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…

About angeloftheisland

Welcome to An Angel’s Island. I’m Tracey (aka angeloftheisland). I’m also Mom to 19 year old Matthew who constantly keeps me on my toes. He’s our “special” boy who shows us daily how he deals with the world of ADHD, a Nonverbal Learning Disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s my hero. Marcus is 8 and reminds me everyday that he’s in no way going to make the school years boring for his Dad and me!! I’m also wife to Mike for 25 years now. Mike is my best friend and soul-mate and he has showed me over the years, that yes – dreams do come true. Our life may not be the most exciting but there’s always something going on. Welcome to our Happy Place, newly renamed Hilliard's Happy Hideaway. I hope you enjoy what I’ve shared about our family.
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35 Responses to An Open Letter to Families in Cape Breton and Beyond

  1. Bessie Lahey says:

    Tracey a very heart warming story. People should open their eyes and start enjoying the things that are offered at Two Rivers Wildlife Park before we do lose it . We have made many trips to this park when our children were young and have gone there on many occasions in our older years. Thank you for your story and hopefully we will get the funding needed to keep our very special park going for years to come.


  2. Kayla says:

    Your story is absolutly heart-warming. Over the years my family has made countless trips to Two Rivers. It is a wonderful escape from the city even for a couple of hours. Your story really caught my attention because my uncle helps run the observitory! But more importantly it caught my attention because I have siblings with Austism! It is so wonderful that your son has found something he thrives at and enjoys! Hopefully Two Rivers will be around for many years to come! Thank you for sharing your story


    • Hi Kayla! Welcome and thanks so much for reading a bit of our story 🙂 I’m glad I’ve been able to touch so many today. If we have anything to say about it, Two Rivers will still be here long after we are 😉 Cheers!!


  3. Carol MacNeil says:

    What a great story. So glad Matthew was able to find something he loved to do. I hope the park will be able to get the funding it needs to keep going for as long as it can. I have enjoyed the park on a number of occasions and hope to be able to keep doing so.


  4. Tammy Locke says:

    You are an amazing mom , community leader and you still grab the attention of your audience. You have had my attention ever since high school. Your words are always wise, kind and something worth listening too. You, my friend, make me smile.
    My son Matthew loved the wildlife park as well. It certainly is everything you said.
    Matthew Hilliard, you rock! I will share your story Tracey and participate in your efforts.
    Please support this important cause.


  5. Joe Purdie says:

    Aww, Tracey….your narrative puts a lump in this ol’ fart’s throat. What a joy it must be to see Matt’s strides and the home he has found at Two Rivers to held him continue making them. Especially endearing is the ” SO?” attitude when Matt felt comfortable enough to disclose his condition. That is the type of feeling Rose and I had when some generous soul opted to donate a kidney for Scott. My continued best wishes for great things and positive outcomes for your special young man….let me use another adjective here..”OUTSTANDING young man”….SPECIAL can also have a rather unfortunate identifier associated with it. His successes, his abilities and his growth are in no small part the result of his wonderful parents….keep on keepin’ on.


  6. Juanita MacKeigan says:

    Please tell Matthew that Juanita read his story and is so very proud of him. Tell him that I’ll see him next week at school. I enjoy listening to his stories of the Park.


  7. Verna Johnson says:

    Beautiful story


  8. tom, by name says:

    nice to read some thing nice for a change, well done smiles too you.


  9. Cindy says:

    We are from Newfoundland and have visited our family in Cape Brenton for 4 years now (and plan on doing so again this summer) we have taken our children (who are 4 and 5 now) there every time we go visit. They LOVE this park and we as parents love all that it has to offer! It wasn’t only about the animals but the many other things it has to offer. I think the passion that Matthew has for this park is wonderful and It is because of people like him that our family gets to enjoy this beautiful spot that Cape Breton has to offer 🙂


    • Hi Cindy! Thanks for sharing your story with me. I’m so glad you have had the chance to experience what Two Rivers has to offer. Keep visiting when you have the chance, there are plans for new additions!! Have a great day 🙂


  10. Cathy MacNeil says:

    Tracey thanks for sharing your wonderful story about Matthew. It is heartwarming to see what a difference the staff and park have made in Matthew’s life. It is truly a great facility and we are very lucky to have for families to enjoy!!


  11. The wildlife park was not there when I left my home in Sydney, Cape Breton, to move to Boston. As the mother of two wonderful boys, both on the autism spectrum, your story moved me to tears, understanding the struggle to fit in only too well. Thank God for places and people like this. I definitely have a bucket of pennies to spare and will make sure to visit the park when I am home again. I am so happy your son has found his place in this world. Sounds like, with such wonderful parents as advocates, it was bound to happen. Thank you for sharing your touching, heartwarming, inspirational story with us. ❤ ❤


    • Hi Charlotte, thanks for your kind comments! It’s nice to know there are other parents out there who ‘get it’. I’m sure Two Rivers would greatly appreciate whatever you could donate the next time you’re home. Have a great day 🙂


  12. Donna Dziubek says:

    Reading your story has my eyes tearing up. I have a good friend who is raising her grand-daughter, now a young woman, with Asperger’s. Until I met her as a child, I thought that all autistic children were severely challenged and unable to cope with so-called “norman people”. Because she and I love animals and small children, we have found common ground and she is very social with me. I wish that I could say that she had close friends while in school, but it isn’t so. Her friends are her grandmother’s friends who take the time to find out what she likes to talk about. I now wonder if she would like to volunteer at the park as well. I had been there many times when my oldest grandkids (now adults) were small, and now my 7 yr. old grandson goes frequently with his dad. I will have two grandsons, from Halifax, visiting me for March break and I plan to take them to the park a few times. I am so glad that your son has found his place in the world, as these children are bright and have so much to offer. I will encourage my family and friends to make a visit to the park, with their children or grandkids, a priority. Thanks you so much for sharing your story.


    • Thanks for sharing your story with me, Donna. One never truly knows what will form a connection with a person living with autism. I’m glad you were able to find a common interest with her. I’m glad our story is creating lots of talk about the park – they deserve all the support they can get 🙂 Cheers!


  13. Joan Boudreau says:

    I just read your story Tracey,I thought it was great to hear how Matthew is doing but I’m not surprised .I always new he was a great young man & he was always friendly to us when he lived on the road,Tell him for us how proud of him that he has grown into an awesome young man.he always had a caring nature.the stories he use to tell us while living here glad I got the time to read it well done ,Tumbs up too matthew keep up the great work you love so much. Joan & Ray Boudreau


  14. cecilia farr says:

    Beautiful Story


  15. Anne marie says:

    Inspiring, beautiful story that moved me to tears. Let’s all do more to support two rivers. Great job matthew. You have an awesome mother.


  16. Angela MacMillan says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. Our family goes to Two Rivers several times each year. It would be a shame to see anything happen to this wonderful place. Is there a place on-line set up to make donations?


    • There sure is!! Click on the link I have posted in my blog for Two Rivers and then click on Donation. It will take you directly to paypal, or you can call the park and donate over the phone 🙂 Thank you.


  17. Pingback: One Hundred Thousand Thank You’s | An Angel's Island

  18. acoolcucumber says:

    Reblogged this on The Dreaded Social Worker.


  19. Pingback: Local Businesses & Community Groups Step Up for Matthew and Two Rivers | An Angel's Island

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