Dreams DO Come True

two rivers

“one year ago I walked in to the doors of TWO RIVERS WILD LIFE PARK. as some one with a dream. and that dream was to help out the critters at the park by becoming a Volunteer. see I love animals so I thought that would be a great place for me and I was right on so may levels. I learned so much and done so much. and made so many friends. I have some NEWS that I’d like to share with every one that’s been following my story. As of July 1 I’m no longer going to be a volunteer at two rivers . . . . I GOT MY FIRST SUMMER JOB AT THE PLACE I LOVE MOST. July 1 I’m going to be the newest STAFF MEMBER OF TWO RIVERS WILD LIFE PARK!!!..i’d like to thank my mom and dad and Johnny Huntington for making this happen!”  ~ Matthew Hilliard, May 19, 2015

Pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

By the time July 1st rolls around Matt will have just about, if not over, 1400 hours under his belt volunteering.  It’s the next 320 hours that will be making him gleam.  Typing that seemed funny.  A mere 320 hours compared to 1400.  There are just over 4 groups of 320 hours in the 1400 that he’s completed in almost 14 months.  Averaging 100 hours/month plus school, plus his involvement in the fire department.   Seriously, that makes me shake my head.  A lot of hours for someone to dedicate.

Now he will be able to say that his first job, his first real, paying job is where he said it would be.  It will be exactly where he wanted it to be since he was a little boy.  I think that’s quite an accomplishment in itself.  Actually getting hired at the place where you hoped and dreamed to work many, many years before.  Imagine that.

Can you or I say that?  Some can, but I suspect it’s not the majority.  The only other person that I can remember actually doing what she said she was going to do with her life from the age of 5 is my sister.  She was going to be a nurse and she never swayed from that for one minute.  And one helluva nurse she is.

As nursing was and is a passion for her, wildlife has always been a passion for Matthew.  Maybe they are 2 people who truly followed through with their dreams regardless of the hurdles.  I couldn’t imagine going through the years of university and training and long hours and horrible shifts and awful circumstances that my sister encountered over the years.  But she wouldn’t trade it for anything.  She continues to better herself, she’s constantly reevaluating her goals and making sure that she remains on top of her game.  She loves her career and anyone who knows her or has been in her care will attest to that.  Her’s isn’t just a job, it’s a calling.  A calling that she followed from the young age of 5 years old.

It’s not a whole lot different for Matthew.  He’s not years into his career yet like his aunt is but the enthusiasm and determination that I saw in her all those years ago is being mirrored by him now.  She proudly displayed her candy-stripper’s uniform as she volunteered at our local hospital many years ago as eagerly as Matt wears his Two Rivers Volunteer shirt and hat today.  As humbly and professionally as she carried herself through the hospital corridors he now walks the grounds and trails of the park.  The similarities between the two are quite amazing as I sit here and think about it.

And perhaps this is all what makes it so easy for Mike and I to do whatever it is we can for Matthew to help his dreams become reality.  Mom and Dad certainly went above and beyond for both Allana and I but with her going away to university and needing to fulfill her dreams hours away from home it was a little (ok, a lot) more challenging for them with her than it was with me.  I stayed home to go to university and let’s face it; the costs associated with my degree and her degree where at opposite ends of the spectrum.  While we both did our part contributing to our education by getting the necessary financial assistance that we could it also required the less-than-glamorous summer jobs of doing whatever we (or Dad)  had to do to make it all happen.

I watched as my parents did without and scrimped and saved to give each of us what we needed because they saw the desire, especially in my sister, for her to “be” something.  And not just ‘something’.  A nurse.

She wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.  She learned how to help people through birth, death, illness and recovery.  Life.

Matthew’s passion isn’t that far off track from my sister’s.  He has witnessed birth, death, illness and recovery, as well.  With animals.  In less than ideal conditions.  He’s learning his craft through hand’s-on experiences.  While he may not go to university or become a veterinarian he is certainly following in her footsteps.

 The similarities can even go as step further as they both share another life-long dream turned reality in that they are both volunteer firefighters.  My sister celebrated her 5th birthday with a firefighting themed birthday party and as soon as age permitted, she was accepted as a member of the fire department that saw many family members before and after her commit their time to.

