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Coutts quads

Our Fall 2014 issue featured the Coutts family, of Tiverton, who were celebrating the first birthday of their quadruplet boys Lincoln, Owen, Easton and Dylan. This is their story.

Balloons. Cake. Presents.

Burgers sizzling on the barbecue.

Smiling grandmothers. Laughing aunts and uncles. Face painting, fake tattoos and girls in flowing sundresses running through, what would appear to be, your ordinary first birthday party.

But, for the past year, life has been anything but normal for Tiverton’s Coutts family. On July 27, 2013, Shannon and Adam became the parents of quadruplets – four healthy baby boys – who were the guests of honour at this birthday bash.

Lincoln, Owen, Easton and Dylan Coutts sit on a blanket at their party, being doted on by both their biological relatives and their many adoptive grandmas – the local ladies whose own kids have long flown the coop, most of them strangers before showing up on the Coutts’ doorstep with offers to feed, change and soothe four newborns at all hours of the night, so the exhausted parents could function when the sun’s up.

“I had the Thursday, 2-6 (a.m.) shift… you were Wednesdays?” the Coutts’ angels say at the party, while swapping stories of late-night feedings, babies in each arm.

“We had so much help with the babies in those early days,” Shannon said, before the first birthday party that was held primarily as a thank you to those who supported the family over the past year. “It was hard with them, but it would have been miserable without them.”

‘Miserable’ may seem like a strong word for the joys of parenthood, but if you have kids you’ll remember the sleepless nights with a fussy baby, the hours spent cooing and shushing and rocking a child that Will. Not. Stop. Screaming. The teething. Days piling on days with little sleep for anyone, yet still trying to meet the unrealistic expectations from the Facebook world that life is all bliss, sunshine and unicorns.

Now times that by four.

“There were ladies I knew, but never met,” said Adam, Electrical Account Manager at Ideal Supply, in Kincardine. “They’d come to help Shannon in the middle of the night, so I could get enough sleep to allow me to work the next day. I knew all about them but never actually met them.”

Strangers would show up at the door of the family’s relatively new home – having moved to Tiverton in 2011 – hot meals in hand and a knowing smile on their face. Thousands of dollars in gift cards were donated through community drives and local businesses, and about six months worth of diapers – of the 40,000 they’ll go through before the boys are potty-trained – came from neighbours and random people up and down the Lake Huron shoreline. Shannon’s brother bought 1,600 diapers himself, though he managed to avoid changing that many.

“We went through 24 bottles and spent $30 a day on formula, so we financially could not have made it through the first year without the generosity of the community,” Shannon said. “There are just no words to express how grateful we are and how much we appreciate the help of friends, family, businesses and perfect strangers who donated time, money and resources to our family. We really don’t know how we would’ve gotten through this first year without their assistance.”

 

Congrats! There’s… four of them

Shannon and Adam will never forget their 12-week ultrasound at Saugeen Memorial Hospital. This pregnancy was different than Shannon’s first, which resulted in blonde and bubbly Delaney, now 5, who was excited to have a younger brother or sister. Shannon was sicker than she had remembered, and she was bigger earlier. Twins run in both their mothers’ families, so two babies may have shocked but wouldn’t have surprised.

The ‘Don’t Pressure Radiologist’ signs in the ultrasound area are meant to keep expecting parents from asking questions better suited for a doctor, so the Coutts were understandably worried as the radiologist performed her duties and realized just what she was seeing.

“You could see her whole body language change… she just went pale,” said Adam, adding what was on the screen was an understandable shock, even for medical professionals. “Naturally, you think there’s a problem.”

Concerned, Shannon broke the code and asked what was wrong.

“I’m seeing more than one sac,” the radiologist said, excusing herself to get the doctor.

“I was relieved, because I just thought it was twins,” Shannon laughed.

After the doctor explained to the increasingly shocked parents that everything was normal except they were looking at four babies, they sat in stunned silence.

Shannon then burst into tears, and not of the joyous kind. Adam, still trying to process the future of his family, laughed nervously, though likely as a defense mechanism to the same reaction as his wife, he confessed a year later.

“There’s nothing that can prepare you for news like that,” Shannon added.

The coming days and weeks were filled with a lot of uncertainty. Are the babies healthy? Is Shannon at risk? How to provide for four more mouths?

Question after question after question, and so few answers.

Shannon found solace in an online community for families with or expecting multiples. A private Facebook page and the new local non-profit group Multiples in Bruce (MIB) provides a forum for mothers to support each other through the medical, logistical, financial and emotional struggles that come with expecting multiples. Now a seasoned pro, Shannon still finds time to lend her new-found expertise to expecting mothers both online and through MIB, and tell them everything they’re feeling is normal, despite their abnormal situation.

“I talk to a lot of Moms who just found out and I just tell them to stay active, stay positive and keep their stress level down, because it’s a big mental struggle,” she said.

After that initial ultrasound, the Coutts were referred to the London Health Sciences Centre where they were told, under the circumstances, both Shannon and the babies looked healthy. Over the next 35 weeks, the family made 20 trips to London to ensure all was well and, three weeks before the quads finally arrived, Shannon was in London to stay.

On July 27, 2013, within a four-minute span and via caesarean section at an impressive 35 weeks, Shannon, Adam and Delaney Coutts welcomed Lincoln, Owen, Easton and Dylan to the family. Amazingly, the smallest (Easton) weighed a hefty 4 pounds 3 ounces, while the others weighed 4 lbs 8 oz, 5 lbs 9 oz, and 5 lbs 11 oz.

“There was a team of nurses and a doctor for each baby,” Adam said, recalling the precision of the medical teams. “There was probably 20 people in the operating room. They’d show us the baby and then whisk them away.”

Shannon had to wait a while in recovery before she was finally able to hold three of her boys, though she’d have to wait to embrace Dylan because he was on breathing assistance for a short time.

“It was so overwhelming for me after recovery,” Shannon said. “There were nurses all over the place, babies everywhere, crying when being pricked…”

The doctors were impressed with the size and health of the quadruplets, she added.

“It’s rare quads would all be so big. The doctors thought it was exceptional that I carried them for so long and they were all in good health.”

Although there were no real health concerns, the hospital kept the boys for observation in the intensive care unit, while Shannon quickly moved to the Ronald McDonald House close by. The next 10 days were a blur of running back and forth to the hospital to feed and see the babies, with Dylan being the first released on Day 6, with Owen being discharged the next day and finally Lincoln and Easton soon after.

Thus began the Coutts’ new life as the parents of five children, and feeding, changing and soothing four babies every three hours.

“The early days were crazy,” Shannon said. “There would be four babies crying, so you’d feed two quickly so you could get to the next two, and by then one of them would have puked…”

“I don’t think we made it through a feeding without at least one of the boys spitting up,” Adam laughed.

There were nights Shannon felt grateful for 1 ½ hours of sleep.

Soon though, the community adopted this suddenly large family as its own. Although Shannon and Adam’s own mothers did a lot to keep the family functioning, volunteers were also needed on the night shift, feeding, soothing and changing the babies so the exhausted parents could get some rest. Soon there were enough volunteers for an official schedule to be made.

“We couldn’t have gotten this far without them,” Adam said.

One of their best helpers has been Delaney, who has wholeheartedly embraced the role of big sister. When asked how her first year as a big sister has been, her answer was all of two words: “Pure joy.”

The parents are especially proud of Delaney and her ability to adapt to the family’s new situation.

“It’s tough for some kids to have one little sibling, let-alone four,” Adam said. “She’s never once felt sorry for herself.”

Although always on the edge of exhaustion, the Coutts have made sure Delaney remains a priority and have her enrolled in soccer, dance, gymnastics and swimming. She even had a recent getaway with Mom and Dad in Toronto, while the boys stayed at home.

