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“I just love this place. I’m safe here. As well as my job, this is my safe place. It’s not just my work environment; this is like my second home. I just love being here and I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to come here and progress into something, after everything I’ve been through.”

On International Women’s Day we’re celebrating a remarkable young woman who has successfully found work through Engage to Change. This is Levi’s story.

Levi has been working at Carmarthenshire People First since April 2018, but her road to reaching what she describes as her ‘safe place’ has not been smooth. She has a mild learning disability and eventually was diagnosed with autism after a years-long wait. A lack of appropriate support, among other factors, led to some difficulties at school and college. This was followed by discouraging experiences with employers whose attitudes towards her conditions were not supportive. Levi’s mental health suffered as a consequence, causing her to doubt that she would ever find meaningful employment.

Tragically, in 2017 Levi lost her baby, Pearl Ivy. The loss was, and remains, devastating. But Levi knew she needed to find another purpose. In the midst of her grief, her mother Amanda found Engage to Change on the internet in May 2017, and Levi decided that she needed to “find a reason to get out of the house and experience something new.”

Her first placement, at the reception of an NHS physiotherapy clinic, was not the right fit. The small office held too many people, and though she liked her colleagues she didn’t feel comfortable asking for help. A change was needed.

Levi’s employment advisor was Steve Squires of Engage to Change project delivery partner, ELITE Supported Employment. “Steve has been great,” says Levi. “He’s been really helpful and supported me to come here.” Levi appreciates that Steve took into consideration her wants and needs – it wasn’t working at her first placement, and it was important to try and get it right the second time around. Steve arranged for her to visit Carmarthenshire People First to get a feel for the place. From that first day, she loved it. “I decided this is where I’d like to be.”

As a people person with a great amount of empathy, Levi’s main focus has been on supporting the various groups run by the organisation. These include a women’s group, men’s group, skills swap, cooking, and several exercise groups. “Levi goes in and makes sure that all members are participating and that they’re enjoying themselves,” says her employer Sarah. “She has a phenomenal empathy with our members and she is great within a group setting, but also picking up one-to-one that people are a little bit reticent about getting involved.”

Levi also works with sister organisation Barod, whose current project The Bridge is looking at barriers to self-employment for people with learning disabilities. Her other work includes manning the office phones and taking part in consultation events, such as a recent three-day event in Ceredigion.

The supportive environment and team at Carmarthenshire People First has enabled Levi’s confidence to flourish. Her mother has noticed a change in her. “One of the things that I’ve noticed about Levi is that it’s grown her confidence. If she sees someone, doesn’t matter who it is, being treated differently, or being made fun of or ridiculed, it’s given her the confidence to actually speak out.” Levi is quick to add that she’s built that confidence at the workplace. While she finds it difficult to accept compliments, she knows that she has helped the people with whom she works. On the day of our interview, her strong bond with them becomes obvious when various members sing her praises.

Her employer Sarah could not be more complimentary about her work. “She’s very flexible. She’ll put her hand to anything. Whatever she does for this organisation she does with commitment of 110%.” For as much as Levi has shown commitment to CPF, they have also shown commitment to her by providing support and flexibility when Levi is experiencing her own anxiety, or experiencing a flare-up of her Crohn’s disease. “I think other organisations and other employers could learn a lot from CPF,” Amanda says. “It doesn’t take a lot to accommodate and get the best out of people.”

Another huge milestone for Levi has been passing her driving test. A year after losing Pearl, she decided to go for it. “I never thought I’d be able to drive a car in my life! I thought I would’ve crashed it into a wall by now, but I haven’t. Although I have reversed it into a few things!”

Since Engage to Change connected her with Carmarthenshire People First, Levi feels she has found her purpose. “I love absolutely everyone and everything about my job,” she says. “I would live here, and if I could take them all home with me I would. They care for me and I care for them. I appreciate everything that Carmarthenshire People First has done for me, they’re amazing.”

This doesn’t mean it has all been smooth sailing – Crohn’s disease and psoriasis have hit Levi hard in recent times. As a side effect of a strong drug Levi was given to manage her Crohn’s, she experienced severe psoriasis on her scalp. This caused large clumps of her hair to fall out.  Before Christmas she shaved her head, a decision her mother describes as “incredibly brave, because Levi is very image conscious!” But her hair is now growing back, and there are many things to look forward to. First up is a conference at Parc y Scarlets later in March. Beyond that, Levi knows where she wants to be – continuing to help and support people at Carmarthenshire People First. There is no doubt she will continue to demonstrate her commitment to and love of her job.

Levi’s experience has shown that with the appropriate support, meaningful employment is achievable for people like her with a learning disability or ASD. Levi is one of many who have the capacity to fulfil their potential and contribute positively to the workforce with the support of a project like Engage to Change. Her success in work despite her setbacks is also a testament to an incredible resilience and inner strength. She is open about her story and the challenges she has faced because they make her who she is. As she says, quoting from The Greatest Showman, “this is me.”