A non-profit organisation in Queensland is helping young people with disabilities and their families to dream… and achieve their dreams.
Drawing on a foundation of martial arts, The Compass Institute offers education, skills-based training and vocational pathways for young people with intellectual and physical disabilities.
Leap in! caught up with founder David Dangerfield to talk about Compass’ life-changing programs.
Leap in! – Can you tell us a little about the history of Compass and how it is connected to martial arts?
David: In the late 1990s, I was providing alternative education programs based on a traditional Japanese martial art to school students identified as ‘at risk’. Special Schools then approached me about doing classes for kids with challenging behaviours who also had intellectual and physical disabilities so I developed a specialist program for them.
I had previously worked with government agencies on programs for young people who dropped out of education and employment. Based on what I had learned, I saw a need for learning and development focused Day Programs so I launched Compass in 2003 with the goal of assisting young school leavers with a disability to become their best self. At the time, most disability service providers were focused on simply providing a “safe” environment rather than supporting people to learn and grow.
Martial arts provides the foundation for everything we do. We take a holistic, mind, body and spirit approach that is accessible for people with moderate to severe intellectual disability. We started in 2003 with just three young men involved.
Leap in! – Fast forward to today. What has Compass achieved and what is the atmosphere like?
David: More than 7000 students participated in our alternative education programs which ran for 15 years so this was a strong foundation for Compass. Nowadays there are five centres from Brisbane to Gympie supporting 160 people with disabilities and employing over 90 staff. We are the fastest growing service of this kind in Queensland.
Compass also has 10 social enterprises – micro businesses that are all staffed by young people who have been through our programs. There’s the 20-acre Compass Farm, a real working farm which produces a range of organic vegetables and fruit which are used in our Connections Café and Harvest Kitchen.
Our Wabi Sabi store sells artworks and sculptures made in our creative courses. Rakes and Panes offers lawn mowing and cleaning services, and Earth & Wood is a woodworking and pottery enterprise. We also have an Assistance Dog program which provides trained dogs to children and young adults with intellectual disabilities and autism.
The atmosphere at Compass is full of purpose, joy and meaning. It is varied and rich, with no two days the same. People are engaged in a wide range of real life activities, whether they be learning new things, building their skills or vocational training.
Picture: Compass Institute woodworking group.
Leap in! – With so many programs available, how do participants figure out which one is right for them?
David: Most of our participants have individual goals set out in their NDIS Plans which we then help them to achieve. We ask them what they like to do best, whether they prefer to be indoors or outdoors and whether they would like to try something new.
Six months later, they may see themselves as an orchardist who works on the farm, or an animal husbandry person working with the chickens or ponies. Or they may love serving people, undertake barista training and be working in the café.
Along the way, they’ve learned new skills and received support with personal presentation, health and safety, and social skills. We spend a lot of time building communication skills – how to shake hands, how to maintain eye contact, how to build a conversation – which in turn grows confidence at work, in the community and at home.
Compass strives to make each individual the hero in their own story. Our job is to unlock the right method for each person so they can be the best person they can be.
Leap in! – What can someone expect when they visit Compass Farm, the Wabi Sabi store or Connections Café?
David: People comment to me when they visit a Compass centre that the young people really own the place. The people we support are front and centre. They will show you around their centre, introduce you to their shop or café and tell you about what they are doing.
Our support staff are mentors, educators, coaches and trainers – not carers. It is all about building capacity so our young people can do the things they want to do and participate in a meaningful way.
Picture: Courtney standing next to Valerie the pony.
Leap in! – You mentioned that Compass takes a mind, body, spirit approach. Can you tell us about that?
David: As well as more formal programs, young people can be involved in a range of therapeutic and life enrichment activities such as martial art, yoga, health and wellbeing, cooking and different forms of exercise.
Sleep, healthy diet and exercise are key to a good life. Getting these three things right can be life changing. We’ve seen participants who may be nonverbal, unhealthy, unable to sleep, anxious or exhibiting challenging behaviours, grow and learn skills that have helped them to lead a healthy and happy life, enjoy more sleep, engage in conversation and develop a sense of pride about what they are able to do.
Compass Farm, shops, cafes and learning centres are magical environments where everyone feels like a valuable member of a team. People are learning, growing and trying to do their best every day.