Ryan Gilligan is a cyclist, puzzler, woodworker, gamer, charity fundraiser and recycling enthusiast.
The 20-year-old is also a successful business operator, running RecycleAbilities for the past two years with his mother, Corinna, and support workers.
In that time, he’s sorted more than 230,000 bottles, cans and lids, as well as donated more than $7000 to charity.
“I collect bottles on my street and other community bins with my support workers,” Ryan indicated, using a story script.
“I collect bottles from other places like clubs, cafes, uni halls of residence and other businesses. My support workers drive me to collect the bottles for my bins.”
The business started shortly after Ryan graduated from high school in 2020.
Ryan has been diagnosed with severe autism, an intellectual disability, and has extreme difficulty communicating.
However, his mother, Corinna, didn’t want him to attend a disability day program.
“Although his disabilities are pretty significant, we didn’t want him to be defined by them; we wanted him to be defined by his capability,” she said.
So Ryan and his family sat down to identify his strengths and interests and then tried to figure out what kind of work would best suit him.
This included that he loves woodwork and making things, numbers, dismantling electronics, sorting and organising, and keeping things tidy.
This eventually led to RecycleAbilities, where Ryan collects items to put through ACT Container Deposit Scheme stations in Canberra’s north in return for money.
“Everything we do with Ryan is about teaching him life skills and thinking of the future,” she said.
“He wears a uniform, he’s got to be on time, he’s got a timesheet he has to fill in, it’s all teaching him those skills.”
Corinna said it not only played to his strengths but, importantly, made him part of his local community.
“Rather than being excluded and being different, he’s out there, and he’s with everybody,” she said.
It began with friends and neighbours, expanded with a door drop across nearby streets and started taking off.
Now Ryan drops off RecycleAbilities bins to anyone who wants to participate, then picks them up on certain days of the week.
“It’s grown from very small and humble beginnings, to now he’s got about 50 clients, and he works at it three days a week,” Corinna said.
While the goal is ultimately for RecycleAbilities to fully support Ryan and a support worker, Corinna said the charity aspect of the business was also very important.
“People like Ryan don’t often get the opportunity to give, they’re normally the receivers, and I wanted him to prove that he has as much to give as much as he needs to receive,” she said.
“For someone who is virtually non-verbal, I know that giving money to charities is important to him. On the first of the month, he is literally, at 6 am, coming in with the files going ‘charity money time’.”
Ryan donates 25 per cent of his earnings to six different charities of his choice each month.
Some organisations he’s given to include OzHarvest, ACT Wildlife, Room to Read, Red Cross, ACT RSPCA, Salvation Army, Food Bank, Oxfam, The Fred Hollows Foundation, Givit and Care Ukraine.
Corinna said this had also resulted in Ryan becoming more engaged with the world around him.
“We’ll sit and eat breakfast together and watch the news. Before it would hold no interest for him, but now we’ll say, ‘look the floods’, or ‘the war in Ukraine’, and he’ll respond ‘charity money’,” she said.
“It’s been fantastic for him because it gives him an awareness that he’s a contributor to the world.”
Corinna said while it was a huge commitment to create a business for her son, it was definitely worth it.
“Anything that we do for young people with special needs takes a lot of time setting the scene and sowing the seeds and taking little steps,” she said.
But RecycleAbilities is not all Ryan has been doing.
He also makes pizza boards and cheeseboards in the shapes of animals from salvaged wood.
They’re for sale either online, or you can find them at the Smith’s Alternative Cafe in Civic.
“I am just so proud of him. He is my inspiration,” Corinna said.
“Going through this process has been about capacity and capability and about a ‘can do’ mentality.
“The more you believe they can do, frankly, the more they will do.”
You can get in touch with Ryan and Corinna through RecycleAbilities.