This certainly isn’t the angle I expected this entry to take but the more I wrote and the more I thought of the parallels the more blown away I became.  Why didn’t I put all this together before?  It’s really freaking me out as I sit here.

I’ve watched my sister embrace her dreams, get a position in her field and work her way up.  Even though it’s been and taken her years, it seems like it was just yesterday that it all started for her.  All I can hope for Matthew is that his first summer job is the beginning of as many years of enjoyment in a position that he loves as much.

I’ll keep you posted.

Until next time…

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Memory Lane

When you start on a journey you never fully know where you’re going to end up or what you’re going to run into along the way.  There could be hurdles and obstacles that make you reevaluate your route and then there can be parts of the road you’re travelling that show nothing but sunny skies and clear pavement ahead.  And that’s certainly the way it should be, I think

My Mom and Dad always taught me that nothing worth having comes easy.  How true those words are.

I’ve spent some time over the last couple of weeks reliving our journey.  I’ve done something that I haven’t done in a long, long time.  I reread my blog.  I started at entry number one and I’ve laughed and cried and laughed and cried again.  I didn’t realize how much I had forgotten; how much has happened over the last 8 years ~ well, 24 years, really.

I had the opportunity this past week to have two very in-depth conversations with two people from different areas of my life.  I value them both more than they realize, as each has had such a profound impact on my life.

One goes back to the days before Mikey and Tracey were married.  She saw us sit in her living room for nights on end over many years.  We talked our way through hard times and good times and times we’d rather forget all about.  Many nights we were sure she was the only ally we had.  She definitely is one person who has seen us at our lowest but has been there to watch us climb to the top of some very high mountains.  We chatted about that in great detail recently.  Who would have thought 25 or 26 years ago that this we call life would have taken the twists and turns that it has?  I remember being a very young, naive  girl sitting in her living room.  If she had a crystal ball that she could have looked 10, 15, 20 or 25 years into the future and we could have seen what paths we were going to travel I think I would have laughed in her face and taken off for the hills.  Even though there were a few years that saw our friendship sit simmering on the back burner, I always held a special spot for her in my heart.  It’s hard in this day and age to find truly genuine people and we are so fortunate to have had the chance to rekindle our friendship with her.  It’s like nothing has changed, but so much has.  I am certainly not the naive young girl I once was.  Outside of our immediate family, she is probably one of the few people who have been there through all those years to witness Mike and Tracey develop into Team Hilliard and all that has come with it.

The second person I had the chance to chat with recently has walked a long part of our journey with us but in a much different way.  I had talked with her on the phone many times before we actually met face-to-face.  She was a professional involved in Matthew’s life.  Her decisions, her involvement had a great impact on Matthew’s academic life.  We were new to the world of autism.  We were new to the world of dealing with a special needs student in the classroom.  We were again, very naive.  We didn’t know anything.  TA’s?  Modifications?  Adaptations?  IPP’s?  Psych-ed assessments??  What??  Our heads were spinning.  I learned very quickly that I had a lot to learn.  Mike called her, I called her and we asked questions.  More questions than we probably should have but it was the only way we were going to learn.  Then one day, when push came to shove, I had to go and meet her.  I’ll never forget it.  Mike had to work and there was no way I was going to talk to a ‘professional’ by myself.  So I enlisted the help of my Daddy.  I didn’t need him to come to talk, I just wanted someone else present.  Someone to be there so I wouldn’t be intimidated.  Yes, she was great on the phone but face-to-face in her office I was worried that being on her turf it would be her way or the highway.  So in Dad came, and let me tell you, I couldn’t have been more wrong about how I thought that meeting was going to go.  She was kind, she was compassionate, she was genuinely concerned about Matthew, about us and our well-being.  There were decisions that had to be made concerning Matthew’s transition to a new school and at the end of the meeting I had heard what I thought I wanted to hear but I had to be sure.  I said to her that I had to go home and tell Matthew something.  I wanted to hear from her what exactly I could go home and say to him.  She stated, emphatically, that I could go home and tell Matthew that what he needed to happen was going to happen and would stay in place as long as he needed it to be in place.  This lady changed our lives.  She was there, at that new school, to meet with Matthew on his first day, she continued regular follow-ups, she took the time to get to know him and us and she learned what made him tick.  She, without a doubt, saved him.  He didn’t fall through the cracks, he didn’t miss out on anything he needed to succeed and she made sure she kept informed as to his progress.  She was (is) my ‘academic world’ angel.

