, as at Holland Bloorview we continuously work to ensure children living with disabilities and complex medical needs are part of the conversation.

As a recognized leader in family-centered care, we are committed to co-creating with children, youth, families and alumni to make sure that everything we do is informed by the kids we provide care to and their families. As the recipients of our care, they are in the best position to tell us what we do right, where we can improve and where we may want to shift our focus to be even better. Our commitment is deeply entrenched across the organization and embedded in our No Boundaries strategic plan.

In addition to embedding the client and family voice into everything we do, we also use our position of influence to uplift the voices of kids and youth living with disability.

Perhaps the best example of this is our Dear Everybody campaign, a social advocacy campaign that originally launched in 2017, which was built in close collaboration with our clients and families. In the first year, youth, our youth, wrote an open letter to “Everybody,” with the objective to educate and de-stigmatize disabilities. The letter, which includes 50+ lines of gripping statements, have since been printed on hundreds of t-shirts, postcards and (new in 2020) masks, and continue to be central to the campaign through its evolution year over year.

A few read:

“Dear Everybody, not everyone with a disability looks like they have a disability”

“Dear Everybody, Just because someone doesn’t do something they way most people do it, doesn’t mean they can’t do it.”

“Whispering is rarely as discreet as you think it is.”

Now in its fourth year, the campaign focuses increasing the representation of people living with disabilities in the media, as they are rarely seen, and for our kids, this lack of representation tells them that their stories aren’t important, that their voices do not matter, and that they aren’t a part of the conversation. Things neither which are true or should be felt by any child.

On November 20, I encourage you all to join me in recognizing National Child Day by advocating for and elevating the voices of children across our country.

Read my National Child Day blog




CEO blog: Five lessons from wave one of the COVID-19 pandemic

When I turned 50, my family took me on a wonderful winter trip to Hawaii. As the armchair sports fan that I am, I became obsessed with watching surfing from the cliffs along the coast. Each wave represented an enormous challenge and each inevitably was different from the last. What set apart the good from the great was what a surfer learned from the first wave to take into the next one and the one after that. You can tell where this is going…

The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic blindsided us. Debate preparedness but the bottom line is it crashed into us and we were knocked off our boards and hit the sand hard. Wave two has come at us faster than hoped. But we know a lot more about the treatment for and the epidemiology of this novel coronavirus and we also know a lot more about leadership in the era of COVID-19.

  1. Nothing matters more than honesty and clarity

Transparency and realness has triumphed in COVID-19 communication. British Columbia’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford might not have been two names we would have mentioned in the same breath a year ago, but each has taught us things about how to talk about COVID-19.

In Dr. Henry’s case, she has modeled courage, calm and kindness – telling British Columbians what they needed to hear, even if it wasn’t what they wanted to hear (and she has both the death threats and the Fluevogs named after her to prove it).

Premier Ford has stepped up his game and among other things has been Ontario’s “dad-in-chief,” calling people having large gatherings “a few fries short of a happy meal” and exhorting young people, “I don’t care if it’s those doobies, joints, whatever you want to call them… just don’t share them, simple. And wear a face covering.”

For my part, virtual family leader town halls, weekly Friday all-staff emails (that also go to my Board of Trustees) and bi-weekly live all-staff town halls over Zoom have given me the chance to connect with more members of the team than ever, especially with staff who work nights, off-site or who are working from home. Answering questions live during town halls on my own or with the help from expert guests gives me the opportunity to tell the story of Holland Bloorview during the pandemic. This includes sharing what I know and (as importantly) what I don’t know, with some suggestions on recipes, books, streaming, podcasts and workouts thrown in as well as candour about my own struggles as a person, a hospital leader and a mom. And as we have advanced our IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) journey, anti-oppression and anti-racism have been an important part of that story along the way.

2. Good enough is the new perfect

In March, when data and government directives were flying at us and we were making decisions at the speed of covid, I started talking about how we needed to “bathe in our imperfection.” We were trying to get everything right (we are a hospital that scored 100% in our last two Accreditation Canada surveys, after all). I needed to give myself, and every member of our team, the permission to get some things wrong. We were going to judge ourselves on the speed by which we corrected our mistakes and the humility with which we admitted them. For example, when we heard from staff working at the point of care, especially our nurses, that imposing new protocols and directives on Fridays left weekend staff scrambling, we committed to a 48-hour notice rule for implementation of changes.

3. “Covinnovation” is a thing

It’s been argued that it’s in the tension of holding two conflicting ideas in our minds at the same time that new and better ideas are born. This is the heart of COVID-19 innovation. Emergency orders requiring we shut down in-person services and keep as many people out of our building significantly derailed our pre-COVID-19 strategy of increasing access to our services and building a nimble and agile team.

But in April and May, our clinicians provided more virtual care appointments to children than they had in the previous 10 months combined. Moreover, where evidence-informed approaches didn’t exist (e.g. autism diagnostic assessment in a virtual environment) teams had to come together across multiple academic centres to rapidly develop new strategies. When families told us they were struggling financially, we partnered with the Holland Bloorview Foundation to double the size of the Family Support Fund to make it the largest hospital-based financial support fund in Canada at a time when fundraising was going to be harder than at any time since the 2008 financial crisis.

