At the Pegasus thrift store, Chris and Rose smile as a customer zips out to pay for her parking spot on Kingston Road.
“That happens a lot,” says Rose. People sneak into the shop for a quick peek, see something they like, and forget all about their unpaid parking.
Parking fines might be a stretch, but if people need anything else in the Pegasus store, Chris is ready. He sorts donated CDs and DVDs, tags the new spring clothes coming in, and rings up the cash register.
“I like helping the customers,” he said.
It’s one big reason why he started working at the store three years ago, with help from Rose.
And the other one?
“It helps me be independent,” he says, smiling.
At 21, the Pegasus Community Project is coming of age.
When it all began, with five people sitting at Marie Perrotta’s dining room table in 1994, the idea was to create a small day program for adults with developmental disabilities – one where participants could get involved in the neighbourhood.
Today, in important ways, Pegasus keeps things small.
But it also outgrew Perrotta’s dining room table a long, long time ago.
“It just took off,” said Perrotta, speaking in the Pegasus office just above the thrift store.
“Families loved it from day one.”
One of those families was Perrotta’s own.
When she led that now-famous meeting in the dining room, Perrotta’s son Andrew, who has significant physical and intellectual disabilities, was nearing his 21st birthday.
That meant Andrew would soon be done school – a supportive environment where he thrived and had friends. Afterwards, it seemed there was nothing to take its place, not without a very long wait-list.
Perrotta had actually tried to start something like Pegasus in 1993, but she found it a tough sell, even for parents who faced the same dilemma.
“It just looked so un-doable, really,” she said.
A big turning point came when the city’s parks department told Perrotta it could offer space for a special-needs program at the Matty Eckler Recreation Centre.
“Parks and Rec allowed us to take that first step, which is to be in a public spot with everybody else,” said Perrotta.
Especially in urban areas, Perrotta said a lot of programs like Pegasus are held in basements or industrial malls, where it’s hard to have meaningful links with the community.
A rec centre, on the other hand, was a perfect fit.
Having the space at Matty Eckler gave new confidence to the famous five who founded Pegasus in 1994: Perrotta, parent Margaret Ewing, teacher Allison Masters, occupational therapist Sally Grieve, and daycare administrator Janice Murphy. The group was quickly joined by a nursing instructor, Barbara Johnson.
In fact, even before Andrew’s upcoming graduation brought things to a head, Perrotta remembers that for years she would notice the accessible lift inside the Beaches Rec Centre and think, “Well, they must want people here, but nobody’s ever in it.”
Even though it was empty, the lift suggested just what Pegasus ended up bringing first to Matty Eckler, and later to the Beaches Rec Centre, the S.H. Armstrong Community Centre, and Community Centre 55 – a complete picture. Now, along with seniors, kids, and gym regulars, the centres have special-needs regulars, too.
“The community, in 20 years, has changed so much in their openness towards disabilities, and their willingness to hear that other story,” Perrotta said.
“I think in some ways, the community was always ready, we just weren’t there.”
Rabiya Wasif is one of the 20 people who now work for Pegasus full-time, along with 10 part-timers. In fact, when she started 12 years ago, it was her first permanent, full-time job after moving to Canada.
“It’s been great,” said Wasif, who supervises the program at Matty Eckler.
“I think we’ve come a long way.”
Wasif is also Pegasus’ unofficial field-trip planner in chief.
Recently, she organized GO train trips to the botanical gardens in Hamilton. A few weeks ago, her group went to the Four Seasons Centre for a noon-hour show.
It’s another thing Pegasus does more and more – get around town.
“Twenty years ago, we couldn’t take a bus, we couldn’t take a subway,” Perrotta said.
Many barriers remain, but Perrotta said the city does a much better job consulting people with disabilities.
And people with disabilities are also speaking up, she said, whether it’s on city transit or park design, or on larger issues, such as healthcare.
Perrotta said Pegasus worked hard to be able to have Ryerson nursing students do their placements at Pegasus.
“If they don’t actually meet someone with a significant disability who has a life, when those people go to the hospital, they don’t understand that,” she said.
“They don’t understand what else they could possibly be doing all day.”
Some of those possibilities have even surprised Perrotta.
Kaleigh Kennedy, who supervises the Pegasus program at Community Centre 55, said she recently had one participant do two sessions with a personal trainer at a private fitness club.
“He’s now a regular there,” said Kennedy. “And all the regulars know him by name.”
“His confidence has grown so much since he started.”
Twenty years ago, Perrotta said, she never would have thought of it.
But then, 20 years ago, Pegasus’ big fundraising effort was a single-weekend garage sale, not the year-round Kingston Road thrift store it became, with plenty of job-training opportunities for participants.
And 20 years ago, it would have been hard for Perrotta to imagine Pegasus organizing summer programs, Saturday programs, supervised job placements at restaurants and shops such as Starbucks, Winners, FreshCo, or Pegasus’ newest venture – a Makers’ Meet-Up space just down the street from the thrift store where community volunteers can drop in and make crafts with Pegasus members.
Still, what Perrotta and others did imagine – a small day program, in the heart of the community – has carried all the way through.
“For a lot of places, if they’re expanding, it would be a lot more convenient, wouldn’t it, to just make the group sizes bigger,” said Patsy Robinson, whose daughter Sarah joined Pegasus 15 years ago.
“But Marie hasn’t,” said Robinson. “She’s committed to what’s best for the participants, to keep the same small, personal atmosphere, but just to have more of them.”
For Sarah, whose autism makes it difficult to manage large groups, Robinson said anything else would not have worked.
Even with Pegasus, it took years before Sarah was comfortable leaving home.
“They just never gave up on her,” she said. “They sent someone to the home, and they would spend the extra time helping her.”
Standing by Chris in the Pegasus thrift store, Rose Leask said what support staff like her share with Pegasus participants goes both ways.
“It changed my path,” she said.
“It’s inspiring to work with them, and it motivates you to change the world a little bit, to make it more accessible, more welcoming.”