Now, the one-year-olds are hitting milestones – at print deadline, they appeared to be just days from walking – and developing their own personalities. Dylan thinks he’s an only child. Easton – who was born the smallest but is now the biggest, ranking in the 98th percentile for his age – is very laid back. Owen is the smallest but a fearless go-getter, climbing anything he can get a grip on, while Lincoln, the thinker, is the oldest and usually first to meet milestones.

“There are many wonderful things about a family this large,” Shannon said.

“Watching the boys hit their milestones is amazing, like the first time you hear ‘Mom’ and ‘Dada.’ The interaction between the boys and their sister is also so exciting that I can’t wait for the future. I am so proud of them all.”

Despite their uniqueness, they will most likely have one thing in common – height. Adam is about 6 ft. 2 in., while Shannon stands six feet. Meanwhile, her father, a mountain of a man with hands the size of baseball gloves, is 6’5, while her brothers are 6’7 and 6’9.

“I’m going to have to turn the whole backyard into a garden when they’re teenagers,” Shannon joked.

Despite its challenges, it has been a rewarding year for the family. “It has been tough but it gets easier every day,” Shannon said. “We’ve gone through the craziest, most stressful situations but just one little smile makes you realize it’s all worth it.”

 

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Wes For Youth Online

Our Fall 2013 issue featured an interview with Yolanda Cameron, whose son Wes had died two years previous by suicide. She and her husband Jamie launched Wes for Youth Online to provide support to youth who were suffering from mental illness or contemplating suicide. This is their story.

For two years, pain has been a constant companion of Yolanda Cameron.

It drains from her eyes and undercoats each laugh, sometimes in the same breath.

Always, it threatens to best her, to keep her all to itself, shutting out the world. Yet she refuses to give in. She can’t bear the thought of another family experiencing her ultimate pain, the unexplainable loss of a child.

On Sept. 26, 2011, her son Wes took his own life.

There were no apparent warning signs, cries for help, or failed attempts from the popular, athletic and charismatic 16-year-old. He left no note, no glimpse as to why.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t be inside his mind to know what he was thinking,” Yolanda said, a tear touching her cheek in unison with the heavens reaching the streets of Walkerton, on a rainy June morning. “It hurts so much knowing Wes felt so much pain there was no other way out for him.”

Wes hid it well. To Yolanda, his Dad Jamie and older brothers Jay and Wendel, Wes was a social, generous and caring person with a radiant smile that automatically drew people in.

“Wes had friends all over the place. That boy…” Yolanda smirked, her voice trailing into a whisper, “Unreal.”

His eagerness to show affection, even in his teen years, was the envy of other Moms who longed for the days their baby boys weren’t embarrassed to be seen in public with them.

“He’d throw his arm around me in front of his friends at the hockey rink and give me a kiss before we went our separate ways. The other Moms would always say to their sons, ‘See! Wes isn’t afraid to kiss his Mom in public!’” Yolanda chuckled.

He was also a regular kid, the baby in a three-boy family. He whined when he didn’t get his way or when his siblings teased him as only brothers can. He was in constant contact with his friends and, the Camerons would soon learn, a strong shoulder for many schoolmates to lean on.

“After he died, we received letters from kids saying he always made them feel better. He’d say, ‘Tomorrow is another day, so look after yourself because things will get better,’” she said, her omnipresent pain streaking across her face as she asks a question, surely for the thousandth time, despite knowing the answer will never come.

“Why didn’t he listen to himself?”

After his death, Yolanda and Jamie took to Wes’s Facebook profile and text messages in search of answers, and what they found shocked them. Friends and classmates continued to confide in Wes – they openly bared their hearts, their personal struggles and darkest demons, including thoughts of joining him in suicide.

“We quickly realized a lot of kids needed to talk. They were writing messages to his accounts knowing he wasn’t going to write back.”

Yolanda and Jamie wondered how many parents of these children were like them, oblivious to the internal turmoil with which their teens were battling.

“If our kids seem normal there’s no reason to think there’s a problem. We parents have no idea about a lot of things in their lives, because kids keep to themselves or talk amongst themselves and not to us. But they’re still only kids. They don’t know how to take the next step to help themselves, no matter how badly they need to take that next step.”

While their grief was all consuming, they knew they couldn’t sit idly by while this happened to another family, not after reading the messages in Wes’s inbox. It was obvious these kids either didn’t feel comfortable talking to the adults in their lives or had tried and not received the response they required.

“The family unit is different now as divorce becomes more common. Some parents may not see their kids as much, so they may not notice changes in their behaviour. Others know there’s a problem and are at their wits end trying to find help and don’t know where to go.”

To help both kids and the adults who love them, she and Jamie opened a storefront in downtown Walkerton and launched an online project called Wes for Youth Online – www.wesforyouthonline.ca – which provides crisis line numbers, personal stories from local teens, health information, and, as of June 2013, online counseling. The counseling software, which was developed by World Wide Therapy Online (www.therapyonline.ca), is designed specifically for youth, allowing users to send encrypted emails to licensed therapists, who will open a dialogue with the child.

“Since the email is encrypted, it’s secure and confidential, so the kids can write anything that’s on their mind, without fear of a family member or friend reading it,” Yolanda said. “It’s also designed so youth don’t require parental consent to register for the program, which adds to the confidentiality.”

In the first three weeks of the program, 12 youth have already registered at Wes for Youth Online. There are no geographical pockets of Grey-Bruce youth who are using the program, which is encouraging to Yolanda, because it means the Wes for Youth Online message is casting a wide net.

“It’s also completely free of charge, because I don’t want finances to stop someone from getting help.”

The first year of www.wesforyouthonline.ca has been more successful than the Camerons imagined possible, with local youth rallying around the initiative through mental health education walks, choosing the topic for school projects and raising funds and awareness by holding a hockey tournament in Hanover. Yolanda has also been asked to speak at both secondary and elementary schools, because even kids as young as eight can be under great stress and have nowhere to turn for help.

“I have to be very careful when I talk to kids, because they may not be old enough to understand (the act of) suicide,” Yolanda said. “So I tell them Wes didn’t think he could talk to people, and yet his head felt really full and it hurt so much because there was so much in there. I tell them they need to talk to someone, because it makes you feel better.”

After speaking at a school last year, Yolanda was told a youngster went to the principal’s office the next day and said they needed to talk. This success signifies the need for the program, yet her personal pain makes it difficult to savour the victory.

“The first thought I had was, ‘That’s awesome, another family gets to keep their child.’ But why couldn’t we keep ours? We’ll never know, and that’s the thing about suicide.”

Speaking engagements are physically exhausting for the grieving mother, but she feels an obligation to let both children and adults know the importance of education, knowledge and eliminating the stigma of mental health issues.

“People always say I’m so strong or brave, but I’m not. I do it because I have to. I meet and talk to people and then fall apart when I get home.”

But saving one child isn’t good enough, and that’s what drives Yolanda and Jamie to open the office each morning, engage youth and educate adults.

“All families should have their kids grow to wonderful adults. Kids have so much potential and sometimes they just need a little help along the way.”

For more information, visit www.westforyouthonline.ca, visit the Camerons at their Walkerton storefront at 427 Durham St., E., or call 519-507-3737 (toll free 1-855-577-3737).

Kids need to disconnect from their devices

Today’s teens have been raised in a connected world, a world where everyone you need is a text, Tweet or Facebook message away, no matter the time of day.

For many parents who are unfamiliar with social media and smartphones, or find them to be a fun, time-wasting novelty, it is difficult to understand just how important these methods of communication are to youth today.

Had she kept a closer eye on her son’s texting and social media practices, Yolanda Cameron believes she may have saved his life.

“The weekend before Wes died there were text messages coming into and leaving his phone until 5 a.m. If he had a couple of hours of sleep, he may have been more mentally prepared to face the day.”

Another goal of www.wesforyouthonline.ca is to raise awareness of and promote what it takes for youth today to be mentally healthy. The common sense solution won’t come as a surprise to adults, but for youth who are continuously plugged in to their friends and classmates, it doesn’t come natural to them.

