Far More and Far Better Than Average. Fantastically So.

Jessica Fantastically Average

 

Fantastically Average?

That is the name of this place to put down my thoughts.  I think choosing a name that describes the exuberance of being middling is quite tongue in cheek.  I’d like to have a place to share my life and writings over the past 20 or so years (that long!) and this seems as cozy as any.  So lets begin shall we

 

Something I wrote some time ago:

 

Meet young volunteers who have changed lives for the better

 

With their multicoloured hair shaved close to their heads or shaped into towering mohawks, the group of 28 street kids and patients from Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario mental-health ward attracted a lot of attention at the prestigious Camp Fortune skiing facility in the Gatineau Hills.

In the middle of the group stood Isabelle Rivard, their teacher and mentor. She looked just like one of the kids, and in fact, she was. Barely 17, her lips, tongue and an eyebrow pierced, this former drug user was the sole reason a group of troubled young people were discovering snowboarding that day in January 1997.

As her eyes scanned the group, her confident, calm voice alternately encouraged and cautioned. “Take your time, don’t try too much yet,” she warned the more eager members. “You are going to have to do this yourself; I can’t do it for you,” she bluntly told others who seemed more timid.

The FreeRide Snowboarding Project takes groups of street kids to Camp Fortune every Monday for six weeks. For kids who have lived with depression, self-mutilation, suicidal behaviours and other mental-health problems, snowboarding has proved to be a healthy way to cope with emotional trauma. “It gives them something to look forward to and work towards,” says Sarah Brandon, a co-ordinator for Youth Net/Reseau Ado, a mental-health and early-intervention program affiliated with Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital and works with communities in both Ontario and Quebec.

No one understands this better than Isabelle. As a teen, she progressed from marijuana to hard drugs. She’d party all night and return to her home in Touraine, Que., to sleep the day away. She was constantly at war with her parents, who struggled to help her as the drugs drew her into a deadly spiral of depression. When it became unbearable, she would mutilate herself, scarring her arms in a vain attempt to ease her emotional pain.

After nothing else seemed to work, Isabelle’s parents took her to the Children’s Hospital, which had facilities for clinically depressed youths. Isabelle arrived defiant, apathetic and adrift. While the hospital provided a safe haven, it seemed more like a prison to her. An avid snowboarder, she craved the physical excitement and mental escape the sport gave her, though from her hospital window she couldn’t even see the ski hills, much less reach them.

Then fate stepped in. In conversation one day, Youth Net’s Brandon discovered Isabelle’s passion for snowboarding and engineered a day on the slopes for the two of them. Isabelle’s transformation amazed Brandon.

Believing others could feel the way she did on the slopes, Isabelle created the FreeRide Snowboarding Project and approached Youth Net for support. The Youth Net team, which includes a mix of youths, facilitators and clinicians, made her a deal: Isabelle could organize the program as long as she shunned drugs and didn’t try to hurt herself.

To raise funds, she asked Ottawa shop owners to donate raffle prizes, for which she sold tickets. She found snowboarding volunteers from a local high school and from Camp Fortune to help her teach the street kids and patients. Next she approached Peter Sudermann, Camp Fortune’s owner, who agreed to give the kids passes and boards at ridiculously low rates.

Founded in 1997, the FreeRide Snowboarding Project received a Pan-Commonwealth Youth Service Award in November 2000. And Isabelle? “Snowboarding put me back on my feet,” she says. Today she is a happy, self-confident young woman balancing full- and part-time jobs while living in Whistler, B.C., a stone’s throw from the ski hills — where she snowboards daily.

 


 

At 16, Lance Relland was a promising dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. But in July 1996, shortly before he turned 17, the auburn-haired, brown-eyed Edmontonian was informed he had a rare, deadly form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia — and four to seven months to live.

Lance had no intention of giving in to illness any more than he had given in to other challenges he’d faced in his young life — whether it was coming to terms with his Metis heritage or mastering classical ballet.

Still, doctors were vague about Lance’s type of leukemia and its treatment. “I need to find out everything I can about this disease. I need to know what can be done,” Lance told his mother.

While searching for information on the Internet, he found references to a monoclonal antibody against leukemia cells that had been discovered by researchers at the University of Minnesota. This antibody treatment seemed to be working for people with his type of leukemia. It was available only in the United States, however, and the provincial government would not pay for it.

