Going the extra mile, at the Brockville Mental Health Centre car wash

Research shows that employment is an essential part of the recovery process for people with mental illness. Work-related responsibilities may result in a reduction in symptoms and hospitalization and, in turn, give a boost of self-confidence, self-esteem, and an improved quality of life.  

Vocational rehabilitation designed to help clients re-join the workforce is available to inpatients and registered outpatients of the Brockville Mental Health Centre Forensic Treatment Unit. One of the longest-standing programs here is the vocational car wash program.

Brockville residents whose cars, minivans, SUVs, and trucks are in need of TLC can drop them off and have them restored to their shiny glory. Pricing ranges from a basic exterior wash ($12 for a car) to a bumper-to-bumper deep clean, inside and out ($65 for a mini van). 

The car wash is located in a compact, non-descript brick building within the Brockville Mental Health Centre (BMHC) campus. It has been around for decades and hundreds of clients have worked here, washing, waxing, and buffing countless vehicles.

“I feel the car wash program represents us well in the community, helping to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness by seeing our clients be productive individuals,” says Marilyn Douglas-Jones, a vocational rehab counsellor assistant at BMHC.

Photo of Marilyn Douglas-Prince
Marilyn Douglas-Jones is a vocational rehab counsellor assistant at the Brockville Mental Health Centre (BMHC).

She speaks at length about the numerous financial, social, and mental health benefits of gainful employment and how the vocational program helps clients now, and in the future.

The program gives clients transferable skills for a competitive job market and supports peoples’ ability to live independently. It improves social networks and feelings of independence and acceptance by others.

Many different skills are honed at the car wash, from calculating how much money needs to be put aside to buy supplies and how to get dog hair out of upholstery, to time management, communication, and how to be a dependable member of a team.

Serge, a client at BMHC, has been part of the car wash program for nearly three years. He’s moving up the ladder, although he never planned to take on more responsibility.

“I’ve learned a lot in the past six months,” he explains. “One of my best friends – the top guy at the car wash – he was the one guy you could really count on that did everything. Without realizing, I’m assuming the role now.”

That “top guy” is named Paul and it’s clear he held a mentorship role within his group. Paul insisted on passing along his knowledge to Serge.

“He’d say ‘You’re going to have to learn how to do that because I won’t be here forever,”’ says Serge. “And he was right.”

Serge is part of the team that cleans the vehicles but he also handles the scheduling and paperwork for each appointment. Customer service is a major part of his role, whether it’s calling the customers to remind them about their appointment or dealing with complaints. (If something was missed, for example, Serge invites the customer back for a fix.)

“I like the car wash because I’m doing something I value,” he says. “And I like it when I see the look on the customer’s face and see that they’re happy.”BMHC clients who work at the car wash receive 85% percent of funds as an incentive allowance for their work and 15% goes towards supplies. Two clients work on a vehicle at a time and they work one to three shifts a week. Two vehicles are cleaned every day. It takes two to three hours to clean a car, depending on how dirty it is. This might seem like a long time for those of us who can barely find five minutes to run a hand vac over the back seat after a road trip, but here it’s about going the extra mile.

“What the [customers] want is the personal touch –somebody putting their heart into it – not a quick run through a car wash,” says Serge.

Douglas-Jones chimes in: “They do an excellent job.”

Serge says he’s different from the “old” Serge, whose life took a turn after his spouse passed away 13 years ago. It was a traumatic event but he has come to terms with the changes that have happened in his life.

“I’ve become more at peace with myself,” he says. “I am finally accepting my wife’s death… she was my world. And when I lost her, everything gradually became unglued.”

Serge credits his recovery to staff at BMHC, grief counselling, workouts at the gym, and the car wash.  

“It keeps me busy,” he laughs. In the past three years he’s only missed one shift. He believes in the healing power of physical fitness and the car wash is physically demanding, especially for someone who’s had multiple surgeries. There’s also another healing power at play here, too.   

“I like the car wash because I’m doing something I value,” he says. “And I like it when I see the look on the customer’s face and see that they’re happy.”

It’s not just a job well done, but it’s a job well done for someone else, and this aspect of work life is something the team at the vocational car wash has in common with every other worker, whether they’re located in an office tower, dental office, or restaurant. Good work feels good, no matter who you are.

If the car wash program’s longevity is a measure of its success, so is the current waiting list they have for car washes, which is currently holding at five weeks. To book an appointment, call the BMHC directly at +1 (613) 345-1461 ext. 2444 between 8:30 and noon.