Eat healthy. Sleep well. Exercise.

“These three things are such keys to a healthy mind,” Yolanda said. “Kids are so connected now that they get visibly anxious when they can’t get service on their phone, and this anxiety – combined with lack of sleep from being available at all hours – can lead to unhealthy children.”

Parents will remember their school years, when classmates were left behind as soon as the bus pulled out of the parking lot, providing kids with over 12 hours to clear their mind and prepare to adapt to the daily stresses of school life the following day. Now, youth cannot get away from contact with their peers, and are constantly adding to their mental stress levels.

“When do kids today have any downtime? When do they recharge their batteries?” Yolanda said. “I now know everyone in the house should put their phones in the kitchen when they go to bed, get a good night’s sleep and start fresh in the morning.”

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Kendra Fisher

Kendra Fisher, a Kincardine native, is an outspoken advocate for people with mental health issues. The story of her battle with mental illness appeared in our inaugural issue, Winter 2011. This is her story.

Kendra Fisher was on the cusp of achieving her dream and all she could do was sit in a stairwell and cry.

In 1999, as a 19-year-old, Kendra was a solid training camp away from being named one of Team Canada’s two goaltenders, and earning the right to wear the Maple Leaf on her chest in international competition. Since strapping on the pads as a six-year-old, she had been working toward this very moment.

Then, as she was about to reach the pinnacle of her burgeoning hockey career, she was beaten by an opponent unlike any she had ever stared down from her crease – herself.

“I had been feeling off for a year – having heart palpitations, stomach issues, pressure in my head – and I wasn’t coping well,” said the Kincardine native, who now lives in Toronto. “I was becoming less and less functional, isolating myself so I couldn’t feel things, and the time came when I couldn’t deal with the symptoms any more, and it happened to coincide with the Team Canada training camp in Calgary.”

After spending a minor hockey career backstopping boys teams in her hometown to All-Ontario championships and beginning her professional hockey career at 18 with the Toronto Aeros, in the now-defunct National Women’s Hockey League, Kendra was on a plane with about 40 other hopefuls looking to crack Team Canada’s roster. Instead of building off her natural competitiveness and a healthy dose of nervousness, the up-and-coming goaltender was a wreck.

“I spent most of the flight in the washroom breaking down. I couldn’t show my teammates I was vulnerable, but I didn’t know if I could handle camp, let-alone make the team.”

At a camp this intense, roster spots are won and lost with every practice, workout and coaches’ meeting, yet the netminder would seek solace – and a place to cry – in isolated stairwells in the arena. At the end of the first day, Kendra knew she was not well.

“My parents, in their infinite support, agreed to fly to Calgary and stay at a hotel down the street from mine, because I couldn’t let my potential teammates know I needed parental supervision at camp,” she said. “I told the coaches I had an emergency and had to leave for the day. I met my Dad at his hotel and didn’t sleep that night. We just talked.

“The next day I told the coaches I couldn’t stay in camp. Their response was they wanted me to be on the team and they hoped that would change my mind.”

It didn’t.

It couldn’t.

The arena in which she was now battling was in darkness.

With Team Canada’s assistance, Kendra was diagnosed with a mental illness. Kendra’s affliction – what she matter-of-factly and without embarrassment calls her “sentence” – was an anxiety disorder with severe panic attacks, a deepening depression, and a fear of being alone.

She can’t pinpoint an event in her life, or a watershed moment that contributed to her illness. By many standards she had led
a charmed life – loving, supportive parents, a brother she
adored, the drive and ability to play her favourite sport at the highest level, consistently strong grades, plenty of friends and
a great job.

Mental illness shouldn’t happen to people like Kendra Fisher.

But while family history and traumatic events certainly play a role in the development of mental illness, which affects up to one in five youth in different severities, the disease truly knows no bounds, said Jackie Ralph, Youth Awareness Coordinator with the Grey-Bruce Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

“While the average age of onset is 15 to 24 years, 50 per cent of mental disorders begin by the age of 14, and some anxieties start as early as 11,” Jackie said. “Some youth have even reported self-injury as early as six.”

In hindsight, Kendra said her family and friends admitted to missing signs of the illness that eventually took hold of her life, but Jackie said these signals are often missed.

“Many symptoms can come across as just typical teen behaviours, but it’s all about the changes you see in your child, things that are different. You’ll see changes in behavior, school, eating and sleeping, or a large decrease in their enjoyment in their favourite things,” Jackie said.

“Family history can play a big part, but stress, traumatic events, bullying and negative changes in life like divorce, loss or moving can lead to mental health issues.”

Unfortunately, only one in five youth will seek help.

“That’s mostly due to the negative effect of stigma,” she added.

Kendra often wishes she had received a diagnosis such as cancer or diabetes, something people better understand. She has lost many people to cancer and knows the struggles and trials of such serious illnesses, as many people do.

“Mental illness doesn’t choose and it is no less devastating or real,” Kendra said. “When you’re experiencing treatments such as chemotherapy, people’s first reaction is empathy and support, but there’s this jaded perspective of craziness with mental illness. People are embarrassed.”

By January, 2000, she couldn’t sleep, and she was so afraid of being on her own that when one of the few friends in whom she had confided would go to the washroom, the tall, healthy, elite athlete would anxiously lie in wait on the floor outside the door. She couldn’t eat, and had shrunk from 160 lbs. to 123.

“It got to the point where I wasn’t living. I had to quit work and school, and I distanced myself from most of my friends. For three or four years I was living with this sentence, and eventually got to a state of numb.”

The only consistency in her life was hockey. Her psychologist demanded she keep one thing in her life, and she chose the game over all else.

“Without hockey, I never would have left my bed, despite the fact goalie’s a lonely position,” Kendra said. “When the puck was in my zone I was fine, but when it was in the other end and I was alone, I wanted to skate off the ice and find a place to hide, but I wasn’t willing to explain why.”

Eventually she discovered the benefits physical fitness has on a person’s mentality, and she began to channel her energy into getting fit. She soon discovered a renewed focus, and her light was reignited.

She then found naturopathy and yoga, and began to pay attention to nutrition. By 2010 she returned to a more comfortable state of what society considers normality, while continuing her hockey career in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, with the Toronto Furies.

“I found I was happy when I woke up in the morning. I was active, and things were making sense again.”

Then, in November, 2010, 14-year-old Daron Richardson, the daughter of former NHL defenceman Luke, committed suicide. As this final act often does, it blindsided the grieving parents, but instead of allowing the stigma of suicide to shame them or force them into hiding, the Richardsons spoke publicly about Daron, her life and her death.

It was a message that struck a chord with Kendra, and this past February, with the support of her psychologist, she began sharing her story about mental illness, sports, and life.

“I wanted to help get the conversation started, share my story and show people this isn’t a life sentence, and you can come through it,” she said, adding she also had to tell a lot of friends and teammates about her 13-year struggle at the same time.

She now speaks at high schools all over the Greater Toronto Area, has appeared on the CBC and Global, and is currently working on a documentary with the public broadcaster. She has a devoted following on Facebook, where online conversations shatter the stigma that surrounds mental illness, while helping people cope with their issues by showing they don’t have to go at it alone like Daron did.

“I spoke to a Grade 6/7 class and, going in, I thought they were too young for this message. Yet they kept me for an extra hour-and-a-half asking me some of the best questions I’ve ever heard.

“Kids that age are thinking about their mental health, depression, and suicide, and parents need to shed the ‘suck it up’ mentality and not be embarrassed to have the conversation.”

Jackie agrees. She said prevention is the best tool in the arsenal of parents and the CMHA.

“Prevention is the basis of all our programs,” Jackie said. “We are always saying a good offense is your best defense. There are four basic rules to good mental health – good self-esteem, having a good support system, not keeping things inside, and having good coping strategies that you can turn to when you’re having a bad day.”

