Monday, January 31, 2011

For Matt - On his Birthday

Today is my friend Matt's 22nd birthday.

Matt is in Winnipeg and I am here on the Coast.  If I were in Winnipeg, I would take him out to celebrate to The Crusty Bun for lunch, or we'd go out to the lounge at Boston Pizza for his favourite drink, The Cocobongo.  But alas, I am not in Winnipeg, so I will call Matt today to wish him a happy birthday.  But I would also like to celebrate Matt on our blog to honor him today.

Matt is one of the most exceptional people I've ever known.  We met last year, just before Christmas.  I had heard about a job from a friend of mine to work as an academic support provider and care attendant for a young man with Cerebral Palsy.  After a few emails and phone calls, I went to his house for an interview on a frigidly cold December evening.  Matt and his evening worker, Liam, conducted a gruelling interview.  As Matt asked the questions,   I discovered a few things about him that night...  I learned that Matt was a Bachelor of Arts student at The University of Winnipeg where he was focusing on writing and communications. He loved to laugh, he had a great sense of humour, and he held Stuart MacLean and CBC's The Vinyl Cafe in high regard.  That was all I needed to know - I knew we were a great match!

That Saturday Matt and I had a trial run going through Matt's morning routine together with his friend Stephanie.  Matt needed to see if he thought we could work well together, and I needed to see if my back was capable of lifting him in and out of his chair.   I remember being nervous and unsure.  What if it was awkward?  How would it feel to be in his house with his family around?  Would I be able to adequately understand him?  Would he like me?

My fears were laid to rest that day.  Matt was patient and understanding as I asked one million questions of him and Stephanie.  He lived through a tediously long shower and was emotionally open and warm as I got to know his routine and his preferences.  Let us be clear.  His preferences swing highly in the direction of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and hockey.  That much was infinitely clear that day.   It seemed like we had good chemistry, and low and behold, Matt invited me back the next day to try his morning routine on my own with a bit of support from his dad.  That sealed the deal.  After that day, we made a schedule of when I'd provide academic and physical support and attend his U of W classes with him.

When you are working with someone in Matt's position, relationship is built quickly.  You are spending a lot of time with the other person and they are often at their most vulnerable.  This was a great gift to me.  Matt shared openly about his dreams and struggles and opened the door for me to share mine with him.  He listened intently and asked thoughtful questions.  He was honest and authentic with me and won me over immediately.  I was in awe of his courageous spirit and his fortitude in the midst of great physical challenges.  Matt and I shared our faith journeys with each other and we'd often pray together.

One of the greatest moments of my life was being a part of helping Matt realize his lifelong dream to go to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver to see Canada take on the American team in men's hockey.   Matt invited me over to help him pack for his trip the day before he left, and he afforded me the honor of placing his tickets in his suitcase.  I'll never forget the phone call I received from Matt when he returned back to Mike's apartment in downtown Vancouver after the game.... it was filled with pure gratitude and joy.  What a thrill for me to be a witness to someone living their dream!

As the months went on, my relationship with Matt changed.  My back was not up to the challenge of lifting him, so the physical part of the job needed to be adjusted.  Matt found a full-time worker who could attend classes with him, so the weekly work was no longer needed.  However, our friendship continued and we walked through lots of challenges and goodness together.  I got to be a part of the celebration to see Matt get baptised at his church last spring, and Matt helped me through the transition of preparing to move to B.C.

One of the great parts of having come to know Matt was that my family got to know him too.  He stayed with Mike a few times in Vancouver last year, and my girls spent lots of time with him too.  They were able to see a young man live his life and exceed the expectations of others.  They were always interested in how Matt did things.  Sasha loved to ride in the elevator at his house and adjust the bed in his room with the buttons.  

Now that I've lived in B.C. for the past few months, I don't get to talk to Matt very often.  We spent some time catching up at Christmas and talked about the transition he would be making in January to studying at CMU.  Change is never easy.  Matt faces hurdles and challenges as he seeks out accommodations and support for his academic career at every turn.  But he is determined and his spirit is strong.  I know he won't give up.

Here is a picture of me and Matt taken last spring when Matt took me out to see Stuart MacLean's Vinyl Cafe live at the Concert Hall in Winnipeg.  It was a great night!

I'm not finished yet - oh no...  Matt - this next part is for you!

Two weeks ago, our family went up to Grouse Mountain for a morning of skiing.  I was feeling a little sorry for myself as I stood on the mountain watching Mike and the girls ski the slopes while my broken elbow continued to heal.  I noticed a lot of green jackets on the mountain that morning.  As they got closer, I noticed they said, "Vancouver  Adaptive Snow Sports".  I began watching in amazement as volunteers all over the mountain helped to make skiing accessible for those with various types of disabilities.  One group, in particular, caught my attention...  

There were three volunteers working with a young woman who appeared to have Cerebral Palsy.  I watched in amazement as they maneuvered down the hill with her on her skies, supporting herself on a wooden bar supported by two volunteers, while one followed behind holding onto canvas straps attached to her skies.  I was in awe of the creativity and adaptability of the situation.

I noticed her mom watching, and I went to chat with her as her daughter skied down the slope.  She said her daughter Cheryl has been skiing with the support of this organization since she was 12 years old.  She's 20 now, and she loves the freedom and adventure that skiing down the mountain slopes gives her.  Her mom spoke so highly of the volunteers who give their Sunday mornings to their clients, and of her daughter who has an adventurous spirit.

Here is Cheryl and her team riding the lift up.

She's not able to stand on her own, so she sits in a chair while they prepare to do a run.

Here they are, ready to go!

And they're off!

Seeing Cheryl and her joy that morning made me think of Matt and how much he'd love to see other people with Cerebral Palsy realize their dreams too.   I gathered up all those images and the feelings I had and tucked them away for Matt until today when I am sharing them with you all on the occasion of his birthday. 

May great joy be yours on the journey this year, Matt.


  1. We have had a chance to read this well written blog and i can tell you it has brought tears to my eyes reading it.It is such a blessing to have Karla and her family involved in Matt's journey.Karla you and your family are truly amazing and inspiring.Words cannot express what your family has done for this young man.May God be with you and your family in your journey thru life.I know you sure have had a huge impact on Matt's life to date and his journey that he travels.

    In closing we just wanted to say Thank you from the bottom our hearts.
    Matt's Parents
    Tim & Dianne