The Simon Chang Difference Maker Award: Josh Cunningham
Difference Maker uses passion, business savvy to prepare Summit students for the workplace
Looking for that one-of-a kind gift? Summit School’s Leather Working program has got you covered with meticulously made keychains, sturdy aprons and fashionable bow ties. Inspirations sponsor and fashion designer Simon Chang is pleased to honour Summit’s vice principal of Entrepreneurial Development – and pioneer in the leatherworking program – Josh Cunningham with this edition’s Simon Chang Difference Maker Award in recognition of his leadership, business savvy and commitment.
Jesse Heffring, director of Development at Summit School, applauded the nomination. “Josh oversees all the school’s internal and external entrepreneurial efforts - [it’s] a huge task that requires a tireless effort.”
From the school’s humble beginnings as a summer camp 60 years ago, it has expanded into three campuses serving over 650 students with intellectual and behavioural challenges. A leader in special education, it has garnered much attention particularly for its Transitional Educational Career Center (TECC)'s Work-Oriented Training Program (WOTP).
Students who would otherwise struggle in conventional academic settings can gain hands-on work and life skills for autonomous living and potential internship placement in woodworking, flower arranging, printing or baking. “TECC is just a blossoming place for creativity and is kind of known for that,” shared Cunningham.
Simon Chang announces Josh Cunningham’s award at Summit TECC, surrounded by students and staff on September 7. Photo: Liam Boucher
His connection with Summit started 14 years ago as a teaching assistant, helping to expand the leatherworking program from an extracurricular activity into “one of our first in-house businesses,” said Heffring.
One machine is borrowed from the Centre des métiers du cuir de Montréal, and artisan Gisèle Désilets, who helps students refine and improve techniques, has also donated equipment and materials to the program.
Beyond accumulating credits for their WOTP certificates, granted by the province’s ministry of Education, students at TECC showcase and sell their products on the school’s online Marketplace store Cunningham launched in December 2021.
“We have a very supportive administration who recognize peoples' skills and encourage them to create programs that benefit our students,” he noted. “Passion is an important part of it, [which] is then conveyed to the students.”
While his administrative duties keep him quite busy, Cunningham confided that teaching leatherworking “is my favourite day of the week. It keeps me grounded with the students.”
Justin Guan is a peer mentor and former student of the leather program. In addition to being one of the select few Cunningham has trained to work on the industrial sewing machine, he is also the first student to be placed in an external internship placement related to leatherworking.
“The best thing about [leatherworking] is that you have to figure out what works and what doesn't,” shared Guan. “I want people to know that even though we have a disability, it doesn’t mean that we cannot do this task. We do not stop trying until we get it, because we don’t give up!”
The leather products are increasingly attracting external clients such as Dorval’s Las Fincas coffee roaster. They are also sold at Encore Books and Records in NDG and Argo Bookshop downtown. Proceeds are funneled back into programs, events and new equipment.
“[Josh’s] remarkable talent lies in helping companies and organizations recognize the value our students bring and how collaborating with us can lead to mutually beneficial experiences,” said Cindy Larson, principal of Summit Satellite Campuses.
To counter the absence of an interactive human component in doing sales online, Cunningham and his team arranged for the students to showcase their wares in pop-up markets and craft fairs, role playing vendor-client conversations in advance.
Partnering enterprises and buyers are consistently impressed with the quality of the products, Cunningham said, which he hopes will challenge assumptions about ability.
Josh Cunningham and the Summit TECC staff celebrate his award.
Photo: Liam Boucher
Another Cunningham initiative that encourages client interaction – a critical workplace skill – is the Summit Café at The Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre, approaching its second year. The school’s first external business, the café has “changed the perception of neurodiverse employment possibilities,” shared Heffring.
Cunningham is the first administrator to receive the Simon Chang Difference Maker Award since its inauguration in 2020. The Summit vice-principal was personally nominated by Chang after he helped facilitate Summit’s Video Model Productions team filming the inspirational “A to Z with Simon Chang” series (see p. 7 of the Spring-Summer 2023 edition).
“Josh is so enthusiastic about his work, the students and the school,” said Chang. “He’s engaged, open to possibilities, versatile and a great listener – all attributes that add to his competence as an excellent administrator.”
The award has been funded by Eyal Cohen, president and chief executive officer of Marcarko Ltd., an on-site real estate management company that oversees 555 Midtown, where Chang’s atelier is located. The funds from the award will contribute to Summit’s projects.
“Winning the Simon Chang Difference Maker Award is a well-deserved acknowledgment of Josh’s dedication and unwavering belief in the potential and abilities of our students,” said Larson. “He truly is a difference maker...who genuinely cares about our students, our staff and goes above and beyond to create meaningful connections.”
Summit School’s Marketplace: www.market.summit-school.com.