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Providing opportunities through PADDLE

'We want them to feel empowered with who they are and proud of everything they do'

“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.

There are no day-to-day services and very little support for people who have complex needs once they turn 21.

It may be a hard concept to grasp, but in this province, once the mandatory high school services have ended, someone with a developmental disability is given some government funding but they're largely left on their own to figure out what is next.

These are people who have very limited choices in entering the workplace and even more limitations when it comes to post-secondary education.

That’s where programs like PADDLE North Bay comes in.

Executive Director Megan Johnson says The PADDLE Program (Providing Adults with Developmental Disabilities Lifelong Experiences) is one that, “fits for people.”

“We weren’t asking for people to come in and do what we said, we wanted to make sure that we offered a program that would value peoples opinions and empower people with disabilities to make choices and to want to contribute to their community in meaningful ways.”

It is a program that runs from September until the end of July and they currently have 33 people signed up, who get support five days a week through this programming.

“It is centered on life skills, development, and community volunteerism,” says Johnson.  

Through a grant program, they can bring in a teacher as well as a recreational coordinator. But Johnson says, “We’ve tried to bring in a lot of students from the city to do volunteer hours or placements as well. Probably upwards of 100 students have helped us in this program over the years. That gives this an inclusive environment and gives people an opportunity to learn, both for those who are members and those who are helping run the program.”

She adds, “PADDLE really is a local program as we run solely on charitable donations and grants and the small fees that participants pay to attend. We don’t get government funding so having the community support is so important for us.”

Johnson says the program is built on the philosophy of giving these individuals actual choices and the freedom to make those choices.

“It’s like that old analogy,” says Johnson.

“If you have a flower in a pot and it's not growing, then you don’t change the flower you change the environment it is growing in. If the program isn’t working for the individual then the program changes, we don’t ask the individual to change, because let’s face it, they have been asked to change their whole life. And we don’t want that, we want them to feel empowered with who they are and proud of everything they do.” 

Johnson says the other aspect of this, is this gives the families a lot of support.

“The families are going through a lot as well, it’s a difficult situation in terms of moving into the future. These parents are getting older, and their kids are going to live with them for who knows how long, and we don’t have a lot of options in our city in terms of residential or group homes.”

Johnson says what often happens is if they can’t stay at home, then they will be put in either a long term care facility or a psychiatric facility while waiting for a group home spot to open up somewhere, and it could be anywhere and it could take years for that spot to become available.

Johnson says, “So if we can support people long enough for them to stay at home as long as possible then that is something that we also really value.”

There are other services within our area that help in these spots which Johnson points out such as Community Living North Bay and Christian Horizons, but she adds there is only so much these services can do and that includes PADDLE.

This program was started by a group of parents who wanted to give their children something to look forward to.

“In the beginning, I was hired by a group of parents to help get it started. So, it was a passion project and legacy project for them, and I’ve never been prouder to be part of something in my life than I am to be a part of this.”

Johnson says she knew this was a job that she was destined for.

After an initial interview, she says she wrote a second letter to the group of parents who were determining who the best individual was for this position. In the letter, she wrote a personal story about a high school friend who wasn’t going to have the same opportunities as she did once they graduated.

“I felt I could be someone that could offer something to PADDLE because of the experience I had with a friend. We were the same age, we went to school together, we walked home together, we went to choir practice together. But when we were done high school, I had so many opportunities, and she didn’t because she had down syndrome.”

Johnson says that it was a hard reality to accept. Shortly after they read that letter, Johnson was hired on and in a twist of fate, she says, “My friend from high school actually ended up being the third person to join PADDLE. I felt really good about that because it felt like a peer support relationship because now, I was able to give back.”

Johnson adds, “Its always been important to me that people who were marginalized or didn’t have the same opportunities as I did, that I would be able to help. To be able to be that person that tells them ‘you can do this.’ That was important to me.”

Johnson says it was in high school when that foundation really came to the forefront for herself.

She says, “I had a teacher, Catherine McCallum, who taught in what was then called the Senior Integrated Program at Chippewa Secondary School. I did a peer tutoring session helping in her classroom and she really changed the way I thought about everything. She showed me how much value people have. The way people can communicate, the way people show us how we feel, and she changed the way that I felt. She just had this natural way of dealing with people and maintaining their relationships and that taught me how to help people.”

Johnson says, “It was important for me throughout my remaining school years to make sure that we were looking at equitable experiences. Since I started at PADDLE, I’ve had two kids of my own and I know that they are going to be different as a result of this. They will be good people because they see the work, not just what I’m doing but the work that everyone in the program is doing. They see how the parents of the kids in the program interact with their children who have disabilities, and they are being exposed to all of it. I think they will be better for it.”

Johnson says working at PADDLE really puts a lot of things into perspective.

She says, “So many people with disabilities don’t have the choices that we get and take for granted daily. Whether that is who cares for them or what they do during their day, or what they get to eat, or even to go to the washroom. Giving them choices and giving them value is so important.”

“I’m incredibly proud of the program and what we are able to do here. I think it has been so beneficial to me in terms of being part of our community and giving back to a community that has given so much to me. I grew up here and went to school here and it meant a lot to me to have the opportunity to work with PADDLE.”

If you have a story suggestion for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at matthew.sookram@rci.rogers.com