The bright side of business: CommuniCare entrepreneurs expand to support children with autism

Cindy Harrison
Editor's Note

Star Motors

The Bright Side of Business bimonthly column is presented by Star Motors.

As the co-founder of CommuniCare Therapy, Cindy Harrison is both an entrepreneur and a speech language pathologist – and for Harrison, the two roles are deeply linked.

CommuniCare has been offering services such as occupational therapy, rehabilitation and social work to people of all ages since 1992. Located in south Ottawa, the business was co-founded by Harrison and fellow speech language pathologist Yvonne Bateman. The two met around 1990, working in schools as part of CHEO’s community contract. At the time, Harrison was supervising Bateman.

“A very talented clinician,” she recalls of her then-student, now-business partner. 

As CHEO began to shift towards highly specialized medical care, it let go of its community contract, which the government subsequently put out for tender.

“Yvonne and I decided we may as well do it,” Harrison says. “We were faced with writing an RFP. I didn't even know what an RFP was, what a tender was, what a balance sheet was,” she adds, recalling how the pair tapped into their network for business expertise.

But they soon ran into new challenges. When they approached a bank looking for a loan, all the questions were directed to their husbands, rather than the two female entrepreneurs.

“As a person of colour, I also think that there are a lot of systemic barriers that, in a very fiscally cautious world, makes it difficult to become an entrepreneur."

The experience stayed with the two co-founders.

“It's really instilled in us the importance of building women entrepreneurs,” Harrison says. “As a person of colour, I also think that there are a lot of systemic barriers that, in a very fiscally cautious world, makes it difficult to become an entrepreneur. It will always be important to me to support businesses that are owned by female entrepreneurs, by people of colour.”

From strength to strength 

Harrison and Bateman launched CommuniCare with six people. Today, almost 30 years later, it’s grown to 225 staff, serving more than 12,000 people in the Ottawa region last year alone.

The organization currently has a contract with CHEO, which underscores the hospital’s community focus.

“It's so interesting how that has come full circle,” Harrison says. “They are absolutely fantastic partners.”

In November 2019, Harrison and Bateman opened CommuniCare’s sister company in Nepean: ACT Learning Centre. While CommuniCare offers a range of services, ACT focuses solely on providing support and intervention for children and youth with autism spectrum disorder. 

Harrison had always been invested in the field; in the early 1990s, her son was diagnosed with autism. But even before then, Harrison says she had been interested in autism.

“I found this group of people really challenged me to be creative,” she says.

In Ontario, children with autism are typically diagnosed at four-and-a-half years old. ACT can identify signs in children as young as six months, and help parents to intervene.

Harrison shares the example of two parents who came to her, concerned because their six-month-old baby wasn’t looking or smiling at them. While the baby didn’t respond to visuals, Harrison found that he was “very attuned to auditory sounds.” She gave the parents a bell to shake near their face.

“He'd fixate on their faces, and they would get a social smile. Just by looking at individual differences, we were able to change the developmental trajectory of this little boy,” she says.

It’s in moments like this that Harrison sees the connection between being an entrepreneur and a medical professional.

“It’s being tenacious, harnessing hope, and being ready to pivot every minute of the day,” she says.

Building back from COVID-19

Despite supporting more than 100 families in under a year, ACT was hit hard at the start of the pandemic.

“I remember feeling just despondent because we had to lay off all of our staff,” Harrison says. However, with the wage subsidy, ACT was able to hire back its staff and provide free virtual services for families and children all over Ontario.

Looking ahead, Harrison and her business partners are planning to expand ACT into Orléans within a year and continue making a meaningful impact on families across the region.

“I hope that we can help to be pioneers of sorts, to change the developmental trajectory for a lot of little kiddos in our community,” she says.

The Bright Side of Business is a new editorial feature focused on sharing positive stories of business success.

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