All Nicholas Willows wanted was to be able to join his friends outside; and his friends wanted the same.
Nicholas is a bubbly three-year-old with a contagious smile and has a laugh that could melt anyone’s heart. His mom and dad says he makes friends everywhere he goes and his preschool program leader says he has an amazing sense of humour.
Nicholas also has Cerebral Palsy, Joubert Syndrome, Polymicrogyria and Epilepsy. As a result of these rare brain malformations he is bound by a mobility chair and his communication is limited to mostly non-verbal cues.
“Imagine a U.S. highway interchange system that’s all fine and good,” says Nicholas’ mother Jennifer Carson. “Now imagine there’s a bunch of construction and you have to take a bunch of detours and back roads. That’s basically what’s going on in his brain.”
For the past two years Nicholas has been going to the Preschool – Group Daycare run by Teen Education and Motherhood Programs (TEAM), a program provided by the non-profit Beacon Community Services. The program, which provides child care and support services to young parents and families on the Peninsula, is located at the former site of Saanichton Elementary, now the home of the Individual Learning Centre at 1649 Mt. Newton Cross Rd., in Saanichton.
With little effort, Nicholas has made many preschool friends since he started, many who fight over who gets to sit with him at lunch.
“One of them gives him kisses everyday she sees him … another one will rub his hand on his cheek and then pat him on the head,” says Meredith Barwick, TEAM children’s programs and counselling services manager. “It’s non-verbal, sort of gentle communication and love for him.”
The real challenge was accessibility and inclusion for Nicholas. The path leading to the preschool’s play yard was essentially broken patio stones, overgrown with grass and covered in rock and dirt. Despite this, staff still managed to get Nicholas and his mobility chair outside everyday with the others through adapted methods. It wasn’t until the particularly harsh winter hit that staff realized something needed to change.
One day a heavy snowfall kept Nicholas indoors, away from his friends.
That’s when Barwick made it her mission to make the play yard more accessible and inclusive.
Although supported by School District 63, TEAM relies on parent fees, government funding and community donations for operating costs and equipment upgrades for the programs.
After being denied several grants and even emergency funding grants, Barwick called on the community for help.
“I talked to everyone I could. It didn’t matter if it was at the Lacrosse Box, or wherever,” Barwick says. “I told everyone that the yard needed to be accessible.”
Through word of mouth, a sequence of community donations started rolling in and after about a months time, the preschool not only had a freshly paved pathway for Nicholas to use, but a completely revamped outdoor space.
The space, which was basically dirt and rock before, now has new asphalt pathways, a new fence surrounding the area, play equipment and a pergola built by a volunteer with donated materials.
Beacon Community Services employees, parents and children recently came together to move donated soil and spread donated grass seed. In fact, Barwick says one of Nicholas’ preschool friends was so eager to help Nicholas out he told his parents he was too excited to sleep the night before.
All of this community time and effort came together for one little boy.
“We think it’s great,” says Dave Willows, Nicholas’ dad. “So many places just aren’t inclusive … the biggest part is Meredith has actually thought about accessibility.”
Recently both parents have been visiting elementary schools on the Peninsula in preparation for Nicholas’ upcoming year. Willows says that one school, which has a new outdoor play structure, boasts its accessibility; but in reality, that might only mean one wheelchair ramp, while the rest of the space is inconveniently covered in wood chips.
“There’s this philosophy – it’s not fully inclusive unless you can use it in an inclusive way,” says Barwick.
The picnic table in her revamped outdoor space has a custom-built cut out for Nicholas to pull up to and the sandbox has a special bench for him to sit on. This level of accessibility is not found in most community spaces, even ones that say they’re accessible.
Carson agrees saying, “So many daycare’s themselves aren’t even accessible. They’re either in top floors of churches or basements … but it’s great to have found a space for him to go that’s accessible.”
Barwick says they’re the only inclusive daycare on the Peninsula, but it wouldn’t have been possible without help from the community. Now Barwick wants to give back.
Island Savings Simple Generosity Grant
Island Savings, a division of First West Credit Union, is giving out a $50,000 grant to one organization to further a community-focused project, program or initiative. This grant is one of three that First West is distributing to support organizations in the regions it serves – $150,000 distributed in support of Canada 150.
Barwick has applied for the grant. The funding would allow TEAM to achieve a fully accessible play yard at the Saanichton location, which would benefit generations of children on the Peninsula. Things like a nature playground that includes equipment for children with large muscle gross motor challenges and several year-round shelters for children to play in are part of the vision.
The winner of the grant is decided through the most number of public votes. Barwick needs your vote. To vote, visit volinspire.com. The deadline to vote is Friday, June 23. Only one vote per person. Winners will be announced Thursday, June 29.