4. We are in this together

In January 2020, we launched a new people strategy, Thrive Together. Who would have imagined how much our commitment to that strategy would be tested in the months since? We have had to dramatically accelerate work to support employee mental health and resilience and have revealed our need to learn and do more to address the impact of systemic racism and oppression on our people. Moving Schwartz Rounds to Zoom has been incredible as a way to dig deep, as has launching our IDEA Task Force. Working from home upended our technology plans and redeployment of staff from ambulatory services to inpatient units was hard, but ultimately brought teams together and put us on a path to better care and fewer siloes.

Probably the most important thing I do in every web cast or Friday all-staff email is thank every single member of our team. Among the many things the pandemic has revealed is how our values and our mission live in every member of our team even when we struggle with fear, anxiety, fatigue, anger and frustration. I can’t ever say thank you enough.

5. COVID-19 is an a**h***

This thing isn’t fair and it isn’t nice. Age. Poverty. Race. Disability. Under-housing. Being Indigenous. These are all factors contributing to being harder hit by this pandemic. At Holland Bloorview, we have seen firsthand the impact on the children we serve and their families.

In the first wave, we learned that our elders were vulnerable – in the hardest of ways. Will we take the lesson from wave one and beyond that children are being permanently harmed by COVID-19 even though they are neither the most infected nor the most hospitalized? Mental health. Developmental milestones. Permanent effects of surgeries postponed and therapy not received.

We should regret the mistakes we made in wave one. We should be ashamed if we don’t learn from them. The lasting lesson of this pandemic has got to be:  our parents and grandparents and our kids must not be left behind.




CEO blog: Dear Everybody demands meaningful change

We live in a world where representation matters, perhaps more than ever before. Goodness knows in the time of COVID-19, we are even more attached to our screens, our streaming services, our 24-hour news channels, and our books and magazines.

We look to media to see what and who matters. Have you heard the slogan – if you can see it you can be it?

For people with disabilities, a lack of visibility has become the norm. They are simply used to their erasure. Put it another way, it’s a (welcome) surprise when disabilities, visible and invisible, are in the media we consume all the time.

With over 120 years of experience in caring for children with disabilities, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital recognizes the importance of inclusion. We take seriously the part we play in driving social justice for kids and youth with disabilities 24/7/365. The Dear Everybody campaign is a fundamental aspect of this work.

What is Dear Everybody?

Dear Everybody is Holland Bloorview’s social advocacy campaign that challenges disability stigma, particularly for kids and youth. We know that despite amazing achievements of kids and youth within our walls, without a more just and inclusive world there are still too many limits for young people with disabilities. That’s why we are passionate about justice and creating greater opportunities for people with disabilities of all ages.

Today, we are launching year four of the campaign. For the second year in a row we are shining a light on the lack of representation of people living with disabilities in the media. 

Slowly but surely, kids using wheelchairs and walkers have been photographed for big brands like Target and Tommy Hilfiger. Gerber made front page news when it announced its first “Gerber baby” with Down syndrome. On our television screens, it is becoming more common to see disability representation in programming for adults and kids alike—popular shows as diverse as Atypical, This is Us, Grey’s Anatomy, Breaking Bad, The Politician, Never Have I Ever and kid and family fave Sesame Street!

But there is still work to be done. Characters with disabilities are often played by actors who do not live with the disability they are portraying. Among the top 10 network TV shows in 2018, only 12% of characters with disabilities were portrayed by actors with the same diagnoses in real life, creating unacceptable barriers for people living with disabilities trying to make it in the entertainment industry.

Show your support by signing the Dear Everybody Agreement

Last year, the Dear Everybody campaign was successful in building tremendous momentum for including disability in the picture. More than 7,000 of you signed the Dear Everybody Agreement, showing your support for a more inclusive media landscape. Almost 20 brands and 21 suppliers (including casting and creative agencies) signed the agreement, promising authentic representation for people with disabilities when putting together their campaigns.

This work continues in Dear Everybody year four.

Holland Bloorview clients have again shared their stories, which make up the “because” statements that form the backbone of this year’s campaign. These include, “Because you don’t have a favourite actor with a disability”, “Because fashion without disability is just not a good look” and “Because when disability is left out, we all miss out”.

We are proud to give these voices a platform, and we believe these personal reflections have the power to truly move the industry (and people like you) to join the cause.

Here’s what you can do to support this year’s campaign:

  1. Sign the Dear Everybody Agreement and join over 7,000 people across the country who want to see change in our media landscape.
  2. Visit for great information on the ways in which people with disabilities are excluded in the media. Share the stories of our clients to highlight why this work matters so much.
  3. Share our posts and stories across your social media channels to amplify the message and encourage your network to do the same. Use our social media tool kit to help craft your own messages too!
  4. **NEW FOR 2020!** Use #DearEverybody stickers on Instagram to call out images that lack disability representation, or celebrate images that include disability in the picture.
  5. Encourage your favourite brands and advertisers to sign the #DearEverybody Agreement using the sample email found in the tool kit.
  6. Start conversations with Dear Everybody merchandise! Dear Everybody t-shirts and water bottles can spark the kind of dialogue about disability awareness we’re aiming for through the campaign. You can purchase them directly from our online store and have them delivered to your front door. This year, we have added cloth masks to our collection of goods!
  7. Connect organizations you are involved with to our Dear Everybody Outreach program. Our outreach program connects schools, workplaces and community organizations to youth with visible and invisible disabilities to engage in a dialogue about disability awareness and the place of disability in equity, diversity and inclusion. The program is available in both in-person or virtual settings. If you’d like to learn more or connect an organization with whom you are involved, email

Twenty-two per cent of us live with a disability—isn’t it high time we all see ourselves in the picture?