Undaunted, Lance’s family and friends started a foundation in September 1996 and raised more than $100,000 to cover the costs of his treatment at the Fairview-University Medical Centre in Minneapolis. Lance received the monoclonal antibody there and in October had a bone-marrow transplant from his brother. Four and a half years later, Lance remains cancer-free.

During his stay in hospital and while recovering as an outpatient, Lance spent hours talking to other cancer patients. Many, he found out, lacked basic knowledge about their illness and had no idea how to locate needed information. He also met kids whose parents and doctors had been unable to find matching bone-marrow donors. I want something good to come from the bad things that have happened to me, he decided as he flew home to Alberta.

On his return, Lance persuaded the foundation set up in his name to keep going and to make patient education its focus. The result: The Lance Relland Medical Foundation now provides to cancer and other patients in Edmonton access to Internet documents as well as a $200,000 medical library provided by an anonymous donor. It also helps fund patients seeking medical treatment not covered by the Alberta government.

But for Lance, this still wasn’t enough. During his research, he had discovered that the aboriginal population had only one-percent representation on Canadian and U.S. bone-marrow lists. Ideal donors are found first within a patient’s family, then his or her ethnic group. So in 1998 Lance set up the Aboriginal Bone Marrow Registries, which accept donors from any ethnic group in North America but focus on recruiting Indian, Métis and Inuit people.

Lance has since travelled to reserves and high schools across Alberta to convince people to join the registries and to push for a healthy lifestyle. “One illegal drug injection or exposure to HIV or Hepatitis C will prevent you from donating,” he tells his audience, “and someday, someone in your family might need you.” Lance’s aboriginal registries now list over 800 donors.

In 1999 Lance began his studies in medicine at the University of California, Riverside, and he continues to support the foundation and registries he started.

 


Haliburton, Ont., teenager Amy Brandon had known Russell Snoddon since they were both in kindergarten, where Amy’s mother, a special-education assistant, would come in to help the young Down’s syndrome boy. By the time Amy and Russell reached high school, the boy was a frequent visitor to the Brandon household. “Let’s play cops and robbers,” Russell would plead, and Amy, playing the bad guy, would let Russell arrest her, over and over.

In 1998 Amy heard about a new program at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School called Lunch Buddies — a program that paired high-school students with special-education students in an attempt to integrate them into high-school life. Before the program, the special-ed students would often hang around in a separate room and watch movies at lunchtime. Many students tended to avoid them. They just don’t know how to interact with them, Amy realized.

Inspired by her experience with Russell, Amy volunteered with Lunch Buddies, and after one year she took it over. She went from class to class explaining the program and urging her fellow students to join. She held meetings to give other volunteers a chance to ask questions and raise concerns. “What am I supposed to do when she won’t stop hugging me?” asked one volunteer, clearly concerned about the invasion of her personal space but worried about hurting her buddy’s feelings. Amy remembered Russell’s affection. “Just tell her calmly and gently that you don’t like it,” Amy replied. “She’ll understand.”

With Amy’s guidance, Lunch Buddies grew from ten volunteers to over 40. Suddenly, there was a new attitude of acceptance and tolerance in the school. The special-ed kids became more confident and mixed freely with the other students.

An acquaintance of Amy’s thought J. Douglas Hodgson Elementary, right next to the high school, could use a similar program. So when the teachers at Hodgson gave Amy the go-ahead, she approached her Lunch Buddies volunteers. “Does anyone want to help?” Ten students offered their assistance.

Lunch hour soon became a completely different experience for the special-education kids at Hodgson. There were high-school students in the playground helping to organize games, while Amy scheduled pizza parties and days when volunteers helped the children bake cookies and make crafts. During one hectic cookie-baking session, Andrew, a cute, mischievous boy with Down’s syndrome, solemnly looked up at Amy and gave a tug on her clothing. Amy bent down to his level and he kissed her cheek, whispering softly, “Thank you.”

The impact of the Lunch Buddies program on the community as a whole was nothing short of amazing, says Cheryl Anderson, executive director of the Haliburton County Association for Community Living. The special-education kids are having a great time interacting with people who aren’t adults. The high-school students know they are making a difference. And a new generation of young volunteers is being created.