As with our first relationship that I spoke about, there was a period of time that life went on its way and we didn’t need to be in such constant contact with this angel.  That certainly didn’t  prevent me from touching base with her a couple of times through the year to let her know how Matt was dong and what accomplishments he’s made.  She was always so thankful.  I was of the mindset that I’d be the first to pick up the phone or email if there was an issue, so why shouldn’t I be as quick to communicate when all was well, too.  I know she appreciated it and I was just as appreciative to be able to relay to her when all was going well.  A few years back I told her that when the day came for Matthew to walk across the stage to receive his high school diploma, I wanted her to be sitting right beside us.  She played such a huge part in his schooling.  Well that time is quickly approaching and when I was talking with her this week I reminded her of this.  I couldn’t help but smile when her response was “I’ll take the Kleenex.”

These two people have had a vested interest in our family over the years.  I wanted them to be there to see Matthew after he received his Youth Volunteer of the Year Award from our municipality this week.  It wasn’t just about Matthew or our family.  There are many, many people who have been an integral part of our journey and they should be able to celebrate that as well.  Mike and I never could have done this by ourselves.  We never ever would have gotten through some of our darkest days without so many people that have come into our lives.  Our family, our friends and those people who helped and became friends.  Because of Matthew we have been blessed to have so many people enter our world.  To try and name them all or talk about them all here would be next to impossible but as I relived the last number of years this week these two people, in particular, stood out in my mind.

Although, due to circumstances beyond their control, neither were able to see Matthew this week, their hearts were with us.  So many others were able to watch our boy receive his award from afar.

If I have learned anything from this little trip down Memory Lane I have realized that I truly appreciate the impact that every one (and I mean every – single – one) involved in our lives over the last 24+ years has had.  We’ve crossed paths for a reason.  And you have all helped mold me into the person I am today.  The struggles, the joys, the laughs, the tears ~ some of these I have experienced with many of you.  You have seen us through many different facets of our life and it is my hope that you will continue to be there for many more.

We have to all cherish the time we have with those closest to us and be open to let those in that we don’t always think will end up being vital.  Sometimes it’s the people we least expect to have such a profound impact on our lives that end up making the biggest marks on our heart.

To the two ladies I hold close in this post, I thank you.  I don’t know if you’ll ever even read this ~ that’s not why I’m writing it anyway, but I need these thoughts in print.  You have been there for us.  You have especially been there for me.  I will never forget that.

Until next time…

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Window to Our Hearts

** I originally wrote this almost 5 years ago but I’d like to share it on this first day of Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month.

***Sorry it’s double-spaced I don’t know how to fix my format so the Enter Key just single spaces :(

Window To Our Hearts

He looked at me tonight and asked

“Why was I born this way?

“Why do I live with autism,

Each and every day?”

My heart sank to a place

It’s never been before.

I prayed for words to help me

Because I wasn’t sure.

“Why do you think the grass is green?

And why is the sky so blue?

Why do leaves change colour each fall

And then next spring grow new?”

“That’s easy, Mom,” he said to me

“I’ll tell you why it’s so.

Our eyes are windows to our hearts

Where our love will grow and grow.

If we couldn’t see the grass turn green

Or the sky light up so blue

We’d never take the time to see

The beauty of our world so true.”

My heart soared to a place

It’s never been before.

I had the words to help me

And this time I was sure.

“Autism is like the grass and sky

And leaves that turn each year

It makes us take the time to see

Another beauty that’s so near.

Each of us is different

And we all have much to give

Our eyes are windows to our hearts

Where the love within us lives.

Like the grass is green

And the sky is blue

And leaves turn colour each fall

Autism is a beauty lying within you.

You see the world so different

Through your eyes so pure.

That window to your heart

Has taught me much for sure.”