CEO blog: Introducing our IDEA Task Force co-chairs

One of the things I love to do is showcase interesting people in my blog. In this post, I’m pleased to introduce the co-chairs of Holland Bloorview’s new Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) Task Force, Meenu Sikand and Aman Sium. In their day jobs, Meenu is the executive lead for equity, diversity and inclusion and Aman is the director of client and family integrated care. I asked them some questions, both light and heavy, focussed on what makes them tick and why they are passionate about the work of anti-racism and making the world a more just place for people with disabilities.

Meenu Sikand, Executive Lead, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Aman Sium, Director, Client and Family Integrated Care.

What have you been reading lately? What’s on your nightstand (or kindle!)?

Meenu: Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century by Alice Wong

Aman: First of all, I’m not much of an “e-reader”. I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to preferring physical books over kindle or audiobooks. I have a big book collection that has turned into a hobby (hoarding?). My father was a high school teacher who raised me to appreciate the smell of weathered pages in an old book, the scribbled notes left by generations of previous owners and the sense of accomplishment you feel after turning that last page. I just finished my very first audiobook, the Autobiography of Malcom X by Alex Haley and Malcom X. I really enjoyed the experience. Before that I read From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Though very different books – one an autobiography published 55 years ago, and the other a seminal contemporary text on the state of Black liberation – I found they complemented each other really nicely, and are helping me appreciate the historical undercurrents for anti-Black violence and resistance in the current moment.

Do you use any social media? Why or why not?

Aman: I used to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But I found juggling all three platforms started to feel like a full-time job. A few years ago, due to limited time and energy, I decided to scale back to just one platform. These days you can find me on Twitter (@amansium) tweeting about client and family-centered care and partnership, health equity and racial justice. Aside from being a great source of tailored news and networking, there’s something really fun about Twitter and the challenge of squeezing complex thoughts and issues into 280 characters. I’m always impressed when people can grab and hold the attention of others with just a few tweets.

Meenu: Yes! Using social media helps me to connect with other like-minded people and amplify my messages to others interested in social justice issues. You can follow me on Twitter (@msikanda4a) and on Instagram (@meenusikand). I’m on LinkedIn and Facebook, too.

What do you think your best quality is?

Meenu: Eternal optimism, being hardworking, my passion (pick one!)

Aman: I’m not sure if I’ve ever thought of myself as having a “best quality”. If I had to answer I’d say my diplomacy and mediation skills. Growing up as the youngest in a household full of assertive personalities, tact and diplomacy were helpful tools in influencing people and promoting my ideas. I’ve always been a carrot over stick person, and over the years I’ve learned to sharpen and wield my “carrot” in very influential ways.

What’s your main fault?

Meenu: Eternal optimism.   

Aman: Like many people, no matter what level of success or love I may experience, I still struggle with the voice of an inner saboteur who tries to convince me that I’m undeserving. I think this is something that everyone struggles with to some degree. I’d characterize it less as a fault and more as our journey towards identity-pride and self-affirmation. I think this is something that also disproportionally impacts Indigenous, racialized, disabled, women, trans, queer, working class folks, and those living at the intersections. Living within what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy means we are over-exposed to a very dominant, narrow image of both beauty and excellence. The more we deviate from that image, we are made to feel more flawed and undeserving of love, praise and success. So the issue runs very deep.

If you hadn’t ended up doing what you do, what would you be?

Meenu: Running a waterfront self- serve coffee shop inside a bookstore.

Aman: First baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays (I took the liberty of weaving some fantasy into my answer).

What is your greatest fear?

Aman: Easy. Coming across a shark while treading water in the middle of the ocean (don’t ask me how I got there). That’s all. Just sharks. To help get over my fear I visited Ripley’s Aquarium when it opened in Toronto to learn more about them, and to try demystify them a bit. It only made me more afraid. So yeah, still sharks.

Meenu: Not being authentic and true to my values.

What is your most treasured possession?

Meenu: My faith.

Aman: The full 1992 Upper Deck (card) Toronto Blue Jays World Series team, autographed. I was a baseball fanatic as a kid. I used to get to games hours early to watch batting practice, talk to the players and beg for autographs. I’d spend much of the actual game imagining myself playing first base for the Jays one day. Between ages eight and 12 I got really serious about collecting baseball cards. My uncle worked in the SkyDome’s underground parking lot and would see the players coming before games. So I gave him my card collection and asked if he could get them signed. One of the happiest days of my life was when he handed them back to me signed and protected in hard covers.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Meenu: It has yet to come.

Aman: Definitely raising my two-year-old daughter. My father once told me that parenthood/guardianship is the quest to raise better humans than ourselves. The older I get the more I subscribe to this idea. The past two years have been joyous, tragic, hopeful, challenging and everything in between. I wasn’t raised within a normative or fully healthy nuclear family and was a bit nervous about becoming a parent. The comfort and knowledge I’ve been able to cultivate over the past two years, and watching her grow into herself with each day, is a very cool achievement that I share with her. 

What do you like the most about working at Holland Bloorview?

Both: Kids and families!

Meenu: Our focus on engagement with kids and families who we serve using a whole-person approach.

Aman: I had very little understanding of, or contact with, people living with disability prior to joining Holland Bloorview. The past three years have provided a steep learning curve that I’m grateful for. I’ve met and learned from so many kids, youth and families around what it means to live with disability, and what disability pride and disability justice should look like. The direct contact with families, the laughter, the powerful sense of community, the advocacy, and the mutual learning are what I like the most about working at Holland Bloorview.

