Blossoming in Tumbler Ridge: A Special Needs Story

Danny and his mom, Cynthis Leland, are finding Tumbler Ridge to be a great place for Danny to blossom, make friends and gain independence.

Lynsey Kitching

For Danny Leland, 15, moving to Tumbler Ridge was a huge step towards gaining independence.

Danny, who requires special needs while at school, moved to town this summer with his mom, Cynthia, his dad, Rick and his brother Nathan. The family moved up here from central California, where the special needs program at the high school was very different than the program here in Tumbler Ridge.

Cynthia says, “From the time Danny was a little guy he’s been in these programs where special needs kids are in their class and the regular developing kids are in their class. They might see each other on campus. Danny would sometimes go to the cafeteria and eat lunch and be out at recess time. There was one point, he was going into kindergarten or first grade and we had a perfect program developed. He was going to get the special education care that he needed and he was going to be able to go to regular classes and then we moved, big mistake.”

Cynthia is herself a special needs educator and found it difficult back in California to speak up about her son’s education. She says, “He hasn’t always had the best education. It’s kind of frustrating because as a special educator myself I was in the middle, a parent but an employee, so it’s hard to say, ‘I want this for my son’. Dad was able to voice his opinion easier than I was.”

In the States, says Cynthia, Danny wasn’t allowed to participate in academic classes at school and was essentially sheltered from the other students. During school time, with his class, he would do activities such as recycle cans and could maybe participate in a gym class. He wasn’t allowed to participate in an art class.

Danny’s mom doesn’t want to come across like the States are all bad when it comes to educating youth with special needs. She says, “There was a lot of good about it, a lot of services. If a student has physical needs, there’s physical therapy, if there are motor skill needs, there is occupational therapy. Danny had a speech therapist who would work with the group, but also with him individually and also in consultation with the teacher.”

The Leland’s most recent move up to Tumbler has proved to be a big success for Danny’s development. Cynthia says, “He was really sad. It was very sad that he lost out on so many opportunities. I guess I should have been more forceful in saying well, let’s try it, but in the States it’s all about teaching the standards they have to reach. The regular education kids have to reach the state standards, so there is always pressure. It’s hard to have a kid that doesn’t learn at the same level in classes with them. There’s a lot of good things about special education in the States, but they could learn from the program up here. Give students the opportunity to try things they may not have tried otherwise. For Danny it’s been a wonderful move. He’s been given so many opportunities he wouldn’t have had in the States.”

Since moving here to Tumbler, Cynthia says Danny’s vocabulary is expanding every day along with other skills as well, such as his number sense, letter recognition and his ability to read simple words.

“He’s just really growing,” says Cynthia with a smile.

Danny is also participating in academic classes and is able to focus on his work. “I went over to the school to give him his medication, I didn’t want him to see me, I just wanted to hand it to them. She asked me if I wanted to see the class he was in, it was math class. He was sitting at a desk doing his work. It’s so exciting to see my son with other kids, just being allowed to be a kid and not being singled out,” says Cynthia.

She continues, “Behaviorally he’s much more on target, socially he is making friends. He got is very first report card a couple weeks ago. In the States we write out the IEP and we give parents a copy. For the goals there are three benchmarks, so every three months we do a progress report, and that’s his report card. Here, in addition to the IEP, he got a regular report card just like Nathan; he’s never had that before.”

Part of the reason for there being so much integration between special needs and regular stream is because there are simply less students at the high school. Cynthia says, “The population is much smaller. Where Danny went to school, he was in a class, in just one high school with 12 or 13 other students. There are four high school programs, middle school programs, elementary programs and then a centre for the most involved students that is where I worked. My class was made up of students who weren’t making it in satellite programs.”

Here in Tumbler Ridge, Danny is integrated in with the regular stream students and has been given the opportunity to participate in ways he never was before. Cynthia explains, “He is in wood shop, he’s brought home a step stool or a ladder that he has made with some assistance and the next day he brought home what looks like a bookshelf. In the States he wouldn’t have been allowed to take a wood working class. He’s just enthusiastic for new opportunities, learning new things. I think he really enjoyed the wood working because of the pride he had in showing us what he’d made.”

The independence being given to Danny begins from the second he walks out his front door in the morning. “This morning we took him to school with his brother and he walked in just like any other kid. In the States they have these little yellow buses that come to the house, it’s door to door. They pick him up at the house, take him to school, the teacher or assistant greets the bus and take them to their class. This is not teaching independence.”

The program here in Tumbler Ridge also allows the Leland’s to be more involved in the planning of Danny’s education. Cynthia says, “Up here there are IEP meetings, where you go in, talk about your child, what their needs are and then develop the best program. They’re called goals, what we’re going to work on. It was the first meeting I’ve ever been able to take part in, and not sit back and be intimidated because my program manager was coordinating the meeting.”

The teacher’s and assistants here at the high school are also huge factors in why Danny is so happy and developing. Cynthia tells a story about one day when Danny didn’t want to go back to school after lunch. “The lady who works with him got him laughing, and got him back to himself, he went back to school and was fine. We realized they were working on something in class he wasn’t finished with. It was a project that was going to take several days, but he wanted it right then, so she talked to him and told him, ‘let me know, talk to me,’ he was laughing when he left. They are wonderful with him.”

The students at the school are also helping Danny feel included. He has buddies who walk him to class and on Monday night’s he attends the youth group at the church where his father is the minister.

Danny will be 16 in February and the family is starting to look into his options for transitioning to adulthood. Cynthia is hopeful he will be able to find a job. She says, “Our hope is there will be something he can do and be gainfully employed, if it’s working at Shop Easy stocking shelves or janitorial work. We are at the beginning stages of seeing what’s available here. Down in the States he would have been going to school until he is 22. During that time they would start developing skills and exploring options for life as an adult,” she continues, “Here, it’s not as long in school. I’m still learning what’s available here for transitioning.”

Danny will also be going through another transition in February, with his brother heading to Northern Lights College, the Tumble Ridge campus, to do the duel credit program. Cynthia explains her worries about how Danny will get to and from school when this happens, “It will be interesting to see if we have him stay there at lunch time or if he comes over here by himself. The only problem is the street. He is aware of cars but sometimes he’s in a hurry or gets side tracked.”

All in all the Leland family as a whole are happy here in Tumbler Ridge, although Danny is the family member who is flourishing the most. Cynthia has her dream of living somewhere, where it snows, and boy, it snows. She also has her dream of her son being treated just like any other student realized. She says, “I need to write a letter to my program manager and say, you know, it works. Give the students an opportunity to go into the regular classes, an art class and just see what happens,” she continues, “We’re excited about the things that are happening for Danny, he’s a neat little guy.”