I looked at him tonight and said

“I know why you were you born this way.

You live with autism to show the world

How to love each and every day.”

Tracey Hilliard

Oct 22/10

Autism Awareness

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Please Don’t Bash Others ~ Regardless

I read an article today from a fellow autism-mom that made my heart sink.  I don’t know her personally and I’m sure there were reasons for her post, but regardless, it made my skin crawl.  It hurt me and it angered me.  I really don’t want to encourage anyone to read it, but in order to get the point of my feelings you may feel the need to skim it here.

I couldn’t just let it be.  All the high-five’s and kudos she was getting from other autism mom’s and family members wasn’t the way I felt at all.  And while I may be in the minority, I had to tell her how I felt.  I did send the following to her, privately, and as of this posting time I have not received a response.  I’d like to share it with you now.

Hi Shanell. We have not communicated before although I have been following your page for a while (I don’t comment a lot on pages).

Please understand that as a fellow Mom who lives with autism in my world I respect every word that comes from your mouth (as I hope you would do for me). I must say, however, that today I did not agree with you. Today I shed tears of hurt, disappointment and shame when I read your article titled ” Somebody Living with Autism Wants You to Read This”.

Allow me the opportunity to explain. Autism has been a part of our life for 18 1/2 years. My son, Matthew, lives with aspergers syndrome. We did not hear the word ‘autism’ until he was 8 years old, although we always knew there was something. At first, we attributed his ‘quirkiness’ to being an only child. He didn’t know how to play with other children because he didn’t grow up around children his age. He was thrown into a world of adults from the get-go. He was an old-soul in a young body. When he started school he was happier by himself, he became agitated when he was asked to share, he didn’t care about ABC’s and 123’s; he was an outdoor’s boy who just wanted to explore. He fell behind academically from the beginning. At first he was diagnosed with ADHD and thankfully, a mild medication allowed him to focus and get through the remainder of his school year. There were still concerns surfacing the following school year which were answered after a series of psycho-educational testings. A nonverbal learning disability showed us why he was having issues with printing, fine and gross motor skills and transcribing. Modifications and adaptations to his curriculum helped but there were still yet many unanswered questions. Privately, he was diagnosed with ASD, specifically, aspergers syndrome. He was in grade 3. What the heck was ASD? I knew nothing about it, I knew no one who lived with it and all I could think of was “Rainman”. That was my introduction to autism. I was alone and afraid and angry.

To say I lived, breathed, ate and slept autism from that moment on was an understatement. Not only did I have to educate myself, my husband and my son but I also had to educate those family members and friends closest to us. We were it. We were the only ones in our circle to have autism affect us. No one knew anything about it. I made it my mission to learn everything I could and then it became our way of life, but not before many trials and tribulations (some of which we all still live with to this day).

My parents (my father in particular) were very old school when it came to children and disciplining them. My father had a hard time wrapping his head around Matthew and his ‘quirkiness’ and then accepting the fact that his ‘quirks’ had a name. It was hogwash and he just had to be disciplined. I searched and I searched and I searched for something – anything- to be able to show my father to help him understand. It wasn’t easy. He was a hard guy to sway. However, eventually I did find an article and from the moment I started reading it, I knew it was the one for him. It was specifically for grandparents and I only wish now I had saved it. He got it. He finally understood that we were not allowing Matthew to behave in a certain way or that he just needed a good talking to. My Dad finally got that Matthew was this way because that’s the way he was. Point blank. It wasn’t a bad thing, it wasn’t a good thing, it didn’t make him any better or worse than other children, it just was. Period.

Is it that easy with everyone who doesn’t understand? Of course not. Are there those who are ignorant (in the negative sense of the word) and who are unable to understand the voice of reason and education? Of course there are. There are no amount of articles, no amount of statistics, no amount of educating that will enlighten them or make them understand – and that’s because they are closed minded individuals.

We want our children to be accepted. We want them to find their rightful place in this world and we want for them what any parent wants for their child.

We don’t want them bullied, we don’t want them ostracized, we don’t want them disrespected and we certainly don’t want them to be made to feel as though they are any less of a person. At least I don’t want that for my son.

