The wealth of knowledge she so eagerly and professionally shares stems from lived life experience with her son Jeff who has a cognitive disability and uses a wheelchair. He doesn’t use words to speak and has many complex needs. Cathy and Jeff don’t make casual visits or give guest lectures in class – they are an integral part of the program.
And at the 2018 Graduation ceremony held April 27, Selkirk College recognized the vast contribution of Lafortune with an Honourary Human Services Diploma.
“Cathy’s presence in class makes learning authentic, inspiring, rewarding and relevant to students,” says EACSW Instructor Jane Green who was one of her nominees. “This honour is well deserved and speaks to the value of the role of the Support Worker in our culture. Cathy models excellence in every way and is a brilliant mentor for so many.”
Selkirk College President Angus Graeme (left) and Selkirk College Board of Governors chair Sharel Wallace (right) presented an Honourary Diploma in Human Services to Cathy Lafortune (middle) for her work and inspiration in the Education Assistant and Community Support Worker Program. Cathy's son Jeff Lafortune (front) received an Honourary Diploma in 2011.
Lafortune’s connection to Selkirk College goes back 25 years as Jeff has contributed to the School of Health & Human Services since 1993. In 2011, Jeff received an Honourary Diploma in Human Services in recognition of his invaluable presence in class.
Lafortune has a varied career in Human Services. Years ago, she served as director of Hobbit Hill Children’s Centre. She also worked as a Medical Transcriptionist for 14 years. Then, in 2010, thanks to flexible funding arrangements, Lafortune was able to become Jeff’s support worker, something unique in today’s world, and she began regularly attending classes with her son at Selkirk College.
“Jeff and I have been swimming against the tide our whole lives. From the time he was born we were told that the best thing would be to put him in an institution. I never wanted that,” Lafortune says. “We wanted a life for him where he was perceived as having something to contribute just like anyone else. Selkirk College saw potential in my son and it was an outside the box kind of potential.”
“Some of our students have never sat in a room with a profoundly disabled person. So, all he really needs to do to make a contribution is to let people become comfortable with him,” says Lafortune. “People start to accept that disability however profound is one of the many manifestations of human diversity. Disability is normal.”
Bar Raised on Campus
The Lafortunes have also raised the bar for accessibility at Selkirk College. Full inclusion for Jeff has nudged forward changes needed in the parking lot, the bathrooms and with lifts and ramps. This has benefitted everyone who moves through the world differently, says Green. Cathy and Jeff also increase the level of awareness about differing abilities among the campus community.
“They make their way through the College, showing students, faculty and staff that life in a wheelchair is not so bad. Cathy and Jeff accept support graciously, navigating weather, people and life challenges on a bustling campus,” says Green. “They teach by example as they move through their day.”
Green’s classroom is a good fit for Cathy and Jeff because “Jane doesn’t teach in a straight line,” says Lafortune.
“She uses every interruption as an opportunity,” she says. “This accommodates all the quirkiness that you’re going to let me into the classroom, let alone Jeff… I’m this brat in class that speaks up about how things really are sometimes, in contrast to how things ought to be.”
An Honest Caring Contribution
Tammy O’Handley celebrated her graduation from the EACSW program on April 27 and enjoyed the honour bestowed on Lafortune at the annual ceremony on the Castlegar Campus of Selkirk College.
“Cathy’s presence in class was important to my learning. She puts Jeff’s needs ahead of her own and energetically educates her students about the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to support work,” O’Handley says. “She does not sugar-coat facts. She is honest and caring when she is giving students information related to her life experiences with her son.”
Not only does Cathy give true insight into the role of support person by sharing her experience in class, she brings a wealth of knowledge on industry trends that carry over to her role on the EACSW Advisory Committee. Cathy is also an active volunteer in the greater community. She is a past Board member of Vela Microboard Association, which assists people like Jeff with developing and managing highly individualized services with support from people who hold them in high esteem. Cathy and Jeff also volunteer with Special Olympics BC – Castlegar, serving on the organizing committee and doing fundraising.
Cathy is a mother of four, a devoted grandmother, and a long-time resident of Castlegar.