We are having a historic discussion focusing on anti-racism, Black Lives Matter and white supremacy. None of these topics are new to you. Is there anything in the current moment that makes you optimistic? Why or why not?

Meenu: For the first time, since my advocacy career began 30 years ago, I have seen unity from across the globe to denounce racism. It is the persistent coverage of these issues fueled by social media advocacy, supported by corporations and individuals alike, that makes me optimistic. At the same time, I am surprised to learn about important historical events and past resistance efforts that were documented and hidden away.  Through demonstrations, pledges and slogans, young people are driving this movement to change behaviours and definitions of acceptance. I am extremely proud of the collective and collaborative work happening to address anti-racism vertically and horizontally.  

Aman: I think two things separate the current moment from other movements for racial justice over the past 40 years. First, the base of support is larger and more informed of the basics. Never before have racial justice-seeking concepts and vocabulary been so mainstream. The #BlackLivesMatter and #DefundThePolice movements are great examples of this. Second, social media has evolved to become a critical tool to document and amplify experiences of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence at the hands of police, educators, employers, child protection workers and other state actors in important ways. Social media is not the great equalizer that many seem to think it is. It has deepened the surveillance, coercion and control of already oppressed communities. But at the same time it has become a catalyst for change, whether amplifying the murder of George Floyd at the hands of racist police, or being used to organize resistant protests and rebellions. I think these two factors have contributed to the hopefulness and confidence that defines today’s social movements for racial justice. 

Do you have a memory of the first time you faced discrimination?

Meenu: There have been too many instances to count when I was discriminated against for being different based on my gender, disability, colour, beliefs or accent. Earlier in my life, I was unfamiliar with this term and did not relate my experiences to discrimination. Here’s one example: after acquiring a spinal cord injury and being admitted for rehabilitation, staff at the hospital were surprised that I spoke English well. They were also surprised when I asked to include pursuit of a career and financial self-sufficiency as part of my rehab goals. My desire to live with my family as an adult was discouraged using a western definition of independent living. All these things were discriminatory attitudes against me as an immigrant, as a woman of colour, as a person with a disability, but I’m not sure I would have named it that way at that time.

You have taken on the role of co-chair of Holland Bloorview’s IDEA Task Force. Why is this something you are putting your energies behind?

Aman: That’s a great question. I believe all healthcare delivery models have a responsibility to help heal the whole person. World-class medical care is one thing, but if we’re not viewing social and environmental factors with an equity lens as and part of how we design care, then even world-class medical care will not bridge disparities around healthcare access, experiences of care, and clinical outcomes. For over 30 years, evidence has told us that the social determinants of health (e.g., systemic racism, sexism, class oppression, gender discrimination, etc.) are the greatest indicators of health outcomes. This is also true in our setting in pediatric rehabilitation. I took on this role to both challenge and coach Holland Bloorview to be the best version of itself in this regard. We all know there is more we can do to address deeply rooted social and economic injustices and their impact on healthcare. The moment is right for us to both challenge and lead the system in this area.

Meenu: This role will allow me to create an inclusive framework and model that will help to critically analyze the systems of oppression for BIPOC-D [Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, and Disability] populations. Co-chairing the task force will give me the opportunity to embark on the journey of gathering the missing data on race, disability and intersectionality by engaging Holland Bloorview staff at all levels and developing a sustainable action plan to address the findings. I always have dreamt of creating a just and barrier-free society where no one is excluded or left behind because of their colour, gender or abilities.

Thank you, Aman and Meenu, for introducing yourself in this fun and deep way to our community. The IDEA Task Force is a critical component of Holland Bloorview’s anti-racism action plan.

Holland Bloorview is accepting applications for membership to the IDEA Task Force until August 24. Information about the task force, including how to apply is available on HB Connect (available to Holland Bloorview employees only).

CEO blog: Project SEARCH Toronto gives youth with a disabilities a kick-start to employment

Project SEARCH Toronto logo

If you haven’t heard of it, Project SEARCH is a 10-month school-to-work transition program for youth with developmental disabilities in their final year of high school.  The program helps students develop competitive, transferable skills required for entry-level employment. The international program, which is active in over 600 locations around the world not only helps youth with disabilities build employable skills, but also empowers employers to be inclusive in their hiring practices.

The program started at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, so at Holland Bloorview, we had an immediate affinity for its origin story. It also was a perfect fit for our vision of the most meaningful and healthy futures for all children, youth and families and our organizational commitment to become a model employer of people with disabilities; an important component of our overall equity, diversity and inclusion strategy.

If a meaningful future for an individual with a developmental or intellectual disability includes employment, why shouldn’t they be able to reach that goal? With the Holland Bloorview Transitions Strategy generously funded through our foundation and a team already in place, being a catalyst to bring Project SEARCH to Toronto was an irresistible challenge.

Community Living Toronto, the Toronto District School Board, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – University Health Network, the Ontario Disability Employment Network (ODEN), and United Way Greater Toronto all came together to make this program a reality for the first cohort of Project SEARCH participants in fall 2019.

Of course, 2020 has been a year like no other and among the valuable job skills learned by the participants were the many things you can do on ZOOM as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc.  With the school year now complete, our first Project SEARCH graduates are now seeking employment across the city of Toronto. In fact, one of the participants has already secured permanent employment at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation.