Why was it ok for you to feel as though you could bully, ostracize, and disrespect another human being today? I know your article didn’t specify anyone in particular, but even so, in general terms, why do you think it was ok for you to do what you are so set against others doing to your child?

In my mind, every good article, every good, positive form of advocacy that you have shared was totally negated today by your harsh words.

Yes, we all get frustrated, yes we all get angry and want to bang some people’s heads up against a wall and yell at the top of our lungs to stop being so mean and cruel and disrespectful but to call out a population today the way you did that will never care anymore about Kate or Matthew or the millions of others that we stand beside who live with autism did more to hurt you (in my opinion) than it did to help Kate, Matthew and all the others.

Sure, there are oodles of people on your FB page and on your blog applauding your words because they too felt the way you spoke of hundreds of times and are thrilled that you lashed out because the people you lashed out on are the scum of the earth because they couldn’t care less about ‘getting’ our kids or the lives that we live. And at first I thought “Wow, she’s having a bad day, what a shame.” But then, the more I thought about it the more upset I got.

What did you accomplish today? Did any of those vile individuals message you to apologize for their ignorance? Did they offer to learn more about living with autism? Did they offer to spend time with your family and understand the world according to Kate? Did you feel relieved and like you proved something by attacking others with you words? I’ll leave that for you to answer, as I truly have no idea.

We all deal with things our own way and I’m not saying your article today was right or wrong for you. It was obviously something that you felt you had to do. I just wonder how many others out there read it, like I did and thought it was nothing more than hypocrisy.

Your article did do something positive for me. It showed me that the way I advocate for those living with autism works for me. It showed me that making another human being feel belittled and “less, not different” is not the way I want to live my life or show my son how to deal with things. I’m thankful that when Matthew reads my blog in years to come I don’t ever have to worry about him asking me why I was mean to those who didn’t know any better. I’m thankful that I can continue to advocate in a positive light and after many years of dealing with ignorance that I finally realized that those people will not change regardless of what way I try to approach them.

So, while at first I shed tears, as I finish these words I realize that I shouldn’t shed tears, I should just continue to do what I am doing. I truly hope you will get to that point sometime. It’s hard with a young child, and although the teenage years pose a whole new set of issues, I am confident that Matthew is finally finding his way in the world and making many of those paths as he travels them.

I wish you well and look forward to continuing following you and your family on your journey, I just had to say my piece even though it may not be among the views of the majority.

With much respect,
Matthew’s Mom,

Until next time…

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A Quick Update

Good grief, the last couple of weeks have been quite exciting at The Hideaway.

The words “Thank You” seem so inadequate as I sit here trying to express how grateful and amazed I am by everything that has happened since I posted my open letter to the families of Cape Breton and beyond.

What started out as nothing more than me doing what I could to draw attention to Two Rivers Wildlife Park ended up being an incredible outpouring of support.

The story I shared took on a life of its own and the park has since seen lots of support from members of the community and our province. To think that by sharing our story some good may have come from it is astounding.

Many people were introduced to one of the most amazing people I know – Matthew.  He has truly touched many hearts in these last 2 weeks.  Complete strangers have contacted us and shared their stories and opened their hearts to us.  That’s incredible, and definitely humbling.

Matthew’s love of animals and nature brought him to Two Rivers as a boy who wanted to help and learn.  Little did any of us know how two-fold this would all become.  As proud of him as I am, I am equally as proud of the park and the people who are there.  I’ve said this all before but its impact is worth repeating.

Talking with a new friend this morning, we got on the whole “everything happens for a reason” topic.  I’ve never realized how true this expression is more than I have in the last couple of weeks.

If we hadn’t moved almost two years ago, if we hadn’t made that first phone call to the park, if we hadn’t finally said ‘ok’ to Matthew that he could begin volunteering, if we hadn’t done everything in our power to make it work how different things could be right now – and not necessarily a ‘better’ different.

I normally try not to dwell on ‘what-if’s’ but this one really has me thinking.  This one really had a profound impact.  It helped Matthew more than I could have ever imagined and in turn it brought awareness to one of the best places around here.  Our circle of friends has grown substantially because of it and in a very small way I like to think that yes, we made a difference when Two Rivers needed it most.

