Every journey starts with the first step
Being a mother changed my life in more ways than I could imagine. My boys have been an inspiration to me and they make me a better person. The Little Red Playhouse, Coco’s Camp, and Camp Next Steps were all born out of my personal journey into the Autism community, which I found myself devoted to after leaving a career in marketing.
My son was officially diagnosed with PDD-NOS in December 2006 and the main recommendation by the Psychiatrist was to enrol him in as many hours of ABA as I could afford while waiting for publicly funded services and to get him into community programs. His greatest challenges included a severe language delay and behaviours consistent with not having functional language, which meant he had no social communication and zero social skills. I was told he needed peer interaction to facilitate the acquisition of those skills while doing intense Speech and Language Pathology and ABA. This seemed like a mountain.
While my youngest was going through the first year of our Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) journey, my eldest boy arrived home from his grade 4 class and announced he submitted a form to attend the Mackay Centre School’s reverse integration program. I had never heard of the program and it turned out to be a life changing gift for him and to our family.
I was working full time and trying to manage our very chaotic life. My youngest son was receiving 30 hours of privately funded therapies weekly before he was officially diagnosed and we only had a part time caregiver. Socialising him was impossible and sadly, he was kicked out of every community based program I enrolled him in because of his behaviour and inability to communicate his needs. I have always been determined to find the best professionals and programs for my son and I was lucky enough to find people that helped change our lives, but these were trying years.
In 2007, there were no programs that specialized in developing skills for children with ASD and I was at the end of the line with options of sending him to existing programs. I had pleaded with many program directors to offer him a chance, while hoping that waiting lists we were on would miraculously call with a spot. During those years, CPEs wait times were longer than the publicly funded services. Looking back, the reality of the situation was that if I continued to pursue that path of putting my child in programs where staff were not trained, he would have been segregated from the very peers that needed to help him with his challenges. In October, I finally felt a sense of relief when one parent co-op program in Montreal West called the Little Red Playhouse agreed he could attend their programs, but only 2 mornings a week and only with a trained support person.
By winter 2008, the parent co-op program announced they were closing. I offered to help develop an afternoon intervention program to offset the use and function of their premises. I tried to pitch the idea that they could support a much needed program and be a leader but they were firm on the complete closure. I thought about it for a few weeks and by March I advised the administration that I would be happy to take over their lease, their 30 year old assets and their operating name.
The concept for the new Little Red Playhouse (LRP) was the realization that if the integration of children with disabilities alongside their typically developing peers at the Mackay Center School had great success, then the concept could also work for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Over the next six months, I worked to create a program that supported children with ASD and speech delays, and it included specially trained teachers and staff for an early academic program and daily intervention services. Ultimately, if children with ASD could be integrated and all the children enrolled were treated equally as the amazing and exceptional children they are, we could change the way the children see the world. I took the skills learned from my career as a corporate marketer and project manager and turned that into helping my child and many others like him. By September 2008, we reopened as the new Little Red Playhouse.
It took another 18 months to be granted charity status by The Charities Directorate. La Fondation Place Coco became a federally registered charity in 2009, whose mission is to support and manage a preschool called the Little Red Playhouse. Coco happens to be my son’s nickname and he alongside about 15 others were amongst the first graduates of the program. That same group of kids recently graduated high school in June 2021, for which those parents are immensely proud, myself included.
Every year the program improves, we add in new professionals and we learn so much from the children. We are in our 13th year of operation and for a school that was created out of one person’s need, it has evolved into an organization that is dedicated to inclusion and supporting children and their families while offering hope and support. At the end of every academic year, my son attends graduation day and encourages the children to be proud of themselves. He addresses all the families in attendance and tells them that if he can succeed, their kids can too! This is the spirit of the LRP.