To help paint the picture of the skills and abilities they have developed over the last year, Jeanette Campbell, president and CEO of ODEN, and Carolyn McDougall, transition strategy team lead at Holland Bloorview tell us more about the program, its students and why employers should open your inclusivity framework to include people living with developmental disabilities.

Tell us about yourself and how you became involved in Project SEARCH?

Carolyn: I worked in human resources when I first started at Holland Bloorview and we had a great experience hiring a team member with a disability with coaching support from an employment agency. I was struck by how simple changes that started as “accommodations” improved our work flow for the whole team. I also saw the importance of building life skills through experiences as part of many clients’ rehabilitation journeys. I later went back to school to become an occupational therapist. I focused a lot of my projects on topics related to the social determinants of health. I even did a program design assignment that later morphed into Holland Bloorview’s long-running Youth@Work program.

I was at the ODEN annual conference in 2017 and heard Oly Backstrom from Manitoba talk about their success with the Project SEARCH model. I was impressed by his illustrations of how the partnerships between agencies and with businesses create employment success. We organized some conference calls with Oly, the Project SEARCH founder Erin Riehle and people we thought might be interested in Toronto. Things grew from there.

Jeannette:  I joined the team at ODEN in 2017 and my first day coincided with our annual Rethinking Disability conference.  During the event, I was introduced to the Project SEARCH model and was inspired to learn more.  Once I came to understand the benefits and features of the program, and found other people, like Carolyn, who were just as excited about the possibilities for delivering the model in Ontario, we began the work of getting Project SEARCH up and running in Toronto.

Jeannette, can you describe Project SEARCH and the benefits for participating organizations and the students.

For both students and the host sites, there are so many benefits.  Students get intensive exposure to the world of work with an opportunity to explore skills and real jobs in a uniquely coordinated way that successfully transitions them to the workforce.  Businesses get to build their awareness and ability to support youth who have a disability in a work setting and increase their capacity as managers and co-workers to be inclusive.  The program itself uses an employer informed curriculum, meaning that the business has the potential to hire students right out of the program who are already trained in the jobs that need to be filled as well.

Carolyn, with Holland Bloorview participating as one of the host sites (Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – University Health Network being the other), what benefits and insights did you think Project SEARCH brought to our organization?

 As a host site, our role is to provide work experience placements for students that allow them to learn skills that are transferable to a variety of industries and roles – so students worked with many teams across our organization in areas such as in finance, clinical support areas, materials management and more.

We have received some tremendous feedback and acknowledgements about the benefits of the program since the students started their placements at Holland Bloorview in September 2019. For example, we heard:

  • From clients and families that they like seeing youth with disabilities as part of Holland Bloorview’s workforce;
  • From staff that the students’ enthusiasm, helpfulness and friendliness added to our workplace culture; and
  • From teams that they learned about inclusive communication and training strategies.

Six Project SEARCH students are with their teacher in a classroom
Students from Project SEARCH participate in a computer training session with their teacher.

Carolyn, how has the pandemic impacted the final months for the students? What are the next steps for them?

As high school students across Ontario moved to virtual learning, so did the Project SEARCH Toronto students. Unfortunately, the pandemic interrupted their immersive, hands-on learning experiences – April to June was the time-frame for their third and final 10 week work placements. Some would have been doing placements again at Holland Bloorview and some would have been starting placements at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – University Health Network.

Still, the students had a great base of experience and skills with the two placements they had completed. During April, May and June they have continued with daily group or individual virtual learning activities led by their TDSB teacher and Community Living Toronto job and skills developers. They focused on computer skills and workplace communication skills including emailing, small talk, joining group conversations, among other things.

The students also held employment planning meetings to finalize the types of roles they want to search for. They have updated their resumes and prepared video resumes as well. They are now starting to look for work, with support from an employment solutions advisor from Community Living Toronto. Also, we have created a Project SEARCH Toronto’s Business Advisory Council to introduce employers to the program and open doors for potential hiring connections.

Eight Project SEARCH students and their teachers celebrate graduating from the program in June 2020 via ZOOM video conference.
Eight Project SEARCH students and their teachers celebrate graduating from the program in June 2020 via ZOOM video conference.

Jeannette, what are the next steps for Project SEARCH Toronto?

In the short term, the Project SEARCH Toronto committee will be working through COVID-19 and planning for potential new realities for the coming school year.  We will also continue to engage government and businesses, and employment service providers to identify new locations, ways to enhance the model, and supporting the first cohort with their employment search.  In the long term we will continue to look at expanding the model in Toronto first, then Ontario, then Canada.

Carolyn, what do the first Project SEARCH Toronto graduates have to offer potential employers?

Students who graduate from Project SEARCH Toronto have completed more than 550 co-op placement hours over 10 months. Their interests and career goals vary but generally they excel at jobs that are systematic and require someone who can follow the procedures with a consistently high standard of performance. Graduates have training and skills directly related to the jobs they are applying for – for example a graduate seeking a role in food services has trained in food prep, stocking, cleaning and cashier roles. They have also demonstrated punctuality, great attendance, team work and communication skills which are highly valued by employers.

Employers can learn more at and contact us to arrange for an introductory presentation.

Jeanette, can you share an example that illustrates how businesses benefit when they include individuals with disabilities in their workforce?

Almost one in four Canadians (22%) have a disability; that is a huge talent pool that businesses are missing out on if they are not intentionally including people who have a disability in their workforce.  We also know that organizations with inclusive cultures are eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes, so its just good business sense.  A 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report revealed that 7 out of 10 businesses believe diversity and inclusion is a competitive advantage, and that when Canadians were surveyed recently, 78% of them said they were more likely to buy a product or service from a business that  hires people who have a disability.  If a business is not looking at their human resource practices through a diversity and inclusion lens, they are missing out on many benefits that impact their bottom line, their staff retention, and their customer experience.