People read and watched our story and reacted to it very positively.  People I didn’t even know stopped me out in public and asked if that was my son in the paper and on tv.  Matthew was able to make several donations to the park on behalf of others who dropped envelopes off to us throughout the past couple of weeks.  All because of our story.  That’s crazy!!  We are still trying to absorb it all and grasp the magnitude of it.

For Matthew, an 18 year old guy who is just doing what he enjoys, it has meant sharing his story.  Letting people into his world.  For a private guy who typically doesn’t like to share much that was a lot for him.  To all of a sudden find himself on the front page of our local paper and on the evening news was overwhelming.  But this time it was a different kind of overwhelming.  He wasn’t frustrated or confused about something.  He wasn’t trying to make us understand how he was feeling or what he was thinking.  He was as amazed as we were that so many people cared.  He was thrilled that his story could benefit Two Rivers and he was so pumped that he could finally do something to help.  He made a difference.  He showed that there are no limitations to what you can do and by doing something you love to do you really have no idea where it could lead.

I am hopeful that the good news will continue for Matthew and for Two Rivers.  We don’t know what tomorrow will bring but I suspect someday in the near future there could be so much more to share.

For now I simply wanted to say those two words once again ~ Thank you.  Thank you for taking the time to care.

Until next time…

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One Hundred Thousand Thank You’s

Little did I know on Saturday that this post –> An Open Letter to Families in Cape Breton and Beyond would be viewed 12, 446 as of this evening.  WOW.  Just, wow.

The whirlwind started for Matthew (and everyone out at Two Rivers) yesterday morning when Matthew, John and Jarrett were interviewed by The Cape Breton Post.  Sharon spent a great deal of time with them taking amazing photos, learning about park life and getting to know Matt.  She put together an incredible story that made the front page of today’s newspaper.  –> See it here

Today saw Matthew and the gang at the park hang out with two TV news reporters.  CTV and CBC did a great job telling our story.  –> CTV  and CBC (at the 14 minute mark).

The main purpose for me writing the blog was to raise awareness and to try to help Two Rivers Wildlife Park raise the funds they are so deserving of.  This park is a treasure to Cape Breton Island and to everyone who is fortunate enough to visit our Fair Isle.  The work done there is exemplary and the people who work there are nothing short of the best, as you’ve been able to see with all the media coverage the last couple of days.

I hoped a few hundred people might see my blog.  I hoped to tug at a few heartstrings and I hoped to draw a few people to the park that perhaps had never had the opportunity to visit.  And if one or two people thought enough of my story to make a donation then that would be the icing on the cake.

What I got was so much more.  My blog was viewed around the globe.  Social media exploded, and awareness was created.  Awareness for a wonderful organization and awareness about autism.  I received messages from animal lovers and from people who talked about loved ones living with autism.  You have all opened up to me about two uniquely wonderful topics that deserve our attention.

Thank you for allowing our family to touch your lives, even for a brief moment.  Thank you for understanding the importance of advocating for causes you believe in and thank you for letting our son’s love of animals and nature move you, if even in the smallest of ways.

As we all continue along on our roller coaster I have a new hope.  I hope Two Rivers will find what they need to continue to prosper.  There has to be someone out there who can help financially.  If we could, we’d do it in a heartbeat.  Instead, I’ll continue to spread the word the best way I know how.  I know Matthew has thousands of hours left in him and I certainly wouldn’t dare want to take that away from him, his friends (coworkers) or the animals.  How about you?

Until next time…

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An Open Letter to Families in Cape Breton and Beyond

{EDIT February 1st ~ I only thought yesterdays views of over 2,800 was amazing and far surpassed any goal I could have reached.  Imagine how I’m feeling now seeing an additional 6,330 views for today!!  I am truly mesmerized that so many of you have chosen to read our story.  If sharing this means that it will bring in 1 new visitor or 1 extra donation to Two Rivers Wildlife Park I will be forever grateful.  Thank you all for reading our story, for sending the many wonderful messages to me and for sharing your own stories.  It’s been wonderful watching my words make their way around the world for such a wonderful cause.}

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Matthew’s Mom, Tracey.  Matthew is 18 years old, a junior volunteer firefighter, an animal enthusiast, an avid bird watcher, a nature lover and one of the hardest workers I have ever known.  He is also a volunteer with Two Rivers Wildlife Park.

