Finding Your Footing

Pathways to Employment community organization based in Sydney, is probably best known for its wood shop, laundry services and other programs that attempt to reintegrate disenfranchised people with addictions or restrictions due to mental health issues into the community.

Certainly, that’s the aspect of Pathways I was most familiar with; the organization has helped me find gainful employment in the past. And so, after COVID isolation, when I was looking for work, I decided to enlist its help again — mostly with resumes and interview preparation, then through the Pre-Employment Program.

Pathways to Employment logo

Pathways has evolved since I was last involved with it, as it tries to meet the needs of the community with due regard for its Mission Statement, now phrased this way to reflect a new vision of its values:

Empower Individuals to Enhance Their Quality of Life Through Community Inclusion

As someone who has been assisted by Pathways to Employment at various times, I can tell you from personal experience that it can be truly life changing. The organization has so many avenues to support its participants — addiction programs, work programs, resume development, mock interviews, job searches and so much more.

I’ve come to the conclusion (for myself anyway) that, while mental disability does tend to limit one’s potential, it’s to a degree. Given enough time, opportunity and experience, I believe people can overcome their problems and become fully functional in their own way, although it may always be a struggle.

I compare it to a gardener who doesn’t mind the endless weeding and leaf-raking because both are necessary to their enjoyment of the garden; they learn to adapt. They can also learn strategies or get tips to make the work easier. Pathways is like a friendly neighbor who has good gardening tips (or a leaf blower).

Many people struggling with mental health issues find everyday experiences — things so-called “normal” people would call “trivial” — so fraught they are unable to progress. They have great difficulty creating the basic structures and practical approaches necessary to getting what they need or to just living their lives. Pathways strives to address this through a three-pronged approach of employment, connection and housing.

Wanting to get a better handle on all that Pathways does, I spoke to General Manager Justin Vallis, who was very excited to talk about the organization.


Vallis was studying at what is now Cape Breton University (CBU), when it was suggested to him that he could probably find work out West (Alberta) during the summer months to pay for his education. He started out with pipeline construction and worked his way up to becoming a supervisor.

This opened up new business opportunities so he stayed out there for a few years. When he returned to Cape Breton, Vallis said he really wanted to work in an area that he was interested in and where he felt he could make a difference, which is how he came to Pathways:

“I love the job,” he told me, “I love working with people. I have a vested interest in mental health here in Cape Breton. I have lived experience… specifically, living with my mom and her struggles… Really, it’s my passion for working within the mental health community, my own lived experience gives me the drive to want to help people…I’m very proud to be working with an organization that sets out to end stigma in our community.”

Vallis said people can be “so beaten down by the stigma” surrounding mental health and addiction “that they come to believe it themselves.”

Pathways to Employment seeks to end that stigma and help find a place for people who often aren’t homeless (although some are and I cannot imagine the additional stress this places upon someone already struggling), but who have little or no place in the community in which they live. Who are often relegated to going out once a month when they get an assistance check.

Many want to work, even just a little, and the mission of Pathways is to help them do that and more, to help them achieve the autonomy and independence often denied those plagued by depression, addiction, anxiety, PTSD, and a host of other things society often labels as “disorders” before closing the door.

Mentorship is part of the Pathways approach because, as Vallis said:

“Everyone needs a mentor when they start a job. Everyone needs to know what they’re doing, it’s impossible for people to begin knowing everything.”

But mentorship is just one part of the puzzle, he explained, adding that it’s “almost like building on the stigma to suggest that all you need is a mentor when the simple fact is, we all need that.”

Equally important is belief in oneself, as Vallis put it:

“At one point in my life I started to believe negativity created by people who focused on my issues and tried to paint me with that stigma. It’s a good thing I was able to adjust and the reality is I still go through mental health challenges. I just have coping methods that work for me. But I am able to believe in myself now and that gives me the drive to do what I’m doing. People need to believe in themselves and we try to create that environment.”


That is the point of the Pre-Employment Program. It begins with classes designed to increase attention span and dedication, while trying to instill a sense of purpose. The classes also teach standard first aid, WHMIS [Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System], simple money management, cooking and many other lessons in an effort to build up participants. As they get out into the community daily for classes (four days a week), they begin to feel more a part of society at large, and as they successfully pass these courses they become more confident.

This progresses to a job placement, which is based on several factors: input from participants regarding the type of job they can see themselves doing well/enjoying, the skills/training the participants have currently (which is why they give you some, but individuals may have more), and the ability of the program coordinator to place participants.

Boots standing on a rock

Starting off on the right foot. (Dominion Beach 2022, Photo by Don Clarke)

I asked Vallis about the business aspect of Pathways, the list of “services for the community” on the website includes products from the woodshop (including Adirondack chairs and benches), laundry/linen services and property maintenance (including mowing, gardening, dump runs and more). He said:

“[W]e throw the word ‘business’ around but I think it’s important to separate that as much as we possibly can. Although there is a ‘business’ aspect to any kind of social enterprise…we look at it more as community support…[T]he business aspect for Pathways is that, yes money does transfer into what we are doing here with our social business lines, but that money is really just brought in to pay for the folks to have an opportunity to work a fair wage and also, to put back into the business.”

Pathways has remained in Sydney, to facilitate growth and outreach to much of the CBRM, despite a recent move from 196 Prince Street (due to their office building being sold) to take up temporary office space at the New Dawn Centre at 37 Nepean Street.

I asked Vallis where he saw himself taking the organization in the next three years, given all of their current struggles, “Set aside organizational things like finding a new home, ’cause that’s going to happen, we’re very close to that, but overall we want to educate our community on mental health, addiction and other issues to help [participants] meet their goals.”


Donald Clarke

A “military brat,” Don Clarke finally put down roots in Dominion, Cape Breton. A graduate of CBU (Communication) and NSCC (Business Administration), he has been active in the local theatrical community for years, having performed and directed at the Boardmore Playhouse and Two Hoots Productions. He has worked in film and television, directed a Canadian Short Film and published poetry in Caper’s Aweigh, and The Caper Times, where he also served as editor.