Four months ago we knew the summer was approaching fast and we had to try to find summer work for Matthew. We knew where he wanted to work but the funding had to be there for that as Two Rivers Wildlife Park is a local not-for-profit organization that relies on community support, government funding and the hard work of many volunteers to remain the successful oasis that it is.
We found out many of the summer grants had an application deadline date of February and we had missed out. EmployAbility Partnership was all set to get him into a program until they realized he was still going to be a student at the end of the summer. Their programs are geared towards those who have completed school.
Four months ago we came up with an idea.
What if we could get a local business or service group to come on board and sponsor Matthew at the park for the summer? With over 1,000 hours volunteered at Two Rivers Wildlife Park he had certainly proven he is committed and dedicated. If he wasn’t able to gain employment this summer we’d have to try other avenues as he needed some type of income. The cost of fuel, the clothes, the footwear, the mileage on the vehicle; it was all adding up quickly. And he deserved to get some type of remuneration while doing something he loved. Matthew had totally gone above and beyond over the last year ~ even surpassing any expectations his father and I had set for him. His achievements just kept on keepin’ on.
We knew he was going to be spending his summer at Two Rivers with or without a pay cheque. He would easily turn his 1,000 hours into 2,000 or more by this time next year. As a family we decided to forego any summer plans away from home so we could be here to make sure Matthew got to and from ‘work’ daily once school finished up in June. It’s the middle of the winter and he’s already talking about how he can’t wait for this summer so he can spend all his time out there.
How could we make this happen? Well, I guess we could try doing what we do best. We write. We tell stories. People were introduced to Matthew and Two Rivers earlier when my blog post An Open Letter to Families in Cape Breton and Beyond was viewed over 13,000 times in a number of days. The feedback was amazing. Local media wanted to tell our story. We were introduced to people near and far who shared Matthew’s passion for animals and for Two Rivers. We also heard from many families who live with autism who wanted to share their loved one’s stories. The buzz that our story generated showed us that people cared, that people were interested and that Matthew was doing as much good for Two Rivers as Two Rivers was doing for Matthew.
With all this in mind I sat at my laptop one Saturday morning and started to develop a proposal that would hopefully find its way to a local group or business willing to form a partnership. This partnership would directly impact Matthew and Two Rivers Wildlife Park. Indirectly it would benefit the thousands of people and families that visit the park as well as the group or business we would partner with. Our partner would see first hand how their contribution would allow this young man to pursue his dream of a possible livelihood at Two Rivers. Matthew has much knowledge to share and now very eagerly awaits his opportunity to teach complete strangers that visit the park all he can about his world beyond the front gate.
One idea we had for our partnership included a local business donating a trailer that could be placed on the grounds of Two Rivers allowing Matthew to stay a few nights/weeks. This would allow him to gain independence as he would be away from home but still be in the company of park employees who live within the park’s perimeter. Travel expenses would dramatically decrease as transportation costs would be cut in half on the days he’d spend overnight.
Our proposal included a copy of Matthew’s hours to date as well as a map view showing the distance between our home and Two Rivers. Also contained was a collage of pictures showing Matthew on site at the park, at our local volunteer fire department where he is also a member, our family participating in 2 fundraising walks for our local autism society, and Matthew receiving his PEERS certificate last year as he successfully completed a program designed to teach those living with autism how to successfully make and keep friends. To finish off the package we included a copy of the Cape Breton Post article which told the story of Matthew completing 1,000 hours of volunteer services.
Before we ventured on our way, we showed our package to a few people who gave us a big thumbs-up. They felt we had done an excellent job outlining our request so early one morning Mikey went on his way with a duo tang containing our proposal for each business and group we wanted to start with.
What happened next was nothing short of amazing. Mike phoned me at work and told me that he had just dropped off our package with the manager of Stones RV in Sydney. Tom Buffett briefly skimmed though our proposal as Mike gave him the Cole’s Notes version of why he was there and within that 10 minute encounter Mr. Buffett showed great interest. Of course, being the middle of the winter he would have to wait until the spring to see what he would have available. He would also have to speak with his head office in New Glasgow but he didn’t see any reason why he couldn’t find something for Matthew. Good grief, Charlie Brown…what just happened??