As you may have heard, the park had to approach the Cape Breton Regional Municipality this week for emergency funding.  Two Rivers has been a Not For Profit organization since 1995 when the provincial government decided to cease operating it as a provincially run park.  Thankfully the community has supported this venture now for 20 years and the park has been able to thrive, expand and continue to offer families year-round, financially-friendly activities.  Whether it be a walk through the animal trails, camping, star-gazing, cross country skiing, swimming, hiking, skating, or walking the well-known Fright Night Trail leading up to Halloween, Two Rivers offers something for everyone.

I will be the first to admit that I was unaware of just how much was available for families until Matthew began volunteering there in April of last year.  I was ignorant to exactly how vital this park is to our community and to those who work there as employees and volunteers.  It’s a community within a community where everyone strives for the same goal.  The camaraderie of the staff/volunteers is like nothing I have ever seen before.

Personally, for our family, Two Rivers Wildlife Park has been instrumental in allowing our oldest son to find ‘his’ place in the world.

Allow me to explain.  If you are a follower of my blog you have watched our journey and have seen Matthew’s growth since he started volunteering at the park ~ and you know what this means for him and us.  If you are not familiar with our story feel free to grab your favorite drink, sit back, relax and read up.  For now, I’ll sum it up quickly by explaining that Matthew lives with autism (asperger’s syndrome).  He was never inclined to be involved in sports or video games; that wasn’t his thing.  He was happiest outdoors, exploring nature and learning everything he could about animals living in the wild.  He’s always been described by those who know him well as ‘an old soul’ and ‘far beyond his years’.  Finding a group of his peers to grow with and spend time with was challenging because let’s face it, you want to spend time with those whom you share common interests.  For a young boy in this day and age being outside exploring all the time left him pretty much on his own as many of the people his age were spending their free time at a hockey rink or testing their skills with their newest video game.  This didn’t dissuade Matthew from continuing to learn everything he could about the animals he loved and the world that was waiting to welcome him.

A year and a half ago our family moved from the city to a more rural setting.  Matthew had almost 3 acres to call his own.  Now going from a small city lot with houses close enough to touch, this was a huge deal for him and for us.  We only thought we never saw him while we were living in the city.  Once he found his bearings at our new home he was outside from sun up to sun down.  The river, the woods, and the gardens all provided him with a place of solace.  He had many different types of wildlife at his fingertips.  Birds, squirrels, fox, ducks, partridge, you name it, we had it.  He was in his glory.

In the spring of last year we finally looked into him volunteering at Two River’s Wildlife Park.  This is something that we had talked about a few times over the years but for one reason or another we just didn’t ever get around to it.  Now seemed like a perfect time.  Mike got the application and he and Matthew went to drop it off and find out exactly what was involved.  Before Matthew committed, we explained to him that if this was really something he wanted to do he would be doing it on his own.  As a volunteer with the fire department, his father was always there with him but going to the park would be different.  Mike and I wouldn’t be there beside him.  If he wanted to do this he would have to understand that he was flying solo.  We had no problem driving him there and picking him up, but we weren’t staying.  He was ok with that and on April 12 of last year he spent his first day at Two Rivers.  To say I was a nervous wreck would be an understatement.  I prayed he would be accepted.  I worried he would be perceived as a ‘know-it-all’.  I feared it wouldn’t be what he hoped it would be.  Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  From the very moment he stepped foot on the park’s grounds as a volunteer he was made to feel as though he belonged.  He was accepted.  He was included and he had found a group of his peers with common interests.  The staff and other volunteers took Matthew under their wing and taught him so much.  And it wasn’t just about animals.  In the less than a year that he has been there he has developed skills in so many areas and has learned so much about so many different things.  Construction, landscaping, animal care, maintenance, hay bailing, and the list goes on and on.  He could certainly produce a resume to be proud of ~ all through volunteering.

