In the summer of 2010, Deborah Barrett and her son, Anthony, walked out of a restaurant near the Edmonton high school from which he’d graduated two years earlier. They had volunteered to wash dishes there to give Anthony something to do, but when they emerged, soaked, the sun sliced through the clouds and Deborah had a realization: my kid is not spending his life in a dish pit.
Cleaning plates isn’t the only option for the bulk of high-school graduates. But Anthony has autism and is mostly non-verbal, aside from short words in answer to yes-or-no questions and the Eeeee sounds he makes when he’s excited, happy or frustrated. Once a person with intellectual disabilities ages out of school, “There’s no life for them,” Deborah says. Programs end, and job options are usually menial.
As her son entered his 20s, Deborah contemplated what he could do and what he enjoyed. Among his likes: being driven around and carrying things, as well as seeing new places but not staying long. Maybe he could be a courier? The catch: Anthony doesn’t move fast, and courier gigs would require his support staff to be his driver and co-worker.
That wasn’t an issue for Mike Hamm. In 2012, he became Anthony’s new assistant and embraced the plan of spending part of their days delivering packages as a team. The pair called their venture Anthony at Your Service, signed a few customers (a balloon store, an orthodontics company) and set out in Hamm’s gold sedan.
In a bid to drum up more business, Hamm soon uploaded a video to YouTube that showcased Anthony’s love of the educational game Math Blaster, swimming and headbanging to dubstep. “He’s one of the happiest guys I know,” Hamm says, narrating. Anthony’s new project, he continued, is his company. “We’ll deliver anything we can carry—well, that Anthony can carry.” Within a couple days, the video hit 100,000 views. Anthony at Your Service was in demand.
Seven years later, boxes awaiting distribution are piled on the porch of the home Anthony, 30, shares with Deborah and her husband, David, a lawyer. The company now has two-dozen delivery teams—each comprising a contractor with an intellectual disability and their support-worker contractor—in Edmonton and Calgary.
Thirty-year-old Jesse Andrew, who has cerebral palsy, has delivered with the company since 2017. “Anthony at Your Service gives me a chance to do work I know I can excel at,” he says.
As for customers, what they receive from Anthony at Your Service—which charges from $30 per delivery and pays its drivers minimum wage plus mileage—is something that FedEx can’t deliver. “They’re as connected to my company as any employee,” says Laine Cherkewick, co-owner of the Edmonton sandwich shop Farrow, which uses the service up to 10 times a week for catering orders.
Launching a company that employs 24 contractors with intellectual disabilities, and all the logistics that come along with that, wasn’t the original plan, Deborah says. But the realities of delivery work—the peaks and valleys in demand, the long hours—meant that Anthony and Hamm couldn’t shoulder the load alone. And the feedback she received from Alberta’s autistic and intellectually disabled communities suggested they wanted to work for a company that understood them.
Running Anthony at Your Service has become Deborah’s full-time, if unpaid, gig—she gave up her psychotherapy practice and the presidency of Autism Society Alberta a couple years ago. “What I’m doing for Anthony now has made more difference in his life than any of that other work,” she says. “We want to create jobs for people with all kinds of abilities and disabilities.”
On a typical delivery, Hamm and Anthony walk the package into the business together, but after seven years, that’s evolving, too. These days, there are a few spots where Anthony enters the shop on his own.
Next, read the inspiring story of one man’s mission to make martial arts accessible to all.