From the Mom of a High School Graduate

I’ve waited a long time to be able to share this entry and I’ve dreamed about being able to write it for many years.

At one time I wasn’t even sure if I would be writing it at all.

If you’ve followed my blog, you have traveled Matthew’s journey with us.  You’ve read about the good and seen the struggles.  It’s been a long and winding road.

Today is the time for me to say thank you.  The list is long, so grab a cuppa, get comfy and please allow me to thank so many people who have been such an integral part of where we are today.

Matthew’s educational journey began when he was 4 years old – 16 years ago in the year 2000.  Myrtle MacDougall took him under her wing and began to teach him the world of ABC’s and 123’s.  One of her teachers, Michelle Allen, spent much of her time with Matthew and wiped many of his tears as he waved goodbye to either Mike or I and spent 2 days a week for the next year and a half learning about the world outside of the familiarity of his home.  While Matthew exhibited growth in many topics, his social skills of turn-taking and group play showed signs of concern as he wasn’t blending in with the group of his peers as a child his age typically did.

September of 2002 saw Matthew enter the public school system.  Delores Dilney was his grade primary teacher.  Quite early into the school year it was evident that Matthew wasn’t settling quite as we had hoped.  He was a pretty busy guy who wasn’t at all interested in sitting still to learn the fundamentals he needed during his first year of school.  After Christmas it was clear that we needed to look into this a bit further.  At the urging of Mrs. Dilney, we visited our pediatrician, Dr. Andrew Lynk who did a thorough workup with Matthew.  ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) was quite evident from his findings and it was suggested that Matthew would benefit from medication.  After seeking a second opinion from our family doctor, Dr. Glen Worth, we were satisfied that, yes, Matthew should see a big difference in his ability to focus and concentrate if we were to take this leap of faith.  Almost immediately we did see that difference.  Our boy was able to sit and complete a task that only weeks previous would have caused him such grief.  Unfortunately, much time had passed in the school year and not enough of the required concepts were successfully completed to allow Matthew to advance to the next grade.  It was strongly recommended by Mrs. Dilney and Matthew’s principal, Mr. Kevin Deveaux, that Matthew repeat his first year.  As devastating as that was for us to hear I sincerely thank them for making that decision so many years ago.  He needed that second year in grade primary to build on his social skills and get the basics necessary for his remaining school years.

Matthew’s second year in grade primary (2003-04) saw Mrs. Corrine MacDonald at the front of the classroom. Having Matthew learn from another teacher who could explore different ways of learning with him proved to be quite successful.  He seemed to blend with his peers easier and successfully completed the school year.

Grade One (2004-05) began much as grade primary ended.  Mrs. Maureen Robertson was a lovely lady who had a sternness about her that I would later come to appreciate more than words could say.  Her students were getting older and had to learn to be responsible and accountable for their work space and actions.  Early in the year she suggested that perhaps Matthew could have been dealing with something in addition to ADHD.  There were aspects of his growth and development that weren’t being met.  He couldn’t use scissors, he had trouble holding his pencil and tying his shoes frustrated him beyond his limits.  At her urging, Matthew was recommended for a complete psycho-educational assessment through the school board.

Because the lists were lengthy,  after sharing her suspicions with Matthew’s medical team, we decided to seek the assistance of Child and Adolescent Services at our local hospital.  Peter Pierre was our godsend for the next few years.  He worked with Matthew diligently teaching him coping strategies for when he became frustrated.  During our time with Peter Mike and I learned just as much from him (and perhaps more) than Matthew did.  Many of the techniques he taught were so helpful and successful that I still use them to this day.  I think Peter had one of the largest impacts of Matthew’s life to this point and I often wish he could have stayed on as part of the team.  He taught me what true advocacy was all about and unknowingly set the ground work for me to walk the road I have since we met him.

Rosemary Gillis was the perfect teacher for Matthew’s grade 2 year (2005-06).  While we were still waiting for his assessment to be completed she worked tirelessly with him by incorporating slight changes to his program to allow him to see success.  Finally, mid year, he received his testing from board psychologist, Catherine Boudreau.  Matthew was very fortunate to meet such extraordinary people in the school system who saw what amazing potential he had.  He bonded with her immediately and although the testing was quite extensive, he persevered and Ms. Boudreau was able to gather the information she needed.  After meeting with her and discussing the results, our lives were opened to the world of Nonverbal Learning Disorders (NLD) and reading disabilities.  After researching and reading the material she provided for us so many of our questions were answered.  We were finally able to understand why Matthew was having so many difficulties in the academic setting.  All was not lost, however.  There were people and programs that could help.  A completely new program for Matthew was implemented almost immediately and his frustration level seemed to lower considerably.