 


 

When Joe Hooper of Victoria was 13, he would probably have been labelled an at-risk youth. His 16-year-old sister had run away from home when he was ten, his family was facing financial difficulty, and his parents’ marriage was breaking up. The red-haired, freckle-faced youth had moved from school to school as his parents tried to deal with their problems. At each new school, Joe tried to fit in or get the attention of his peers — most often by doing what he calls “really stupid things”: lighting stink bombs and experimenting with alcohol and drugs.

Then, in Grade 12, a teacher took Joe and his classmates to listen to a group of Holocaust survivors. That day in April 1994, something one of them said struck a chord in Joe.

Dr. Peter Gary, a Hungarian emigré, had lost most of his family during World War II. “In 1941 my mother and I were taken to the forest and the Nazis machine-gunned us. My mother saved me by throwing herself on me. I was 17.” Gary spent the next 3 1/2 years in concentration camps before he was finally liberated, emaciated and dying of typhus. “Do you think I’m angry?” he asked his rapt audience. “I’m not. You must go through life with your hand held out in friendship, not anger.”

Here was a man who had been through hell but wasn’t angry and held no grudge, thought Joe in wonder. Then he reflected on his own anger — at his past, his family — and his selfish behaviour, his attempts to get attention. Everything is not about me, he realized.

Inspired, he thought of ways he could reach out to others, just as this man had. He began making phone calls. He landed first at a day camp for intellectually handicapped children. Then he volunteered at an English-as-a-second-language centre, where he helped newly arrived immigrants settle in. Then later, during his second year at the University of Victoria, he took a part-time job with the Saanich recreation services department and its youth activity centre.

When other staff members would lose patience and want to kick one of the kids out of the centre, Joe would think, What can I do to keep him here? Kenny,* an unemployed 18-year-old alcoholic and habitual thief, was someone the centre had banned when its staff could no longer cope with his drunken behaviour. Joe learned that Kenny was interested in weight lifting and got him a pass to a local gym, where the two would meet and talk. Persuaded by Joe to enter a rehab program for his drinking, Kenny was ultimately accepted back at the centre and went on to find a full-time job.

Having mentored Kenny and others, Joe would often hang out at the skateboard park adjacent to the youth-activity centre and a local convenience store, talking to teenagers who gathered there. He began to notice one young man who hung around but was never part of any group. Max,* Joe discovered, was a poor aboriginal boy, a loner with no self-confidence who was frequently ridiculed.

One day Max met Joe cycling around on his mountain bike. Joe offered to let him try it. “I never learned to ride a bike,” the boy replied with some embarrassment. Joe was stunned — the kid was 17!

Over the next few months, Joe and his friend Greg taught the boy to ride, then found him a secondhand mountain bike. At the Hartland Mountain Biking Park outside Victoria, they put the new biker to the test, and Max proved to be a natural. “Today Max is a sponsored mountain-bike racer in national competitions,” Joe says with pride.

Backed by the Saanich police, who donated the bikes, and employees of a local cycle shop who volunteered to repair them and provide training, Joe went on to raise funds to transport kids from the youth activity centre to the mountains.

The program he initiated last year, called Wheels in Motion, became an outstanding success, with many young people learning better social skills and developing self-confidence. And although Joe now lives in Ottawa, his program is still running.

Young volunteers like Isabelle, Lance, Amy and Joe are growing in number. Statistics Canada reports that between 1987 and 1997, youth volunteer rates nearly doubled at a time when the rates for most other age groups remained relatively stable. “Despite what some mainstream media would have you believe, there is a strong social conscience among youths,” says Steve Carroll, a program manager at Volunteer Canada.

Many still volunteer through existing, traditional organizations like the United Way, the Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation. But a growing number of teens are striking out on their own, creating solutions for their communities’ problems in ways that are both innovative and highly successful.

Leslie Evans, executive director of the Youth Volunteer Corps of Canada, says the best ideas often come from the kids themselves, whether it’s a fashion show for seniors in St. John’s, Nfld., or a blanket drive for the homeless in Nanaimo, B.C. Across Canada young people are organizing soup kitchens or toy drives, tutoring children, raking lawns for seniors, cleaning up parks. And our communities are the better for it.

A Bit More Than Just Average