She suggests parents talk about suicide and mental illness with their kids at the same time they broach the topic of sex and drugs. By proactively discussing mental health, you can show your children there is no stigma attached to the topic in your house and you open the lines of communication should they ever have those feelings, Jackie said.

For Kendra, that discussion came too late, but with every class she speaks to she shows youth it is OK to talk about their deepest feelings, and doing so could not only save their life, but also those of their friends and family.

“There are too many tragedies occurring because people are too afraid to look past the stigma of mental illness.”

For more information about Kendra, visit www.mentallyfit.com. For more information, call the CMHA Grey Bruce Branch at 519-371-3642 or visit www.cmhagb.org.

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With one swing, a new generation of baseball fans was born

I’m a massive Toronto Blue Jays fan – I have been my entire life.

Even through the lamentable late-90s and terrible 2000s, where mediocrity was a foregone conclusion before the first pitch of the season was thrown, I watched four or five games a week, read numerous blogs, lamented the wasted talents of Carlos Delgado and Roy Halladay, and, like a sucker, came back year after year.

There are times I wish I had leapt off the bandwagon like so many people did once the glow of the glorious World Series wins of 1992 and ’93 were a decade distant. I do the same with the Toronto Raptors and – to an extent – the Maple Leafs, although it appears their rise from the ashes is truly happening this time, if this is the team leadership that we can finally trust. Leaf fans have trusted many times before and have the scars to prove it.

So I was optimistic early on about the 2015 Blue Jays, knowing we just needed a couple of tweaks and we’d be on our way to the playoffs. When those deadline trades happened, and their incredible August and September march to the pennant began, I quickly noticed how many regular people – as in non-traditional or dormant baseball fans – rocketed out of the woodwork. At first, I was overprotective of my right to bask in the wondrousness of the final two months of the Blue Jays season. “You didn’t earn the right to cheer for this team now that it’s actually good. I PAID MY DUES! THIS IS FOR ME!” I caught myself thinking more than once.

But then I realized the Jays magical romp to the playoffs was bringing people back to the game, making it cool again. Neighbours clamoured for a spot to sit in each other’s living rooms to watch the games. Baseball was a conversation everywhere, not just the ball diamond, and those who hadn’t paid attention for a decade or two rediscovered baseball’s ebbs and flows, the elation and devastation, the importance of Every. Single. Pitch. Like the unforgettable one to Jose Bautista in Game 5 of the Division Series against Texas. It blew wide open one of the most intense games in history, and created a ‘where were you’ moment for a whole new generation of Jays fans in the process.

I expect my daughters, aged 8 and 5, will always remember the sight of me leaping and leaping and leaping, knees touching my elbows (while screaming, just to complete the picture) across our living room when Bautista angrily deposited that ball into the seats and bat-flipped his way into Canada’s sporting history, just as I vividly recall jumping into my Dad’s and sister’s arms in 1993 when Joe Carter walked-off the Philadelphia Phillies to win our second World Series. Simply unforgettable.

Before this season – the first of any true importance for anyone born after 1993 – my daughters had been peripheral fans, using a game as an excuse to cuddle with me on the couch for an inning or two, but quickly losing interest (as most kids – and plenty of adults – do when a ball game is on). But this past year, they started to care. They asked questions about teams, game situations and why this guy did that. They recognized players as they strut to the bat. They started playing Rookie and T-Ball. They sat and watched longer and seemed to understand why I bought a radio for our camping trip during the (first) pivotal series with the Yankees in mid-August, when the Jays’ run still didn’t feel real. They and their friends started wearing Jays hats and jerseys and playing catch in the backyard. Their cousin (awesomely) cut his hair like Josh Donaldson and I must have handed Halloween candy out to two dozen mini-Blue Jays.

For the first time, my kids became interested in my passion, and the fall of 2015 was a wonderful way for us to spend time and celebrate together, while being part of something bigger than us – a fever that swept the entire nation – from our own living room.

I’ve spent an entire winter hoping for the same in 2016.

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Online safety – How parents can keep their kids safe

Kids over 10 have been flirting with each other since the beginning of time.

They know they are supposed to like each other; they’re curious and awkward, and those who are ahead of the curve guide the less experienced through one of life’s rites of passage – their first real crush. Some stumble along blindly, hoping to avoid making a fool of themselves, while the more confident ones do the teasing and giggling, initiate the first holding of hands and stealing of the first kiss.

These age-old rituals have taken place on playgrounds and in school hallways for generations, usually with the watchful eye of adults never far away. But today, it’s nearly impossible for parents to see with whom or how their child is entering this phase of life, because a lot of it is done on computers and cell phones.

Sending a flirty text is today’s equivalent of a boy pulling the braids of the cute girl that sits in front of him in math. Since these conversations can continue after school and throughout the night because of the immediacy of today’s technology, and the fact most parents don’t have access to their kid’s phone conversations, they can quickly escalate and become more suggestive.

Think about how you got to know someone you were interested in during your teen years, and the barriers that prevented you from saying exactly what you were thinking. There was the risk of completely embarrassing yourself because your interactions were exclusively – at least until you were ‘going out’ and talked on the home phone (but often in the kitchen) – face-to-face, and there was also the physical end of the school day. When you went your separate ways after the last bell, you generally had no contact with this person until you returned to the school halls the next day.

Today, neither of these issues remain, because of the prevalence of cell phones in kids’ hands and access to a social media landscape many of today’s parents don’t fully understand. Conversations can escalate from youthful fun to dangerous territory quickly, said OPP Const. Kevin Martin, the Community Services Officer for the South Bruce Detachment.

“This is how kids become brave enough to ask for naked pictures of each other – they just keep the conversation moving and it becomes more and more serious,” Const. Martin said.
You’re a lot less likely to be shy when you’re in the privacy of your own home. In fact, this perception of being risk-free is exactly the behaviour that is so dangerous for today’s kids, the officer said.

“Even if they trust the person they’re sending the picture to, it only takes that person sharing it with one other person for that private picture to live forever.”

And once a picture is out there, it’s never coming back. There is no such thing as ‘deleted from the Internet’ and no recall function for texts. This has led to numerous youth having these suggestive or nude pictures leaked and shared across the Internet, which can lead to bullying or being preyed upon, and fear, depression and even suicide for the victim. Every time someone sends a picture of themselves to a friend or stranger, they are opening themselves to this sort of cyberbullying. Yet it happens every day, right here in Grey/Bruce.

“It’s natural for kids to be curious about the other gender, or drugs, booze and cigarettes for that matter,” Const. Martin said. “But they don’t have the maturity to know what is appropriate, and that’s why sexting can be so dangerous.”

Though concerning, this back-and-forth, 21st Century version of flirting is usually a two-way street. Another more pressing danger is the friendships with strangers that can easily be struck up online by unsuspecting or overly trusting kids, who are the first generation to be raised with the technology that allows them to display their entire lives for the world to see.

Watch for online predators

An online predator’s calling card is one simple question posed in a forum or chat room – age/sex/location (ASL)? People today don’t hesitate to outline their entire life – what makes them happy and sad, their likes and dislikes – online. This paves the way for predators to easily get to know a teen, Const. Martin said.

“The Internet has become an electronic diary, for good or bad. Friends exchange thoughts, talk about what’s trending, their favourite music – their whole life.”

This makes teens easy picking for predators, who can choose a person at random and immediately know practically everything about them.

“It’s like a smorgasbord for these people – they can sample as much as they want until they find someone they can groom.”

A predator will live as a teenager online and open a dialogue with their target. They’ll ‘mirror’ the youth, liking and disliking the same things to easily establish a rapport.

“They’ll build trust by saying, ‘Oh yeah, my parents really drive me crazy too. Nobody gets us like we do,’” Const. Martin said.

“The power lies in keeping this secret relationship from their victim’s parents. Predators say, ‘We have a solid connection and I always listen to you and understand what you’re saying, so now you’re going to send me a picture or meet me in person.’”

