Getting to Know Jesse
In one of my earliest memories of life as Jesse's mom, I am sitting alone in a tiny room at Sick Kid's Hospital in Toronto, a nervous new foster parent trying to process the unfathomable: that the tiny person I'd already come to think of as 'my' child would probably not survive his first year; that if he did survive he would never walk, never talk, never feed himself. Brutal predictions from a well-meaning doctor and a social worker determined to offer a way out. You do not have to do this. Think about your family. How will your other kids cope with a dying baby? As it turned out, our other kids had the answer: it might be hard, and it might be sad, but we can love him while he's with us and we can make him happy.
It was hard sometimes, but there was no shortage of love, and feisty Jesse proved all the dire predictions wrong. The reward came two years later when we met that same, well-meaning doctor again. Little Jesse held tight to my hand as we walked together into the exam room. Grinning up at the white-coated man, he said loud and clear, "Car outside."
Many have called his life a miracle and it's hard to see it any other way. Helped along by surgical interventions and much hard work and determination, Jesse has achieved a lot, and he has certainly been a blessing to our family and our friends.
We abandoned thinking in terms of what he might never do, instead allowing him opportunities to try, and the support to succeed or fail on his own terms. The child they said would never walk grew into a young man who loved bowling, fishing, curling, and long rambles. He even tried downhill skiing one winter and wound up with his leg in a neon green cast… but that's a story for another time.
We were fortunate to encounter many teachers and counsellors who shared our 'let him try' philosophy, finding ways for him to participate and succeed, despite his developmental delay and verbal apraxia. (He understands spoken language – in fact, his comprehension is fairly high – but he struggles to use speech effectively.)
Jesse was always happiest when his daily routine included school or summer camp and so, as his twenty-first birthday and graduation from Markham District High School approached, we started searching for a place where he could continue to learn and build friendships. It was an extremely frustrating quest, but just as we'd begun to think there was nothing out there for him, a chance encounter with an old friend led us to Elaine Vollett and The Centre for Dreams.
In 2001, it wasn't 'The Centre' yet, but it sure did feel like a Dream come true. Elaine hosted a small group of adults in a home-based day program and from his first day there, Jesse loved the people and the activities. He was there when the group outgrew Elaine's basement and moved to their first rented facility on Main Street; he was there as a Main Street Ambassador – proudly wearing a uniform vest and working with his team to keep the street looking its best; and he was there when the move to McCowan and Highway 7 gave the Dream Team a proper, accessible, long-term home. Over their years together, a very special bond has grown between the people who call Dreams their second home. Jesse has thrived.
Ten years ago, a spinal cord injury changed Jesse's life dramatically. But the Dreamers rallied 'round, supporting him to live his best life with his new permanent wheels. Through it all, Jesse kept his smile and his unfailing good humour.
And then came Covid-19.
In the early days of quarantine, Jesse began to show signs of depression. He slept in the middle of the day; he became unusually quiet and sometimes wouldn't respond at all. I feared he was losing interest in life. So when the Dreams virtual program began, we were thrilled to have the chance to reconnect with his friends. From the very first Zoom session, Jesse was transformed. Suddenly he was smiling and laughing again, eager to get out of bed every morning. (Well… truthfully, he still doesn't like getting up in the morning, but who does?)
The Zoom lessons are thoughtfully planned with a great mix of fun and learning activities, carefully presented so that everyone can participate. I asked Jesse what he likes best about his Zoom sessions with Dreams. He said, "Science Kyle", "counting", and "friends". It's been great to see him enjoying a social life again. Apparently Mom is boring.
Given our 40 minute commute to Markham from our Etobicoke home, we're both eager to continue with Zoom-Dreams even after the pandemic ends. But Jesse is also looking forward to being back at the Centre once in a while. He has an awful lot of hugs (and fake-out pies in the face) to catch up on.