During the summer of 2006, after talking with Dr. Lynk, we decided to have further testing done with Matthew, privately.  While many questions were answered by the diagnoses of NLD, we felt there was still something we weren’t catching.  With his recommendation, we were introduced to Dr. Reg Landry who was almost immediately able to schedule Matthew’s meeting.  To this day, Dr. Landry is an integral part of our team.  Not only did he put a name to the questions we still asked but he worked with us for many years following to help Matthew in more ways than anyone could imagine.  Ten years ago this summer, Dr. Landry said a word that was almost foreign to me.  Autism.

His recommendations included classroom support for Matthew which we hoped to get set up at the beginning of is grade 3 year (2006-07).  That proved to be a little easier said than done.  We were up against a system and that system had many layers we had to filter our way through.  Donna Dunn, Matthew’s new principal, was so accommodating.  She had gotten to know Matthew and observed first-hand the difficulties he encountered.  Danielle MacDonald was his classroom teacher that year and to say Matthew’s class was busy would be an understatement.  All the more reason for us to get him the stability he needed.  So started our phone calls to the school board offices.  A few Teacher’s Assistants (TA’s) came and went for a day here and a day there over the next week or two.  Unfortunately this was having the opposite effect for Matthew.  Having a different face sitting beside him every day did nothing but escalate his anxiety and frustrate him further.  He needed consistency.  He needed routine.  After talking with many people at the offices of the school board including Charles Sheppard, we decided if nothing could be done to help our son at that point he was not going to be at school until he had the assistance he needed.  Mike talked with Ms. Dunn and informed her he was taking Matthew home.  She understood our position and we understood hers.

Cathy Viva was the next person introduced to our team.  As the coordinator of student services she was contacted when Matthew left the classroom.  There are times when you meet someone whom you believe could move heaven and earth if needed.  That was Cathy Viva.  Within the day, the process to secure a full time TA for Matthew went from not being able to happen to having a timeline in our hands as to when that TA would be in the classroom with him.  In the meantime a temporary TA was assigned to Matthew and he returned to school the following day.

Within a few weeks Michelle Allen was the Teacher’s Assistant who would be working with Matthew for the year.  We were reintroduced to her from Matthew’s preschool days and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.  He was familiar with her and her with him.  Ms. Allen and Mrs. MacDonald worked magic with Matthew that year.  What a great team they made.  Finally, Matthew was showing signs of contentment.

To make life a bit more interesting, a new school was added to the mix for Matthew’s grade 4 year (2007-08) as his entire class moved up to the next building in our school complex. Unfortunately, Ms. Allen did not move with him.  His new TA, Leona Gillis, came on board and suddenly Matthew was back to square one.  Phil Greaves was to be the classroom teacher that year and Matthew instantly bonded with him.  They had many interests in common and Matthew liked seeing the pictures Mr. Greaves would share of his home, his gardens and his dog with him.  Sadly, Mr. Greaves’ days in the classroom ended for the year around Christmas time.  The impression he made, however, has lasted a lifetime.

After having a substitute teacher for a few months who subsequently went off on maternity leave, the revolving door of the grade 4 classroom stopped spinning for the remaining few months of the school year.  Introducing Michael MacNamara, affectionately known by Matthew every day since as Mr. M.  Words simply cannot adequately do justice to what this young, vibrant teacher did for that classroom of students in a few short months.  He had a teaching flare like nothing I had ever witnessed or experienced before.  Matthew couldn’t wait to get to school.  He didn’t want Friday afternoon to arrive and counted the minutes to Monday morning.  Unbeknownst to Matthew at the time, he met a teacher that year who had one of the biggest influences in Matthew’s life during all of his school years. Mr. M. would play a huge part in shaping the mold that Matthew would build on for the rest of his life.

Ms. Allen was again by Matthew’s side as his TA for his grade 5 year (2008-09).  Along with his teacher, Mildred Parsons, the 3 of them had a year with little to no upheaval which was a welcomed change after the issues presented during the first 2/3 of his grade 4 year.

Grade 6 (2009-10) was probably the year that saw the most drastic change in Matthew.  Again, Matthew was truly blessed to have Ms. Allen by his side.  She teamed up with J J McCarthy and they were on a mission to ‘toughen up’ our boy socially as well as academically.  Mr. McCarthy also left a lasting impression with Matthew.  He taught Matthew the importance of walking with your head up; not to be walking around looking at the ground.  Matthew certainly walked strong and proud with his head held high during his grand march recently and couldn’t wait to tell me that he saw Mr. McCarthy in the crowd who gave him a thumbs-up.  It should be us giving a big thumbs up to you, Mr. McCarthy – thank you.  You played a big part in shaping that mold, as well.

Before we leave elementary school I would be remiss not to mention Matthew’s recess and lunch-time buddy on the school grounds – Jayne.  I can only imagine some of the conversations that took place over the years and how many laughs the two of them had.  Jayne – thanks for being Matthew’s first real ‘grown-up friend’.

With elementary behind us, junior high school saw Ms. Allen transfer with Matthew and join him for what would be the final year.  The 2010-11 school year was a transitional year to a whole new world.  Matthew met up with his teacher, Bill Bussey who immediately earned big points with Matt as Mr. Bussey was an avid birder.  Even though Matthew was more more interested in learning everything Mr. Bussey could tech him about bird wildlife, they did manage to make their way through the year academically, as well.