Then, if the child refuses, the predator flips it around and says they’ll contact the child’s parents and tell them they’ve been having an online relationship, and they’ll be in trouble if they don’t do what they’re told. This is where it gets dangerous, Const. Martin said, as many youth don’t realize it’s a sick adult on the other end of the conversation, sometimes until it’s too late.

What can parents do?

It is nearly impossible to track what kids are doing on the Internet or their cell phones, Const. Martin said, though having the computer in a common room in your home is a start. The next step is to talk about proper use of these platforms from the very first time they use them. Set the ground rules, talk about what they’re doing online and on their phone, and establish a mutually agreed upon system for being walked through their profiles on occasion – all of them, even the apps and websites you’re not familiar with.

“The best way to protect them is to talk to them – to have an open dialogue. That way they know the difference between right and wrong. Be caring and be involved – show them you’re concerned about their online activity even if you don’t know much about the apps or social media platforms they’re using.”

Technology isn’t going anywhere and is advancing so quickly that no parent can be expected to be up-to-date on what kids are using to communicate today.

“Parents don’t need to be computer programmers to protect their kids online, but they do have to embrace technology. Too many just say, ‘I don’t know how to use computers,’ and turn a blind eye.

“A parent’s link to their child supersedes any safety setting on a computer or site blocker, so invest the time to learn about their life and talk about what is and isn’t acceptable.”

He said many parents also think their children are too young to have these conversations, but you’d be surprised just how much they know at a young age. His school sessions begin for students in Grade 6 because they’re old enough to understand the issues but are hopefully young enough to not have had any experience.

Parents should also take their own advice when using social media, Const. Martin said. He constantly sees people posting family photos from a resort down south or ‘Checking In’ while on holiday. Predators have ways of using this information and the GPS data on your phone to track your family, putting you all at risk. It also gives potential robbers an open invitation to your home, while you’re enjoying your vacation, he added.

“It’s wonderful to be proud of your family and post photos – just wait until you get home.”

Posted in Parenting 101 | Leave a comment

Returning our kids to nature

Close your eyes.

Think back to your youth and how you interacted with nature. You’re laying on your back, a piece of grass balanced between your top teeth and bottom lip. You stare at fluffy clouds that are the purest of white, and you try to discern what earth-based item they resemble – and make something up if you can’t put a finger on it – before they float into oblivion.

You close your eyes and ignore the fact the long grass tickles your arms, legs and neck, a necessary part of being there, one with nature. The sun’s rays warm your face and, since you’ve only ever worn sunscreen at the beach, you pull your hat lower on your brow and shade your eyes.

The summer breeze shakes the treetops and rustles the tall grasses that hide you from the world, and your pal goes quiet as he too contemplates the clouds, tracks a bird or just reflects on life.

Although your concerns will get more complicated as you age and the issues of your youth will be of little consequence in hindsight, you still have school struggles, parents you don’t always get along with, or a friend who has moved on from you and you’re not sure why. Being a kid can be stressful, but here, lying on a riverbank, the soothing sound of a quiet stretch of the Pine (or Saugeen or Teeswater or Boyne or Sydenham) River rolling gently over the rocks, your chest lightens.

You can breathe.

As a town-boy in one of Bruce County’s smallest villages (Ripley), I was fortunate to have many friends and family who lived on farms, and I spent my summers biking to their houses and roaming the fields, rivers and acres of bush on their properties. We’d load up a BB gun and head to the ‘back 40’ to, in theory, shoot birds, but luckily we were terrible shots and never snuffed the life out of any innocents. Our expeditions were just an excuse for us to explore our natural surroundings – climbing trees, searching for frogs near the creek before jumping in to cool down and letting our minds and souls run wild. The closest adult was, literally, a mile away at the house. They may have known the general direction in which we had headed, but they didn’t worry themselves about it or never dreamed of tagging along with us, as parents of today surely would, lest a scrape occur. They gave us the freedom to put our imaginations to work and learn about nature by squeezing cold mud through warm toes, our sopping socks and shoes sunning on the riverbank.

Our bikes were our chariots to this freedom. We’d pedal miles into the countryside on paved roads and just as far down dirt trails, farm paths and the former railway line that once ran through the heart of town, allowing Kincardine’s harbour access to the world in the decades before I was born. The expectation was I leave a note for my parents if I was leaving town, but sometimes these things just happened, and we’d head ‘back the tracks’ to test our resolve on the creaky old trestle bridge that spanned a stretch of river. We’d talk of jumping to the water far below, but never consider actually doing it, and clamber down the hill to the river to explore it further.

One time we looked to prove some schoolyard talk of the town’s original cemetery, which today is the end-point of a manicured walking trail in a small bush just outside of town, but back then was difficult to find, located in a stand of trees in the middle of a field. The prospect of a hidden cemetery was much too intriguing for young boys to ignore, so we took a guess and started wandering. As we quietly walked through the 100-year-old tombstones we had triumphantly ‘discovered,’ our minds struggled to understand how stones so old could still be legible and why so many babies died in the 1800s (many headstones have cause of death on them). Upon returning to town, and just in time for supper – we judged the time by the sun or Mom’s yells if we were close – our parents would ask what we’d gotten up to that day (because they truly didn’t know!), and were happy to explain how fortunate we were to know nothing of whooping cough, measles or polio, unlike our forebears.

Being in nature taught us about life and where we came from – and it was our playground, to explore at will. My generation (I’m 35) may be the last to experience nature this way; wading through a river to reach the other side, shoes held above our head, walking through shoulder-height grass in the middle of nowhere, and dragging our fingertips along rough bark before scraping our legs as we try in vain to swing a leg up into the tree.

Not our kids. They drink from a garden hose and we shout warnings at them.

True, we are fortunate to live in Grey/Bruce, where opportunities to be outdoors abound. We can spend our days on the beach, camp in any corner of the region, play in the snow, or canoe down the Saugeen with our family. But kids today just don’t experience nature they way many of us did. In fact, few kids in my town – my own girls included – even walk to school without a parent, despite mine having one fairly quiet street to cross in order to get there. The walk home from school was prime time for exploring when I was a kid, so why are we denying ours the same cherished opportunity?

Author Richard Louv calls this lack of connection ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder.’ His book, Last Child in the Woods, is the pre-eminent study of this currently non-medical affliction, which outlines direct exposure to nature as essential to a child’s healthy physical and emotional development. There is growing evidence linking the lack of nature in children’s lives to the rise in obesity, attention disorders and depression.

“Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically,” Louv states in the book. “The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.

“As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobody in the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming. But I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams.”

A kid today, he continues, can likely tell you about the issues facing the Amazon rainforest but not about the last time they explored the woods by themselves, or, “… lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”

Today’s families live in a fast-paced society, running their children to organized sports, swimming lessons and community groups numerous nights a week, said Krista McKee, Community Relations Coordinator for Grey Sauble Conservation.

“It’s wonderful that families are active, but I feel we don’t take the time to stop and smell the fresh air,” Krista said. “We’re the culprits. We need to make it a routine for our family to take an hour to go on a leisurely hike in a forest to listen to the sounds, explore and talk about the things you discover along the way.”

Matthew Cunliffe, Senior Park Naturalist at MacGregor Point Provincial Park near Port Elgin, said kids today aren’t forced outdoors and into nature to fill their days, their imaginations providing the stimulation.

“With the accessibility of computers, smartphones and tablets with Internet access, sedentary entertainment has never been this reachable by youth,” Matthew said. “When I was a kid, I would wait a whole year for a new video game, when today there’s entertainment – movies, games, music – at our fingertips.”

Even when people do load up their bikes, fill a cooler with hotdogs and the makings for S’mores, and pitch their tents in the heart of MacGregor Park, Matthew has witnessed a major change in how people are experiencing their natural surroundings during his 10-year career.

“When I started at Ontario Parks, campfire programs were our most popular. We would get over 100 people in an evening. Now, we find campers are staying on their sites, many with computers or tablets for watching movies.”

