A special place for special kids
Children with challenges find haven in Happy Valley
Tossing multi-coloured balls up into the air is an awful lot of fun.
“See Spider Man up on the wall? Try to hit him!”
Judging from the squeals of enjoyment coming from the soft foam box full of balls and kids, this just the right kind of activity for a cold winter day.
“I love working here,” says Janine Budgell, the enthusiastic co-coordinator of the children’s group home in Iqaluit.
Looking after normal kids can be demanding, but caring for a houseful of kids with special physical needs or mental handicaps requires even more hard work.
Sometimes caring for even one special needs child is too much for parents to handle. That’s why, for the past 18 years, there’s been a children’s group home in Happy Valley.
These days, seven children, aged six to 17, who have a variety of medical, physical and mental challenges, live at the home, a sprawling building with an inuksuk out in front.
There are rooms for all the kids, as well as a colourful playroom, large living and dining area and an office.
Budgell, along with her co-coordinator and partner Blaine Squires and part-time staff, serve as house parents for the group home’s residents.
“People really don’t know what this building is,” Squires says.
The kids all go to school in Iqaluit, so their classmates know who they are and where they live- and, in fact, they’ll sometimes come over for pizza or birthday parties or simply for a visit. Staff sometimes bring their own children along, too, who join in the fun.
The idea, say the co-coordinators, is to keep the home as homey and normal as possible for its residents.
“They go sliding, skating — and on a van ride every day,” Budgell says. “You hear, ‘Van ride? Van ride?'”
In summer, everyone goes out for picnics or to Apex for the day, where they can play in the water.
“These kids are so interested in anything new, they love it,” Budgell says.
During the school year, life at the home revolves around the school routine — getting ready in the morning, coming home for lunch and unwinding after school.
Part-time staff comes in to help the couple in the morning and afternoon-evening. For most of the workers, it’s their second or even a third job. Budgell says it’s always tough to find or keep staff. The turnover means she and Squires haven’t been able to take a break since they started last year.
“We totally expected that when we took the job [as co-coordinators],” says Squires.
As they live on-site, the two provide stability for the residents who find even changes of part-time staff are difficult.
“They know or they ask who’s coming every day,” says Squires. “Each staff does something special with them.”
Squires, a pilot who is originally from Newfoundland, worked at Iqaluit’s Akausiksarvik mental health residence before joining Budgell, who is also from Newfoundland, at the home.
Budgell has training in psychology and special education.
But what staff working with these kids really need, they say, is to have a big heart and to know how to have fun.
Many do require medicine. They also need help with their regular daily routine. One resident receives more specialized occupational and physical therapy.
Improved access to telehealth services at the Baffin Regional Hospital means she and the kids don’t have to travel South for most medical appointments.
Support for the group home is also provided by the health and social services department, which has a designated social worker, Cathy Caza, to look after all the residents’ files.
Since the group home is a territorial facility, contracted out to a service provider, the kids are from all over the Baffin region, from Sanikiluaq to Pond Inlet.
At the moment, there’s one vacancy in the group home, but generally turn-over is small. The age break-off is 19. After that, a resident is officially considered an adult and is supposed to move to an adult group home.
But with Iqaluit’s adult home filled to capacity, that’s a challenge to be dealt with later.
For now, there are balls to pick up, and from the aroma in the air, lunch is almost ready for this large and special family.