Over the next couple of months we eagerly sat tight on this news and worked out the logistics of this possibility with Two River’s manager, Johnny Huntington. He was thrilled with the idea that this could happen and started planning a location and setup scheme that would see that Matthew’s needs could be met if he were to take up temporary residence during the summer. There were a lot of factors to consider and thankfully we had a team willing to make sure that if this became reality it would be a successful venture. Matthew would know nothing about this just yet. We wanted to make sure this could really happen before we shared the news with him.
To add to our excitement and to help pass the long winter months, Matthew had quite the honor bestowed upon him on April 21. He was nominated for and subsequently received the Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s Youth Volunteer of the Year Award.
What an amazing evening this was! To see his many hours of volunteer service recognized on such a level was truly humbling. Not that Matthew has done any of this for what he would get from it, but in turn it has showed him that by working hard you can achieve great things and be recognized for dedication and commitment. Achievement takes on many forms. Everyone has challenges and everyone excels at something. Whether it be academic success, athletic success or humanitarian success to name a few, everyone has something to contribute. Finding your path in life is sometimes easier for some than others but I truly believe that everyone has something to contribute. When a passion and a love leads you to finding your place it’s definitely a bonus. During the short time that Matthew has been involved with Two Rivers Wildlife Park, he has found his place. He has found his calling.
As the calendar pages changed the time was getting closer and closer. Mike touched base with Mr. Buffett at Stones RV and plans were set in motion. They would deliver and set up the trailer, we would have a sign made and displayed next to the trailer showing Stones RV was a proud sponsor of Two Rivers (big shout out to the Cape Breton Regional Fire and Emergency Service Training and Prevention Divisions for covering the cost of the sign), and Stones RV would be tagged on all PSA announcements run on 3 of our local radio stations throughout the summer. Thanks to The Cape 94.9, CJCB and 98.3 MAX FM for coming on board with this project and being such a huge supporter of Two Rivers and Matthew.
Finally, the day arrived. Yesterday turned into a flurry of activity as the trailer was delivered and everyone was sitting around waiting for me to get off work so we could take Matthew up and give him his surprise. Unfortunately, Mr. Buffett was not able to stick around as he had other deliveries to make but I am hopeful he’ll be able to visit Matthew at some point through the summer and that the pictures showing Matthew’s excitement will make their way to him at some point.
As park employees began to gather in the trailer we heard the tractor approaching. My heart was ready to burst from my chest. When Matthew got out of the tractor and came around the corner I opened the door and of the trailer and said “Welcome home. How do you like it?” Once he realized what was happening, that this trailer was for him, the look on his face said it all.
After standing there spellbound for a few minutes the guys inside yelled at him to come see the inside.
With a grin from ear to ear we showed him the layout of the trailer and explained all that had gone on to make this happen. I don’t think I ever heard the words “Thank You” so much in my life. His excitement was palpable. A quick trip home to gather up some necessities gave him a chance to process the enormity of all that just happened. It certainly didn’t take him very long to settle in and have the place looking like ‘home’.
With his first night under his belt I can’t wait to hear how he got along. There will be a transition period for sure, but with the help and commitment of his friends at the park I can only predict that this will be a summer worth remembering for Matthew.
Everyone reading this needs to know that this happened because of the enormous support shown to Matthew by the local business and groups I have mentioned above. It truly does take a village to raise a child and we have certainly been very fortunate to live in a wonderful community that has stepped up to help Matthew achieve the dreams that were so close within his reach.
And for the icing on the cake, saving the best for last, Matthew’s volunteer hours will be declining by 40 hours/week effective July 1st. Why is this the icing on the cake, you may ask? Well, let me tell you; for the next 8 weeks Matthew will be a true, bonafide employee of Two Rivers Wildlife Park. They successfully applied for a grant that would give Matthew his first job ever!
For some kids, their biggest dream is going to Disney Land. That was never a dream of Matthew’s. It would be the total opposite for him – not enjoyable at all. The crowds, the congestion, the rides, the hustle and bustle; that’s not him. His dream is Two Rivers Wildlife Park. A gem of its own right here in our community’s back yard. Hopefully you and your family will have the opportunity to visit the park this summer and see for yourself why this special place is our son’s equivalent of Disney Land – Two Rivers is his Magical Kingdom.
Until next time…