Though today’s parents weren’t raised with smartphones and Internet access everywhere (I was in Grade 9 when Ripley first got the Internet!), we have since become connected to our devices. Youth and teens, who don’t know a life without these technologies, see us on our phones even if we are outdoors, and they think that is normal.

“It’s simple – just get outside,” Matthew said. “Kids emulate adults, so if your kids see you on your smartphone during dinner, vegging in front of the TV or checking Facebook during your downtime, they will think this is the norm. By spending family time going on hikes, bike rides or just playing outside together, children will associate outdoor recreation as the norm.”

But parents have to present their children with the opportunity and authority to roam the wilderness, Louv states in Last Child in the Woods. Kids need to discover nature on their own, to adapt to new situations in the wild as they arise, to shed themselves of the leash parents too quickly pull back on the instant our children do something remotely dangerous or unproductive (despite doing the same, or likely worse, when we were kids).

“Whatever shape nature takes, it offers each child an older, larger world separate from parents. Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighborhood… Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion. Nature can frighten a child, too, and this fright serves a purpose.

“In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy and privacy; a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.”

Nature calms the mind and soothes the soul. Our children need to experience it for themselves. And we need to let them.

Posted in Opinion | Leave a comment

Give kids the gift of giving

Winters in Grey and Bruce counties are a challenge.

We struggle to clear deep drifts from our driveways, battle snow-covered and slippery roads to get to work, bundle the kids up in snowpants, hats and mitts whenever they venture into the cold, and go weeks without seeing the sun.

When the wintry weather stretches on as long as it did in 2013/14, it’s no surprise we get frustrated with the cold and snow, and dream of escaping to somewhere warm.
Thankfully, many of us are financially fortunate enough to not have to decide between heating our homes or feeding our children. With electricity prices rising, and long, cold winters becoming the norm in recent years, an increasing number of Grey/Bruce families are struggling to pay their energy bills and risk having their heat cut off during the deep freeze that is winter. To keep the heat on, many people on lower or fixed incomes have to significantly reduce their grocery bill, which increases the need at local food banks.

It’s a difficult cycle to break for low-income working and single-parent families, as well as those on disability and government assistance. That’s why it’s important Grey/Bruce residents, who are in a position to do so, donate to local food banks and Christmas Hamper Programs. Not only does it help families in need today, it imparts an important lesson on your children as they enter their formative years, when their sense of philanthropy can begin to bloom.

Nearly every time I’m at our local grocery store, I forget to purchase a pre-filled bag for the local food bank. As I’m leaving the store, I see the $10 or $15 bags there and scold myself for buzzing through life without recognizing my responsibility to help those in need, even in such a small way. Yet when I have the kids with me, one of them usually reminds me that we should be supporting the food bank, because from an early age, we tried to teach them about the importance of giving. Though they don’t understand the socioeconomic situation of life in Grey/Bruce, they know giving to others is something we should do as often as possible.

Although our awareness of giving to others is naturally heightened in the weeks leading up to Christmas, local food banks will tell you the need is present every week of the year, not just during the holiday season.

So one way we’ve encouraged our daughters to give – and I’m certainly not the first to think of it – is to involve them in the decision-making process. If it’s at the grocery store, I let them choose the items we’ll donate, while at the same time broadening their understanding of healthy food choices by having them return the Kraft Dinner to the shelf and replacing it with real macaroni noodles, or picking up peanut butter instead of Oreos.

Taking part in toy drives is also a fun learning opportunity too, because our girls enjoy picking items for kids their age that they’d love to receive, while opening the door for us to explain how some parents struggle to give their kids a magical Christmas. As I try to impart a bit of my limited wisdom, they spend a lot of time throwing crayons, markers and colouring books into our cart, before heading to the doll aisle.

My oldest went through a Post-It Note phase last Christmas and excitedly explained (and negotiated) that whomever received our donation would love the sticky notes as much as she, though I had to encourage her to put a few bundles back on the shelves because her enthusiasm for Post-Its was a bit over the top. More importantly though, she was engaged, and that’s when you know you’re laying the groundwork.

By giving them ownership of the donation and having them personally drop the bags into our community’s toy drive box, they begin to understand the positive impact they’re having on someone less fortunate, which allows me to reinforce how lucky they are, and explain how there’s no way to tell who needs our support – they most likely have school friends who will enjoy a better Christmas because of their generosity.

We can always strive to do more, and to also give consistently throughout the year instead of just during the holidays, but this time of year especially, it’s important that those of us who can, help those who are less fortunate than us, yet still have kids whose eyes glow when flipping through the Wish Book.

And by having our children involved from the shopping stage to the dropping off of the donation, we’re hopefully setting our kids up for a lifetime of helping others.

Posted in Parenting 101 | Leave a comment

Things my daughters should know

Lately, lists of things people want their kids – specifically daughters – to know as they embark on life have been popping up all over my Facebook feed.

Sharing a roof with a knockout of a wife, two bright and challenging daughters, an aging female dog and, I presume, a girl fish, these articles have become an important educational tool for, well, a tool who lacks education.

Though I’m hardly an emotional brick wall, there’s no denying the difference between the dominant gender in the house and myself. With their teen years still a ways off, these articles have made me realize I’m playing a larger role than I may have expected in how my girls will perceive themselves as they grow. Everything I say and do lays another block in the foundation of their self-image, which can be both positive and negative depending on how I conduct myself.

So, while resisting the urge to just defer to the more knowledgeable parents and professionals out there who have undertaken this same initiative online, here are some things I want my daughters to know about both them and me.

I’m not perfect. This likely won’t come as a shock to you, but sometimes Moms and Dads have to realize it’s OK to admit this. I try to be the best Dad I can be, but I have days where my fuse is short or I’m tired and just don’t have the energy to keep your torrid pace. What I can promise you is that I’ll try my best to limit these days or power through them with a smile on my face until you’re kissed, hugged and tucked soundly into bed.

I secretly hope you’ll be just a little bit like me. You look like your Mom, and that’s OK because being the spitting image of me would be an unfair disadvantage for little girls. I do look for ways you are like me though, whether it’s in your sense of humour, a facial expression or your interests. Perhaps it’s vanity on my part, but it makes me smile when I see some of my traits reflected in you.

Love your sister. As evidenced by the daily phone calls between your Mom and Aunt, sisters share a bond that can’t be matched, so long as you start now and build it as you grow. She’s always going to be your sister, while all but a few of your childhood friends will come and go. Remember that, and stop fighting NOW!

I know you don’t really want to watch sports with me. And I love you for it when you do – more than you can imagine. It doesn’t make me believe you’re going to be my fellow sports nut, but it shows that you love me enough to pretend you are, just so we can spend some time cuddled together on the couch.

I don’t have a damn clue what’s going on in your head. I don’t know why that lipgloss was the most important thing in the world, and why the river of tears, anguished screams and kicking of feet is the best way to deal with the fact your sister used it.

I know there will be a day where I long for a hug from you. Today though, when you slap an unexpected bear hug on my legs while I’m walking by you, my life flashes before my eyes.

Beauty is 100 different things, not just the superficial stuff in the media. It radiates from you through your actions, how you interact with your sister and Mom, and how playful you are with your friends and extended family. Beauty on the outside doesn’t matter a lick if you’re ugly on the inside, so focus on being a good person and you’ll lead a wonderful life.

Your tummy is supposed to be round. You’re a baby. My baby. You’re not unhealthy, and certainly not obese, so go ahead and use it as a bongo drum and entertain us!

I may roll my eyes and hesitate after a long day, but eventually I realize dancing with you is amazing. Even if most of your Top 40 music sucks.

You have your whole life to learn to use the computer, so get outside. And I don’t care who has an iPad, get outside.

I’m going to yell sometimes. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you, and often, I’m not even that mad. But there are times where negotiating helps nobody and, gasp!, sometimes I’m even right.

I don’t like peas. Your Mom hates them too. But you’re going to eat what’s on your plate because we’ve already paid our dues.