I am a firm believer that everyone comes into our life for a reason.  We can learn something from everyone we encounter should we chose to look deep enough.  2011-12, Matthew’s grade 8 year, proved that to me in a big way.  Jessica Boudreau, Matthew’s teacher, taught me more than she could have ever taught him.  Even though it was a tumultuous and draining year I hope that she was able to learn something from her time in Matthew’s life, as well.

During this time we were introduced to another key player on our team.  Louise Smith, the autism consultant for the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board worked tirelessly with Matthew to devise a program that would allow him to see success.  She organized his material, encouraged his drawing, and capitalized on his strengths academically.  She developed a program that taught the way he needed to learn.

We thought Matthew’s final year in junior high school would be a walk in the park (Sherwood Park) but we have learned to expect the unexpected.  Even though Bill Bussey was once again Matthew’s teacher for the 2012-13 school year, the environment in the newly structured learning centre proved to be too challenging for our guy.  Once again we called on the expertise of our go-to gal, Cathy Viva to assist us with our dilemma.  Matthew needed a change.  The school was not meeting his needs.  After many meetings with board officials Matthew was thoroughly transitioned to a new school for his grade 9 year.  Brant (Bucky) MacGowan promised me that Matthew would have the best year of his life.  That seemed to be huge promise to keep.  However, I quickly saw he was a man of his word.  Matthew grew in ways I could have only imagined during the following months.  Mr. MacGowan reached him and dug deep to pull more from Matthew than I thought was there.  So much so that Matthew ended the year on a high note achieving academic honors.

Mr. MacGowan also assisted with Matthew’s transition to high school.  He was the driving force behind helping us find a good fit for Matt.  He needed an environment that while supporting him, allowed him to feel at ease and comfortable.

Riverview Rural High School was were Matthew would hang his hat for the next three years.  Upon entering his grade 10 year in September of 2013 he was blessed to have Mrs. Lorna Gillis by his side until his final day in grade 12, now in 2016.  Mrs. Gillis was a go-to Mom, mentor, councilor, friend, confidant, and teacher who proved her worth several times over as Matthew worked his way through trying times and successful accomplishments.  During his grade 10 and 11 years, Mike Rolf, the liaison officer with the Cape Breton Regional Police Service emerged as a solid role model with whom Matthew instantly bonded.  Riverview’s principal, Joe Chisholm and vice-principal Michelle Coleman also spent much time getting to know our son and gave him the chance to share his world with them.  He will always treasure his days with those who the time to let him shine through as himself.

Over and above his academic life, Matthew slowly creeped out of his comfort zone an started to add extracurricular activities to his days, although somewhat unconventional for a high school student.

The bonds he formed as a junior firefighter with the Grand Lake Road Volunteer Fire Department under the guidance of Chief Adrian Langlois showed us his ability to grow.  He enjoyed his time there learning so much so that when we moved he felt comfortable enough to join the Albert Bridge Volunteer Fire Department with a crew led by Chief Jasmin Collins.

Perhaps the most pivotal, life changing experience for Matthew during his school years was volunteering at Two Rivers Wildlife Park.  His home away from home quickly allowed our son to explode in ways we had only dreamed of years before.  The Huntington Family took him under their wing and included him as one of their own.  Johnny, Kelly, Telsi-Lyn, Shyla, Phalen and John Evan welcomed him into their world with opened arms.  The other staff members at the park showed Matthew everything they could about how the park ran.  Mike, Jarrett, Wayne, Connor, Robert, Amber, Lindsay, and Jessie as well as endless volunteers expanded Matthew’s circle which to this day grows exponentially.

At the helm of Team Hilliard are our core group.  Those who have stood by Matthew through every day of the last 19 years.  Allan and Dianne Hanratty, my mom and dad have showed us what support is defined as.  Mike’s mother, Leslie has been a true keystone during our journey.  Allana and Norm, my sister and her husband have been by our side through it all.  My cousins, turned best friends, have gone above and beyond more times than I could count.  To Mike and Paula and to Adrian and Rhonda, there are no words to show our thanks.

Are there more people to thank?  Of course there are.  I don’t think I could type long enough to mention everyone who has played a part in helping Matthew find his place in this world.  Anyone who has had any interaction, be it big or small with Matthew has helped him find his way.

As Matt’s Mom I am truly humbled to see the outpouring of support and love shown to Matthew over the last number of years but especially and more specifically over the last few days.  Each and everyone of you have made the difference in the life of a child.  Our child.  Our young man.

That young man will be crossing a stage this evening to receive his high school diploma.  The world is at his feet.  He has the ability, because of what he has learned from each and everyone of you, to accomplish anything he puts his mind to – and we’ve already had a taste of what that could be.

Hang on tight, thanks for your support and keep watching.  Matthew’s not finished anything yet!

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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