Soon after I had closed down my app I had no idea how to fill my time. I felt like a lost soul, as I had always been driven by business and a long to do list of work related things in the morning. A few months earlier, I had responded to an ad in our local paper from St. John’s Ambulance asking for volunteers of dogs and handlers for their Dog Therapy program. I received a reply and request to attend training from Anna Armstrong.
I have to take a minute here to stop and talk a little about Anna and how instrumental she now is to my life and how she is a mentor to me. Not only is she of St. John’s Ambulance Oakville, but she was also one of the teachers at Kinark Youth & Family Services – where I ended up being placed. Her dedication to these groups is a constant inspiration to me and I am amazed by her selflessness and drive.
The process for becoming a pet volunteer was not easy. At the time, I had three dogs, but only two suitable for this intense calling. Testing requires dogs to be calm, relaxed, people oriented and not nervous. The first test is throwing a baking pan in the floor and seeing how the dogs react. Toki and Nucky were not phased and laid on the floor. Maybe that says a little something about our home life that loud bangs and chaos were the norm for them!
Al and I started together at a long-term care facility. Al was a hit, the women loved him. As for me, I think a lot of them saw me as competition for Al’s affection and they did not treat me as well as they should have. We had to split up our volunteer times, which proved hard for Al by himself because he was always being approached for loving affection. Al did very well with the elderly clients, but I was not completely satisfied in this volunteer placement, my heart was not fully there.
After a short search I found a placement through Kinark Child and Family Services where they needed therapy at a maximum security detention centre for youth. From the second I read the opportunity, I knew this was the placement for me. I somehow knew that I would connect better with kids who had mostly been dealt a bad hand that lead to bad choices rather than the long-term care patients.
I left things in Anna’s hands and waited to hear if I would be chosen. In the meantime, I volunteered at an Alternative school doing crafts and pet therapy. I loved the challenge to open up these wonderful children and find a way to touch their hearts and souls in a positive way. These children were dealing with adult problems in teen bodies. Unfortunately, I didn’t use proper discretion and brought in a women that I met that was still working out her journey in recovery to speak to these children. This resulted in some lost momentum and made it difficult to continue with this placement. Anna encouraged me every step of the way to continue volunteering and never judged me for my choices or made me feel foolish.
My next adventure was an after school program for teens at a local church with that woman I had met before who was walking through her healing. I enjoyed my intense times with these teens. Again I was thrown into another situation that came out of the personal connections I had made – connections that I never knew could lead here when they began.
Another level of my passion was uncovered at this placement. I had the chance to listen to so many stories from these teens and the same themes, abuses and issues kept cropping up again and again – the threat of human trafficking and the effects of foster care. I dove into researching.
These volunteer placements and research gave me distractions from the shame of what I believed to be a failed business venture, but all the time I was making these inspiring and useful connections. In addition to the organizers and advocates that I met, I was in awe of how strong and resilient these teens were and what they had lived through. I became suddenly aware of how privileged I was to grow up in the love that I did, and coined the term “Love Privilege”.
I was eventually accepted to work in the juvenile detention centre and I always request to work with the most closed off and those others have had a difficult time reaching out to. I encourage them to be the people they truly are – smart, loved, and brilliant… Most of these children are from the foster care system. I get satisfaction from the potential of making a difference in their lives. Sometimes I think I get more from them than I give.
Looking at my life, I realize that I have every privilege in life – education, financial, love of family, ethnic, great neighbourhood, good jobs. I asked for none of this, I was just born into these privileges. While I knew that I couldn’t go back and change a lot of the circumstances that these kids had lived through, I felt at this point that I needed to try to give them more going forward. I was born with privilege so that I could find ways to give it back. I really felt like this was my calling and something I was meant to do.
As I talked to these teens I realized how awful their lives were, even before landing in the juvenile facility. It gave me a glimpse of why children in foster care are so prone to joining gangs – they need family, acceptance, and someone to be there for them and for some this is their only option. Most of their acts are in retaliation to bad things that have happened to them, and they finally had enough. One child was a real life Cinderella. He was forced into slave labour on a farm while their real children got to sit back and watch. From not carrying my own baggage in life, I am able to listen without feeling the need to add in my own hurt or experience to conversation. I can simply give the attention they deserve in that moment.
My dream was to have a home that foster care children could live. This may not happen now. For now the opportunities still arise where I can connect with these broken young people. Cindy from Syl Apps Youth Centre has became a close contact of mine, and she has brought great insight on how the government works. She is also a warrior who works so hard for these kids and I am in awe of her dedication. I am so thankful that she came into my life to help me find this path and she has inspired me to do more and work harder and is always there to help teach and guide me with her extensive knowledge.
Sadly, the children at Syl Apps cannot have any physical human contact – I cannot hold a hand, give a hug, or even a high five. Their only loving contact they have is my dog. That’s one of the reasons a program like this is so important and can achieve such positive effects and change.
I have been taught resilience through these teens. As humans we all have the ability within us to pull through anything. I have learned not to judge a book by its cover. Every book has a story that needs to be told, everyone needs to be heard.
These children have lead me to my podcast where I have explored, interviewed and uncovered stories of people involved in the foster care system. This then lead me to a 9-part series diving into the disappearance of Shelley Desrochers , where I found a passion to solve her mystery. From Shelly I met Jane Kovarikova from Child Welfare Political Action Committee and become a committee member, finding my number one passion of fundraising, changing legislation, and advocating for the overall fair treatment of foster children.
While I have cancer, it doesn’t mean I have to have passion for cancer research. My focus has not changed. I am not my cancer. I am an advocate for foster children without a voice. As a loved privileged person I can speak to people with the power to achieve change, within government and local communities, for them.
From just answering an ad for dog therapy, I found self discovery and my true life’s calling.