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Are there any key learnings from the first year that will impact how the program is delivered for the second cohort of students?

Carolyn: We will be focusing on continuing to improve the range of skills students can learn in our placement roles – aligning with skills needed for in-demand jobs. Our Business Advisory Council members will be vital here – bringing their industry specific expertise.

Jeannette:  While I was not involved in the direct delivery of the program to students, I did see the opportunity to better utilize different technology in the delivery of the program and in the co-op placements.  I think that Project SEARCH Toronto can enhance the student and host site experience by utilizing apps and software on smart phones and tablets.  They have the opportunity to explore coaching and mentoring remotely, which will free up resources for students who may require more support.

How do you unwind after a day at work?

Jeannette: I have recently begun to enjoy gardening so that is proving to be a nice way to relax.  Nothing beats a nice long walk or a great conversation with a friend though.  Shared laughs are always a great way to unwind.

Carolyn: My dog Rudy loves to go for walks and play soccer! Fortunately, he also likes to sit together on the couch while I read. I also love cooking and baking, great ways to relax that also produce tasty results.

If you could have dinner with any three people (alive/post-humous/fiction), who would it be and why?

Jeannette: That is a hard one to answer – my table may need to be extended so I can get my friends together for a great meal.  But if its famous people, I would say Jacques Cousteau, Rosaly Lopes (volcanologist and explorer), and Bill Withers.  That would combine deep sea, volcanoes, and music, a very interesting mix I think.

Carolyn: My top choice would be to have friends and family over again for dinner – I’ve missed that a lot during COVID-19. If I had to invite famous people, I’d find it fascinating to listen over dinner to some of my favourite news people. I’m a big fan of CBC and think Matt Galloway is a great interviewer for example. I also watch Stephen Colbert regularly.

For more information about Project SEARCH Toronto, visit




CEO blog: Not the Blog Post I Planned to Write this Month

Protester march peacefully in Toronto with sign "Not Another Black Life"
Protester march peacefully in Toronto with sign “Not Another Black Life” Source: Sudbury Star

This weekend, practically all my family talked about was the death of George Floyd, the response of the criminal justice system to the acts of the police officers involved, the protests all across the United States and here in Toronto, the law enforcement response to those protests, the political response, and the political failure to respond. And I shared the true pride I felt as a Torontonian at the approach to protest with a careful eye on public health shown by the #notanotherblacklife organizers of Saturday’s protest complete with physical distancing info-graphics and masking requirements.

We alternated between being glued to the news, and turning away, unable to watch any more. We debated. Voices were raised. Articles were read and new discussions ensued. Posts on social media were shared on our accounts and amongst ourselves. And it continued into Monday morning – the first thing we started talking about even before morning coffee had kicked in.

Let me tell you about my family. In the dictionary under “privilege” there is a picture of us. White. Highly educated. High incomes. Two out of three kids in university that we can afford to pay for. Own our house. Live in a fancy neighbourhood (yes one of those that is the lightest of pink on the City of Toronto COVID-19 map). Drive nice cars. Healthy. I could go on but I don’t need to – you undoubtedly get the picture.

This wasn’t the blog post I expected to be writing on June 1, 2020. It’s Pride Month so I might have been writing about LGBTQ2SI diversity and inclusion. It’s National Accessibility Awareness Week so I might have been writing about accessibility and disability inclusion. It’s a global pandemic so I might actually have expected to be writing (again) about something related to COVID-19.

But instead I am writing about racism and violence and police-involved deaths of Black and Indigenous men and women. If we have over-used the word “unprecedented” in the wake of the pandemic, anti-Black violence is sadly, infuriatingly, with shameful precedent.

I’m no expert on anti-racism and anti-oppression. For white people like me, using our voices to amplify Black voices, using our power for anti-racist activities, reaching out to check-in on our Black family, friends and employees, enhancing the employee resources we have to explicitly address the mental health and wellness consequences of racism and the trauma of witnessing racist violence, using our leadership to make our organizations stronger voices for equity and anti-oppression, and in the case of our hospital, advancing our work in reducing health inequity and identifying how the social determinants of health – including race – impact the children and families we serve, are just a few things to do.

For myself, something I’m not comfortable doing is copying and pasting tweets about fighting racism, retweeting and tagging more white folks. I say this personally not because I think anyone who has done just that is not truly championing anti-racism or truly intending to be making change. I say it because for me, I fear I run the risk of feeling like I’ve “done” something by posting a tweet and worry that I would let myself off the hook of doing more IRL (as we say on social media). I will still tweet quotes and affirmations. I’ll share resources over social channels. I’ll especially share the posts of Black voices.

So back to my family: talking, thinking, debating and talking some more. This is valuable. This is worthwhile. This is actually even a tiny bit hard. Each one of us energized to expect more of ourselves and each other to do something, even if we don’t all agree on what.

This has been a harder and sadder week than we had expected. You would have thought a pandemic might have been the toughest thing our society would have had to be dealing with. But no, that’s not what the end of May 2020 will be remembered for.