You can be or do anything you set your mind to. You’re going to have to work for it though, and I’ll be there to support you along the way, but I certainly won’t do it for you.

When you show a social conscience, especially at such young ages, my heart soars. The need for a Food Bank or toy drive at Christmas are difficult concepts for youngsters to understand, so when you remind us to make a donation when we’re at the grocery store I couldn’t be prouder. Understanding that other people may not be as lucky as you are, and taking even the babiest of steps to change that, gives me confidence you’ll do great things in this life.

I don’t hate you now and I never will. We may get frustrated with each other at times, but my arms and home will always be open. No matter where your decisions lead you in life.

High school is not real life. Although it may feel like the most important thing in the world at the time, it’s a rather insignificant blip on life’s radar. The second you walk out the door for the last time, you’ll move onto more important things and you’ll quickly realize all that angst was for nothing.

Of course I could easily help you with that menial household chore. I won’t though, because it’s your responsibility and you’ll learn to help out when asked. You don’t realize how well these simple skills will serve you when you first move out and know how and when to wash dishes, clean your apartment, do laundry, etc. You’ll meet people who have never lifted a finger before setting out on their own and they’ll make you shake your head and wonder what’s wrong with your generation. I will not allow you to be on the receiving end of that.

Your laugh overfills my heart. When it’s from your belly, and it’s because we’re being silly together, it is the most beautiful sound on earth.

It gets better. If you experience mental health struggles in the coming years, I want you to talk to us about it way before it’s too late. There is absolutely nothing we can’t overcome and I cannot fathom losing you because we didn’t talk about it in time.

Don’t text and drive. That’s assuming texting exists 10 or 15 years from now and we’re not just teleporting ourselves from one location to the next to have face-to-face discussions (but you probably shouldn’t do that when behind the wheel either).

Don’t ever let your partner define you. The man or woman you love should never control or limit you, preventing you from reaching your potential. A true love will want you to experience all your hearts’ desires, whether that be travel, education, literature, careers, etc. Your soulmate should always challenge you to become the amazing individual you’re destined to be. If they create roadblocks to that journey, find someone who wants to be on that amazing ride.

Listen to my music, even if it’s just to humour your old man. I want you to be familiar with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Guns ’n Roses, Our Lady Peace and Poison. You might find you actually like it (no really, you might).

Go west. And north, south and east. Whether it’s just after high school or with your degree in hand, grab a backpack and see as much of Canada and the world as you can. There will never be a more convenient and fun time. Although I moved west for work at 22, I wasn’t convinced to go travelling until I was a married, 25-year-old newspaper editor, and yet 10 months of international travel was still a life-changing experience for both Mom and me. Had I started sooner, I may never have stopped. And that’s 100 per cent OK too.

Don’t do what I did. But sort of do too, because my teen years are some of the greatest memories I have, and include amazing times with lifelong friends.

I love you both more than you may think possible.

Dwight Irwin is the Editor of Grey-Bruce Kids, and has two daughters, 6 and 3.

Posted in A Dad's View | Leave a comment

Let’s keep the fun in hockey

There is next to no chance your son is going to play in the NHL.

Have a daughter? Well, there are only 25 spots on Team Canada, so she really needs to be a rare talent.

Despite our best attempts to ignore these blunt truths, it’s simply reality that, as none other than hockey legend and current player agent Bobby Orr recently told MacLean’s magazine, only 0.0057 per cent of kids playing minor hockey today will skate in even one NHL game.

Yet, if you take a stroll through any arena in Grey/Bruce (or on the rock-lined coast of Nova Scotia, across the plains of Saskatchewan or high in the mountains of B.C., for that matter) you’ll see and hear things from supposedly rational adults that are, frankly, shocking. Especially so when you consider who is on the receiving end of those shouts – children, officials (who are often children themselves) and volunteers who selflessly spend hundreds of hours teaching our kids the finer points of this wonderful game.

And here’s where I fully and openly admit that I can be an idiot. Although – even at age 34 – I am still working to temper it, I have a competitive streak that is notorious amongst my family, friends and teammates. As someone who has played, coached and/or refereed hockey for most of my 34 years, I have absolutely been guilty of getting caught up in the emotion of the game and lost my cool. Once, when I was a teen playing Midget hockey, I had an ongoing feud with a local referee that often resulted in an extra two minutes for me in the penalty box for shooting off from the mouth. I earned the target on my back and he was happy to hit the bulls-eye knowing I couldn’t resist. One night, it boiled over to the point where I called him some regrettable things and was sent to the showers. Just one week later, in my job as a referee, I sheepishly suited up beside him in the small changeroom set aside for the officials.

It’s not the last time I got lost in the moment as a player (I was just 16 and bulletproof after all), but it’s the first time I remember realizing how ridiculous I sometimes act when on a field of play. To this day, this humbling experience is one of those I reflect upon when I feel myself slipping into hyper-competitiveness.

So, this isn’t me shouting from my high horse at everyone who gets swept up in the excitement of a child’s hockey game (or dance class or soccer match) and shouts at an official or speaks poorly of a volunteer who is doing the best they can in a thankless job. This is, hopefully, a reality check for people (myself included) to resist the urge to take these activities too seriously.

I’ve been on both sides. As a referee, I’ve paused games to give arena staff time to escort irate fans out of the building, all the while knowing their child is sitting on the bench and listening to their parent’s outraged voice echoing throughout the cavernous rink. I’ve watched parents from the opposing team taunt and cheer while the irrational parent has made their exit, showing their own children it’s OK to jeer at someone if you don’t agree with their behaviour.

Unfortunately, instead of taking the opportunity to pause and reflect on why we’re in the building in the first place – the youngsters wearing the skates – we resume the game and conveniently ignore the impression we just made on the most impressionable people in our lives. As any referee will attest, the players are often the quietest ones in the rink until the coach and parents decide the official is at fault for the way the game is going. Then, following the example set for them, the kids feel they’re entitled to express their opinion too.

As a player, I know I’ve let down my parents, teammates and coaches by taking this game – and yes, it’s a game, not a life-or-death matter – too seriously. I also set a poor example for my players on occasion when I coached houseleague hockey, though I never went too far over the line thankfully.

Today, my oldest daughter has no interest in playing hockey, but it looks like my youngest will in due time, so I’ve yet to feel the parental pull of protecting my sporting child, while demanding to right any perceived wrongs on their behalf as we’re naturally wired to do. Yet, if you ask a parent why they enroll their kids in hockey, there’s a good chance they’ll say it’s because they want them to have fun, learn to be a part of a team, and experience a wonderful sport in its purest form.

But, once we’re in the rink, is that really the case? We don’t yell and scream at them to try harder, accost their opponents or whisper mean things about their friends when they’re playing hockey on the street, horseback riding or frolicking at the beach, and those things are a lot of fun too.

More likely, we want our kids to thrive, succeed, enjoy the thrill of winning and be the best at all they do. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s why families spend thousands of dollars annually for their eight-year-old to play Triple-A hockey, and then spend summers travelling to practices in the far reaches of the county so they can get to know their teammates before heading to city-based tournaments on weekends.

Parents invest incredible amounts of time and money into their kids during a hockey season, so it’s no surprise we get emotional about the outcomes of the games, and we’re always going to think they sky’s the limit for our beautifully brilliant children. Although not interested in athletics, I believe my oldest when she dreams of being an astronaut. I’ll do all I can to help her along the way, but will I yell at her high school physics teacher in the hallways when I’m told she’s not cut out for the difficult math necessary to pursue this path? Will I speak poorly of her classmates who are naturally more gifted in the subject and receiving more attention from the teacher, who sees their natural potential and wants to nurture that talent?

Of course not – that’s unacceptable behaviour for an adult.

Why then is it OK to do so at the hockey rink?

