I had never intended on being a mom, and yet here I am. If you had asked me at 14, 18 or 25 I would have told you that I had no plans to have children. Other people’s kids are great but, at the end of the day, you can return them to their parents.
When I was 9 years old my mom and I started volunteering with an organization called Extend-a-Family. I was matched with a disabled child close to my age and we picked her up every Saturday for a few hours. She liked pushing grocery carts so we did our weekly shopping, stopped at a park or played at our house. We spent almost every Saturday together during the school year until I moved away for university. This experience was a defining moment in my life and shaped everything that has happened since.
In high school 3 little girls that lived in a group home for children with intellectual disabilities joined my mom’s Brownie unit and I fell in love with them. Once a week I took the bus to their home to spend time with them and their housemates. This was the first of many experiences supporting individuals in group homes. It was there that I learned how deeply paid caregivers could love those that they support.
By the time I had finished grade 11 my mom insisted that it was time to get a summer job. With no clue where to start, I applied to be a camp counselor at a Community Living residential camp. I spent my childhood at residential camps, day camps and camping with my family so this seemed like a logical way to occupy my 2 month break from school. Camp was a crash course in supporting people with intellectual disabilities. We worked 24/7 providing for every aspect of our campers needs. My grade 11 summer job lasted for 10 years as I returned year after year, moving in to more supervisory positions and expanding to also working there on weekends. Those years changed and shaped me, giving me a breadth of experience that would likely be found nowhere else. It was there that I made lifelong friends (and my wife) and we return every few years for staff reunions.
Working at camp showed me that supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities was my path through life. The logical way to pay my way through university was to work in group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities. What was meant to be a part time job quickly expanded in to a full time job on top of university work. I moved through a few agencies before finding one whose core values best reflected the respect and dignity that I felt our clients deserved. Working in a group home is underpaid, physically demanding work and some of the most rewarding work that I have done. If not for the low rate of pay, I probably would have continued working for that agency. The draw of increased pay, more regular hours and good benefits lead me to move to being an educational assistant supporting children with a variety of needs in schools.
While working in group homes I also provided in home support to disabled children through the Ontario Special Services at Home (SSAH) program. It is a government program that gives financial support to families so that they can purchase respite services. I was 21 when I met my first family. That day has completely changed my life. I supported and loved those children, eventually adding 3 more families to my weekly visits. My first SSAH family had 2 severely disabled children and sadly the eldest died at 37 months after multiple medical complications.
And that brings us to now. I have never had a job that did not involve supporting people with intellectual disabilities. With one unexpected call at work one day I picked up my first SSAH client and became mom. The plan was to be a very short term foster family for him but days turned in to weeks, which turned in to months and then years. Over time we have had more foster children join our family. They have all had severe intellectual, physical and/or medical disabilities. None of them have left and we have moved from being foster parent to just parent through adoption. We have renovated our home to make it accessible to their growing wheelchairs and walkers. We have an enormous van so that we can travel easily around the city, country and continent. I left left the paid workforce to be home full time to support the needs of my children.
So the role of mom, which was never a part of the plan, has become the major focus of my identity. Our family is active in the community, the kids have full after school schedules as we shuttle them from one lesson to the next. We love going to the movies, concerts, sporting events and local festivals. We look forward to school breaks so that we can spend time together and travel. We have been to Tanzania & South Africa; Montserrat; Scotland, England & France; China; we have done road trips to the East Coast of Canada, to Manitoba, from Edmonton to Victoria, to New Orleans & San Antonio; and around Lake Erie.
Raising children with chronic, life-limiting health conditions has taught me to live life with no regrets, to not put off for tomorrow what could be done today, and to love deeply.