Marie-Josée Chenier »



An interview by Stéphanie Simard
Images © Miguel Lalonde Photography

Stéphanie: Marie-Josée Chenier, tell us about you and where you come from.
Marie-Josée: I’m a country girl from Sarsfield. I lived, grew up and worked on the father’s dairy farm. It was then that I developed a passion and love for animals.

Stéphanie: Did you do the daily chores early in the morning before going to school?

Marie-Josée: Yes, I did the chores when I was young, but my sister took over. For me, it was really just fun to be with the animals and to help out at the same time.

Stéphanie: Which school did you go to?
Marie-Josée: I went to the St-Hugues elementary school in Sarsfield. I was a perfectionist. I liked to do well. I always liked school and always gave it my all.

Stéphanie: You didn’t set up Expérience Unik right away. What did you do after high school?
Marie-Josée: After high school, I took nursing at university. But I realized that the medical world was not for me. I’m more of a social creature. I like to chat, I like to make people smile. So I decided to study intervention with people with disabilities. After graduation, I started working as a substitute educator in schools. I spent 20 years doing different things, and worked as a special educator in classrooms with children with autism spectrum disorder. I also did one-on-one, which involved working with one child in all of his, or her, classes. I helped school management handle behavioural issues. I loved my work. After that, I worked for a year and a half in an inter-disciplinary clinic as an educator/therapist. I gained some invaluable experience, which enabled me to bridge the role of educator and owner of Expérience Unik. 2017 was a very busy year, and when I look back, I feel very proud of what I accomplished.

Stéphanie: What is Expérience Unik?
Marie-Josée: Expérience Unik is a respite and animal therapy service. Our goal is to give our clients some unique experiences. They never get the same experience twice. We adapt it to the client’s interests and desires. They stay at my place, or I go to theirs. I sometimes do animal therapy in schools. I offer day camps in the summer, during holidays, March break and PD days.

Stéphanie: Where did you get the idea of offering that service?
Marie-Josée: When I started working as a teacher, I saw that families needed respite and French-language services. They live in a difficult and not very visible sphere. They are angels, and they need a unique kind of help, with lots of attention and devotion. I wanted to set up a business that offered them respite and a unique experience for their children. I already had a bit of experience in the area, having helped a few families in the past. Without realizing it, I was already using my own animals as therapeutic aides. I decided to take a course to bring it all together.

Stéphanie: What types of clients do you have?
Marie-Josée: I work with all sorts of clients. Recently, I’ve been offering respite to the exhausted mother of a two year-old boy. He is hooked up to machines that keep him alive. I spend one or two hours with him. I feed and help bathe him, and I give him his medication. This is a single mom. She worries about what would happen to her son if she were not there. It’s at times like those that I realize how badly this service is needed. At this point, Expérience Unik cannot accommodate a child like that at our facility. But we are working on setting up a centre that can accommodate the people who need it the most.


“Don’t wait for others to be loving, generous, compassionate, lenient or grateful; lead the way.”

Stéphanie: What type of personality does a person need to do what you do?
Marie-Josée: That’s a good question. I think you have to be attentive, empathetic and comfortable with those clients. You need to be calm because those people are little bundles of energy and stress, and are generally nervous. They are also more vulnerable because of language barriers, perception and socialization. I believe that working with those clients has to be second nature, and some training is also required.

Stéphanie: Did you set up your business out of passion or to fill a need?
Marie-Josée: A bit of both, really. I think that a project like this requires a lot of passion. But I’ve always known that there was a need. I know that I took a chance, I invested a lot of time and quit my job to set up my business. I am incredibly fortunate to have the backing of everyone close to me, my spouse, my family and my friends.

Stéphanie: What kind of future do you see for Expérience Unik? Are you taking new clients?
Marie-Josée: Yes, we are taking new clients. Our new home will soon be ready. We can handle more and more clients. The home will accommodate children and adults alike. I am working in collaboration with Valoris. They support me, and refer many clients to me. There is a lot of demand among adult clients. Teens and adults finishing school already face very long wait lists. Our aim is to set up a program that addresses several life skills on site, as well as at their workplace. We bridge the transition between the two by giving them tools that they can use to move forward in life.

The mere presence of an animal promotes physical and sensory stimulation. It also provides a source of calm, relaxation and happiness. Petting an animal helps promote well-being. Contact her if you want to have a Unik experience!