There are too many cases today of the fun being sucked out of children’s organized sports. Believe me, those of us who aren’t sublimely skilled know there’s virtually no chance we’ll play at a professional level or get a scholarship – we just want to have fun. We’ve all played with those whose natural talent and work ethic make it obvious they should be playing at a higher level or even achieve a scholarship that puts them on a path to success in life. We absolutely should challenge these special kids to be better and provide them the opportunity to play with their athletic equals if at all possible. They are the rare amongst us and their talent should be cultivated in a positive manner. As Orr also told MacLean’s, if they’re good enough, the talent evaluators will find them.

But do the kids who simply want to play for the love of it and enjoy the camaraderie and bond that comes with playing organized sport with friends, still receive the same joyful adrenaline rush of blades cutting through ice when some adults and coaches in their lives are acting like every game is a life-and-death, must-win moment even though the stars of the show have yet to begin shaving?

It’s hard to imagine they do.

And yet, at the root of the very reason we pay the money, burn the fuel and get up early on our hard-earned weekends to go to the rink and drink terrible arena coffee is so our children can feel the pure joy that coffee commercials, Hockey Night in Canada and our own childhood memories tell us hockey provides.

Hockey is a fantastic game. It cultivates friendships that last a lifetime. It can be exciting, heartbreaking and exhilirating all in the same shift. Kids make fabulous plays and, just as often, costly mistakes. Yet, at the end of the game, what treats they’re allowed to get at the booth is what most will remember on the ride home.

So let’s cheer and encourage a good effort, remember why everyone is there, and enjoy the game as it’s meant to be.

Fun.

Posted in Kids and sports | Leave a comment

Exploring the Bruce – Part 2

Last weekend, our family took part in the Explore the Bruce Adventure Passport. Read Part 1 of our Explore the Bruce Adventure here.

On Sunday, the day after the big launch party in Underwood, we were on our own to collect some punches on our 2013 Adventure Passport. Since we live in the most southern part of Bruce County, it meant a couple hours in the car each way as we were heading to the beautiful Bruce Peninsula, so we decided to do our 2 1/2-year-old Jace a favour and leave her at home with Grandma and Grandpa. She was still a bit tired from Saturday’s adventure, and I think she was happy to have her grandparents to herself, without big sister hogging the attention!

So it was just the three of us on Sunday, and our first stop was Fisherman’s Cove in Huron-Kinloss Township, our stomping grounds. Through the generosity of a family here in Ripley, we’ve been lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks over the past two summers at this wonderful destination that features a great sand beach, big water climbers, fishing, boating, canoeing, paddle boarding, playgrounds, two indoor pools, arts and crafts and so much more.

Everybody smiles at Fisherman’s Cove!

Sunday was one of the most beautiful days we’ve had this year, and when we arrived, Layne, 5, immediately took off for the water. Although she didn’t take off her shoes, she found a lilypad within reach and started splashing around with it, before spotting small fish lounging in the shallow waters of the shore.

Since we had a long drive ahead of us, and because we’re 10 minutes away from The Cove and can buy a day pass any time and plan to spend another week there this summer, we jumped into the vehicle and headed for Wiarton, about 1 1/2 hours away.

After spending the majority of our time on Saturday on Hwys. 9 and 21 – where I know each hill, curve and bump before it comes – I was looking forward to a backroads trip from Kinloss to Wiarton. We started on County Rd. 1 to Paisley, where we stopped for a free-trade coffee and organic cookie at the wonderful Back Eddie’s in the downtown core. From there, we spent time checking out farmers’ fields along County Rd. 40 north to the Grey-Bruce Line, which led us west to Wiarton, turning into County Rd. 6 somewhere along the way. The ability to get off the beaten path and make a conscious effort to enjoy the beautiful drive is just another bonus to the Explore the Bruce Adventure Passport.

Other than a rest stop, I have been to Wiarton exactly once  – when Grey-Bruce Kids sponsored Kids’ Day at the Wiarton Willie Festival in 2012. Although it was beautiful in the winter, their lakefront is absolutely gorgeous at this time of year. We arrived at the home of Wiarton Willie at the waterfront, collected a punch on our Passport for the Willie Walk bonus tour, and then made our way towards the water after Layne spied the shallow waters of Georgian Bay.

This time the shoes didn’t stay on.

Since kids don’t seem to feel the cold – and we’re talking Georgain-Bay-in-June cold – she was immediately halfway up to her knees and making her way towards a small piece of sand that juts out into the water, smiling the whole way. Of course, within minutes, my flip-flops were off and I was being dragged into the water too, while Amy somehow avoided the numb legs and lounged on a piece of sand.

Eventually, I managed to talk Layne out of the Bay so I could return the feeling to my lower legs, and we headed for the great playground that sits at the edge of the waterfront trail. After a play, we decided to walk to the trail down to the marina in search of some lunch, and came upon an actual outdoor gym! By using the dozen or so pieces of specialized outdoor equipment and your own body weight, you can put in a workout on Wiarton’s beautiful waterfront while being motivated by the gorgeous view.

This outdoor gym was yet another hidden gem I, in no way, would have discovered without taking the challenge to explore the Bruce. We also would have missed it had we loaded into the car and driven to the marina like we had originally considered, which is another example of how walking a town always eclipses driving from A to B.

After a walk downtown and a great lunch at the Green Door Cafe, it was off to the Bruce Trail for a short hike to some spectacular views of Colpoy’s Bay and another punch on our Passports. Layne has never really hiked a forest before, so she was a bit hesitant about her surroundings, but within minutes was running ahead, pointing out big rocks – “That one’s the size of a wooly mammoth!” – and guessing that everything that wasn’t a tree was poison ivy. We eventually got to a fork in the trail that sent us along the cliff’s face, and soon we came upon our first outlook and my heart stopped.

Due to a recent lack of adventure travel, I had forgotten how much I hate heights.

Usually, I’d just step a few feet onto the lookout snap a photo or two and make sure I was nowhere near the edge, but this time I was with an excited almost-six-year-old who probably didn’t understand the seriousness of my warnings about the need to avoid falling over the frickin’ edge(!), and she certainly doesn’t like being told what to do or having her hand held, so she didn’t appreciate my tone.

Putting my illogical phobias on my daughter is a blog post better left for another time, and I’ll leave it there. So, we finished our trek on the Trail with only smiles and the following awe-inspiring sight (which I took well back from the abyss at the end of the cliff!) as incidents to remember.

Gorgeous view of Colpoy’s Bay from the Bruce Trail, a few minutes north of Wiarton.

After some good exercise, we were off to downtown Lion’s Head with mostly ice cream on the mind of at least one passenger. First, we visited its beautiful beach for the first time (it is really, really great there folks – even for warm-blooded Lake Huron swimmers like me!) and then we went searching for the clue located in the downtown core, just a couple blocks from the beach. We found the Lion statue but couldn’t find the punch for our Passport. Not thinking to actually read the Explore the Bruce sign, we shrugged our shoulders, blamed some local hooligans (teenagers these days! – that’s sarcasm, in case you don’t know me), and gave into our desires for ice cream.

Of course, on Tuesday, we found out this is a planned ‘Detour’ and, had we read the sign, we would have had the opportunity to visit the Lions’ Head marina as well. Don’t make the same mistake we did and read your Passport and the local signage, and take full advantage of this wonderful stop on the Adventure.

By now, we were two hours from home and mostly wiped. We had planned to stop at Black Creek Provincial Park, but at this point of the day we knew we’d simply be punching our Passports and hitting the road, and by now we knew this wasn’t the point of the Explore the Bruce experience, so we’ll try to get back there later this summer/fall or just put it on the list of local places we need to visit some day.

So that was our whirlwind Explore the Bruce Adventure! We drove exactly 500 km in two days, saw many great sights, discovered new-to-us hidden gems, and gained a further appreciation of the beauty of Bruce County.

And we decided we aren’t through with our Adventure either, as there are many more holes to be punched and towns to explore, and I hope your family finds time to discover all the great places – big and small – in The Bruce this year.

Posted in A Dad's View | Leave a comment
 
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