Please share your thoughts, resources, criticisms and advice with me here on this blog or on any of my social channels (Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram) or directly by email at

CEO blog: The research must go on

This week we crossed the threshold of the 100th daily email from Ontario’s COVID-19 Emergency Operations Centre. Over what is simultaneously a very long period of time and hardly any time at all, we’ve experienced changes in virtually every part of our lives.

Our governments at all levels have responded swiftly and with compassion to protect people and businesses that have been impacted from the economic fallout of the pandemic. In Ontario these measures included new supports and greater flexibility in existing programs for children with disabilities and these are important.

While the Government of Canada has rolled out financial help to protect many sectors during the pandemic, not everyone has been on the receiving end of this support. It’s time for Canada’s hospital based research institutes to be provided with the financial scaffolding that they need.

One of my favourite Twitter pals, Julie Drury (@SolidFooting), tweeted a quote from Michelle Obama recently: “Don’t ever make decisions based on fear. Make decisions based on hope and possibility. Make decisions based on what should happen, not what shouldn’t.”

In the early days of this pandemic (yes, already with the 20-20 hindsight) many decisions did appear to be made based on fear – and rightly so as there is much to fear about the new virus. One of those decisions was to shut down virtually all non-COVID-19 research and research funding.

Before the pandemic, there was no shortage of life-enhancing research happening in every corner of the globe, including at Holland Bloorview’s very own Bloorview Research Institute (BRI). The BRI is a world leader in childhood disability research and in 2018 we began an exciting new journey, launching the biggest expansion effort in the BRI history to scale up so we can impact more children and families around the world.

But the BRI, like all hospital-based institutes, relies on external sources of revenue including grants from government-funded research councils, foundations, donors and industry to sustain operations, employ its research staff and fund its trainees – the next generation of researchers. Such institutes are excluded from provincial health-care budgets and do not receive government funding in the same manner as publicly-funded universities. With funding sources now cut for an unknown length of time, and no end in sight to the state-of-crisis reality we find ourselves in, there is a huge risk to the research community across the country, which could have lasting and devastating impacts on the entire field of health research.

Of course I’m biased, but as I said at a virtual meeting with BRI staff this week, I’m particularly concerned about the impact on the field of childhood disability research which is a small and relatively young field. There is so much yet to learn. There are so many children and youth who do not have the access to research they need that will support the quality of life to which they are entitled. Without the research that happens at the BRI, those life-changing research efforts could be set back by a generation.

Of course, given the impact of COVID-19, the focus on research about this novel coronavirus – treatments and interventions, the vaccine which is our hope for going back to something like a new normal –is much needed. But as we all know, life goes on despite the pandemic (albeit disrupted). Babies continue to be born, accidents still happen that require people to visit the emergency department and children living with disabilities continue to face challenges living their day-to-day. Health research, outside of COVID-19, remains critically important and financial support is needed now more than ever to make sure our researchers can continue to work toward providing the best and brightest futures for children and youth and their families.

Despite the uncertainties in the research community I am thrilled that, with so many summer internships on hold or cancelled, we decided to move forward with our Ward Summer Student Research Program, hosted virtually this year. This program receives thousands of applicants each year and welcomes a small number of highly deserving undergraduate students to have the opportunity to work alongside some of Canada’s top disability researchers. Lunch and Learns and team building activities that expose young and ambitious scientists to the unique and specialized field of childhood disability research helps build the next generation of researchers.

There are 400,000 Canadian children living with disabilities and the BRI is focused on improving the quality of life for each one of them as well as their counterparts around the globe and generations of children to come. With our unique lens, with family leaders as partners in research, we fear that lost research funding today resulting from the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 will mean lasting and unforeseeable consequences.  We know that government has heard this call and is weighing it with many other compelling and urgent priorities. Everything we do at Holland Bloorview is based on hope and possibility. We are waiting and watching for the help we need now because research can’t wait.




CEO blog: Navigating through COVID-19

Masking_Facebook 1200x630

It’s hard to believe it was just a month ago that I wrote about women in leadership, honouring International Women’s Day. The world is so drastically different today from the world I wrote that post in… and you don’t need me to remind you of that.

After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s press conference on March 11, our world, much like everyone else’s changed quickly. As a hospital, we had to respond quickly to protect our staff, clients and families.  In the face of adversity, we’ve been “working at the speed of COVID-19,” as I’ve started to call it.

Within days, we set up screening for everyone coming into our hospital, protocols around use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and implemented restrictions to the number of parents or caregivers who could accompany our clients – an enormous decision with huge impacts on our clients, families and staff. It bears stating: for children, a parent is not a visitor. And for staff, parents and caregivers are key members of the care team.

Some changes were bigger and took longer to implement. For example, as we re-calibrated services to support our inpatient units, we needed to determine who from the rest of our team could be redeployed to ensure the essential needs of the children in our care are met. The planning, coordination and training to re-deploy team members would normally require months of work, and we succeeded (maybe imperfectly, but we’re getting there) in a few short weeks. At the same time, we needed to ramp up virtual care at warp speed so not to abandon children and families who are reliant on our ambulatory services. This is perhaps the only “upside” of COVID-19—watching innovation proceed at unprecedented pace and with exceptional enthusiasm from our team.   Many of these decisions were difficult and our first go at them wasn’t always right, nor were we as fast as we wished we could be. However, the mantra of the day is not to let perfect be the enemy of the good (and sometimes to ask forgiveness rather than permission).

As a client- and family-centered organization, we knew that these changes were going to lead to disappointments and challenges for those in our care; children and families who surely didn’t need things to get even harder. As difficult as these decisions were, ultimately, they were the right thing to do to keep our community safe until we get to the other side of this pandemic.