But you want to know something?  All the hands-on skills are wonderful and amazing, however that’s not what means the most to me about this journey he’s on.  Matthew’s time at Two Rivers has allowed him to find his place and by finding his place he has gained so much confidence in himself.  He has fit in with a wonderful group of people who have accepted him for who he is.  I think, for me, the most significant testament to Matthew was the day he gained the courage to tell one of his co-workers that he lived with autism.  His co-worker (who is a few years older, but not much) looked at him and simply replied, “So?” ….Exactly.  That one word solidified Matthew’s place among those people and showed him that it didn’t matter.  The only difference it made was that his coworkers were then able to understand why Matthew may be a little more fixated on certain things or why he talks non stop a mile a minute about the same topics all the time.  The thing is though, they knew that as they got to know him for him before they knew that autism was part of his world so at the point when he felt comfortable enough to disclose it (more as an explanation than anything) it really and truly didn’t matter.  And for Mike and I that was huge.  Yes, in some areas of Matt’s life autism has meant he had to find different ways to achieve the same results that would come typically to others and we have had to advocate to make sure that he had all the same opportunities presented to him (especially in school) that every other student did.  At the park, this was a non issue.  He was finally in a place where he didn’t have to struggle to fit in and that place allowed him to see the efforts of his hard work almost immediately.

So you see, when you get right into the heart of the park there is so much more to it than animals and trails.  There are stories.  There are successes.  There are people who make a difference far more than they could ever understand by just being there and doing what they do.  There are hundreds of people who have shared their time to volunteer and work at a place that makes more of a difference to the lives of others than I could ever possibly explain.  Young lives from the age of 7 to seasoned contributors in their 80’s have continued to give their time to this park for years.  And why do they do this?  Because of the atmosphere and because of the difference this park has made to our area and the people and families who take advantage of it.

This is our story.  One story.  One family who has been affected by what Two Rivers Wildlife Park has to offer.  To say this past year has changed Matthew’s life is an understatement.  There are simply not enough accolades in the world for us to bestow to them.

And now Two Rivers needs our help.  They’ve hit a bump in the road and they need financial help.  Because it’s a park much of it’s success is weather dependent.  Visitors were down last year and let’s face it, that means they didn’t take in as much money as they needed.  Have you been out there?  Have you really looked around to see what they’ve got going on out there?  It’s so much more than I ever thought.  And it all takes money to maintain.  Things I never thought about before even beyond the animals.  It’s wintertime now.  Pipes freeze.  Trees fall.  Roads need to be plowed.  Animals have to be fed.  Heat and light bills have to be paid.  Staff have to be paid.  Structures have to be maintained.  It all costs.  Even though they are opened all year round to accommodate the winter-enthusiasts as well by offering sleigh rides, cross country skiing, skating and sledding, the numbers through the gates are far lower in the winter months than during the summer.  So what can we do?  It’s actually quite simple.  Take advantage of what Two Rivers Wildlife Park has to offer.

There aren’t very many places around here that a family can go to spend quality time without paying a fortune and have a great, fun-filled day no matter the time of year.  There is something for everyone and I can safely say that it may even take a couple of trips to enjoy all that Two Rivers has to offer.

Perhaps you can’t just hop in the car and make the day trip out there.  Maybe you would like to still help out anyway.  Feel free.  Here’s their website which includes a link directly to Paypal or you can contact them through their phone number to donate that way.

Two Rivers Wildlife Park

Almost 7 years ago Matthew decided he wanted to donate the pennies he was collecting to Two Rivers.  Even back then he wanted to help.  His pennies helped him adopt a reindeer that was actually born the same day Marcus was.  That should have been an indicator of things to come, right there.  Little did we know 7 years ago he’d go from giving a bucket of pennies to a man he didn’t know to spending time assisting with wagon rides and so much more learning from this same man whom he now considers his boss and a good friend.  Just look at the smile.  As he prepares to complete his 1,000th hour volunteering (on Groundhog Day) let’s give them all a reason to keep smiling!

matt and johnnyMatt and horses

Do you have a bucket full of pennies you could spare?  You just never know what it may lead to.  And if you do, make sure you tell them that Matt’s Mom sent you their way.

Until next time…

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