Through all of this, my Holland Bloorview colleagues have been a dream team.  At all levels of the organization, our people are pulling together, supporting each other, working tremendously hard, pitching in and putting care, safety and quality first. Everyone has so much heart and brings so much purpose to everything they do. The children we serve are the beneficiaries. I am getting messages from and having conversations daily with families who are grateful for services they continue to receive either virtually or in person. Holland Bloorview is continuing to do what it does best albeit differently in so many ways.

We have been very fortunate to continue to be able to rely on our family leaders to give us excellent advice and insight to improve our decisions. Whether through virtual family leaders meeting with dozens of participants, or tapping into our “just in time” family advisors who are turning around critical decisions in hours, we are able to keep deeply valued relationships and critical knowledge even now.

Internally, we have launched the COVID-19 No Boundaries Fund calling on any staff with a bright idea that promotes the health, wellness and support of our clients, families and staff that have been impacted by the pandemic. Applicants are eligible for up-to $1000 of funding and applications are being reviewed weekly to get them off the ground rapidly. Thank you to our donors for making this possible.

If you follow-us on social media, you may have also seen that under the leadership of our amazing Foundation, the Family Support Fund is being doubled; a fund that provides direct financial support to families in critical need. During this pandemic, many of our clients are under strict isolation and their parents are too – sacrificing paid work for an unknown period of time when their financial resources are already strained. Many community sources of funding have been paused leading to a level of strain on families we have never seen before and which we knew we needed to help address. Increasing our Family Support Fund means that more families will be able to access the funds so they can make ends meet. Our supporters were quick to pitch in and we’re now more than halfway to our $550,000 goal. We continue to accept to donations and any amount, big or small, will go a long way to supporting our families. Donations up to $150,000 are generously being matched by three anonymous donors.

As an academic health science centre our research institute, researchers, research staff, and trainees as well as our teaching and learning institute and students are also significantly impacted by COVID-19. We worry about the long-term impact on childhood disability research at a virtual standstill of any non-COVID-19 research and research funding competitions that have been paused. The team that supports our students is working closely with colleagues at the University of Toronto and other post-secondary institutions to try to mitigate the adverse impact of the pandemic on student learning opportunities, academic progression and future career success. In both research and teaching and learning we have to keep our eyes on the future despite the overwhelming concerns that present needs create.

Recently, Deputy Minister and Minister of Health Christine Elliott was on the record saying “there is no playbook for this;” and she’s right. Though all hospitals are required to have a pandemic plan (and we do!), even past experience could not have fully prepared us for the challenge we are facing today. We were fortunate that Minister Elliott and Premier Ford were able to join our virtual Town Hall to reassure and thank our staff.

Despite it all, I have never been more proud to wear my green Holland Bloorview lanyard and be a part of this incredibly passionate, dedicated and resilient team. Every day, they have stepped up in big and small ways to ensure the values of our organization live strong in these stressful times and continuing to provide exceptional essential care and services to our clients and families. They also are lifting each other up every day. Though we do not know when we will be at the other side of this, I do know that we will all have so much to be proud of and we will all be standing a little taller together.




CEO blog: International Women’s Day 2020 – Power and Collective Individualism #EachforEqual

Canada’s 100 most Powerful Women 2019 (photo credit: Connie Tsang Photography)

In 2019, I was honoured to be named one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women for the second year in a row by the Women’s Executive Network (WXN). I was thrilled to be acknowledged for my accomplishments and to be included among so many extraordinary women. But I didn’t know what to make of the idea of the “most powerful.” That word “power”…

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of “power” includes, “the right to govern or rule … possession of ability to wield force, authority, or influence.” Similarly, the Cambridge English dictionary includes the “ability to control people and events.” Again turning to Merriam-Webster, antonyms for “power” include “helpless, weakness, impotence.”

The implications are consistent with my own feelings about the word – wielding power or force over others, which has never resonated with me. Nor does the idea of a zero sum game – for someone to be powerful someone else would have to be weak. Like many women, my experience of power has included feeling it wielded against me: when someone would speak over me at a meeting, when something I had said was ignored until an older man said virtually the same thing, when my drive to make change was undermined by a senior woman whose own authority might have been threatened…  It’s no wonder that being named “most powerful” felt like a mixed blessing.

However, the beauty of language is that it evolves and we can reclaim it with our own meaning. I’ve decided to embrace the idea of being powerful.

The theme for the International Women’s Day 2020 campaign is Each for Equal and today, I’m challenging each of you to exercise your power in line with what the campaign is really about: collective individualism.   On their website it reads:

“We are all parts of a whole. Our individual actions, conversations, behaviors and mindsets can have an impact on our larger society.” (

What does this mean to me? It means that I’m committed to use my knowledge, abilities and efforts to level the playing field of opportunities for other people. Here’s what I’m committed to doing with my power:

  1. I will use my power to champion accessibility, equity, diversity and inclusion;
  2. I will use my power to make change in the world by taking actions in my everyday life; and
  3. I will use my power to make visible people whom others don’t notice or underestimate.

So for me #EachforEqual means: I will mentor. I will advocate for girls and women in STEM. I will create visibility for people with disabilities through Holland Bloorview’s  #DearEverybody campaign and agreement. I will tirelessly work to create psychologically safety. I will make choices that reduce harm to the planet. I will be an ally.

It’s 2020! International Women’s Day is around the corner. What will #EachforEqual mean for you?