By Julie Brocklehurst
Brennen was my first and only child, and like any expectant mother, I had dreams of giving birth to a healthy, happy baby.
I had a normal pregnancy and delivery, and I was sent home with a healthy baby, but it wasn’t long before I knew that something was not quite right. Brennen would cry and cry without end, and this went on for months. I knew that something was wrong, but I didn’t know to what extent.
When he was about five months old, we were sent to neurology, cardiology, genetics, ophthalmology and audiology, among other specialties. It was a whirlwind of tests and probes. I couldn’t believe what was happening.
I knew that Brennen was behind on his milestones (he hadn’t met any), and I knew something wasn’t right, but I wasn’t prepared for the words I was about to hear: Words like “serious,” “urgent” and “critical.”
My perfect little baby boy had something seriously wrong with him and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt helpless. I knew they were testing for conditions that I couldn’t even bring myself to contemplate. We were referred to physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, all to begin immediately.
When Brennen was eight months old, after blood test upon blood test had come back negative, we were given the diagnosis of cerebral palsy. As difficult as that was to hear, it was almost a relief. They say the scariest thing in life is the unknown, and now at least we knew what we were dealing with. It wasn’t going to go away. It wasn’t going to get better, but it wasn’t going to get worse.
I went through a whirlwind of emotions, mourning the tragedy of what had happened to my perfect unborn baby, and the loss of the child that I thought I was going to have.
I thought I was alone in the world, and that I would never have any sort of “normal” life again. When I think back on those early days, I wish I could go back and tell myself that it really was going to be okay. When I look at our life now, and look at my sweet nine-year-old son, I could not imagine life without him.
Brennen is a happy little boy who loves life and spreads that love with everyone who knows him. He brings us so much joy every day and has taught me more about life than I ever could have imagined. I never could have fathomed that in such a short time, Brennen would change my world in the best way possible.
I stayed home with Brennen for the first two years of his life. Then I went to work part-time at a daycare centre that had several children with special needs who needed one-on-one support. Given my early-childhood education and qualification as “Brennen’s Mom,” I was well suited for the job.
I had no intention of sending Brennen to daycare, and had never even entertained the notion of child care for him, until I got in there and realized that maybe he would benefit from being around other children. The centre had a wonderful program, and they encouraged me to put him on the list for admission. I worked at that centre for a full year before Brennen started, and he was there from the age of three until he started school at age six.
It was at that time that I realized we were in a challenging situation. Brennen was in Kindergarten in the mornings, which ended at 11:30. What was he to do in the afternoons? The daycare didn’t offer an after-school program, and I didn’t feel comfortable sending him to another large child care centre that wasn’t accustomed to having children with complex needs.
I heard of something called Family Child Care, which offered care to a small group of children in a provider’s home, and that sounded like a lovely option! I called the licensing agency, and they gave me the names and contact information of two homes in my area that had a space available.
I was slightly apprehensive. I found it difficult to even think about someone I didn’t know looking after my child who needed so much special attention. But I called both providers with the hopes that one of them would welcome my child into their home.
The phone calls—so similar they could have been recordings—went as poorly as I could have ever imagined. Both providers confirmed that yes, they did have a space available. But without even discussing Brennen or his disability, both declined as soon as I said that he was in a wheelchair. They would not accept him.
I was dumbfounded, horrified and devastated. How could they turn away my child so quickly, and so coldly? Did this happen to other parents like me? How often? What were people like us supposed to do? Thinking of the few children that we knew who had similar needs and diagnoses, I wondered how many other mothers’ hearts had been broken like mine.
The lack of options for my child and for my family did not sit well with me! So it wasn’t long before I decided that I had to do something about it. There was going to be a place for children like mine. A place where they were welcomed and loved and made to feel appreciated!
Aware that the early years are the most important learning years in a child’s life, I was motivated with a great sense of urgency to establish a much-needed program for children like Brennen.
My partner Andrew and I created Little Tulips Family Child Care with the following philosophy:
“We believe that quality child care promotes the development of all children, including those with complex or high needs. It is important that all children have the opportunity to attend and participate in a quality child care program. We believe that children can thrive in a small home environment that is stimulating, nurturing and adapted to suit their individual needs.
“Our goal is to provide a supportive environment where children can build positive relationships and develop feelings of competence in their cognitive, language, motor, social and self-help skills. Play-based learning is an essential part of children’s development, and we encourage this through a variety of age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate activities, suited to the needs of the individual child.”
Little Tulips is open to ALL children, but we cater to children with physical and mental challenges causing a developmental delay in one or more areas. We are wheelchair-accessible and wheelchair-friendly! We work closely with the rehabilitation team at the Janeway Child Health Centre in St. John’s Nfld. and frequently have therapists and specialists come in to work with our children and help us develop specific programs tailored to each child.
We work with speech therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, early-intervention specialists, behaviour management folks and others to provide a multi-disciplinary approach that enables each child to reach their potential.
We have had tremendous success and positive feedback. We provide our children with unique opportunities and experiences that they might not have access to elsewhere. For example, we partnered with Project Grace—a music program with a social justice imperative—to deliver an Experiencing Music program to children with challenging needs.
We frequently have special guests and visitors come to our home: therapy dogs, story-tellers and local musicians and performers. Recently the father of one our children came in to play us songs on his double bass (see photos below).Our children are entertained and stimulated in all areas, and their work is disguised as play.
In the short time that we’ve been open, we have witnessed our children achieve many milestones in their lives, including learning to crawl, walk, communicate and gain independence. It is a tremendously rewarding role that we have as educators and child-care providers. We see so much potential in all of our children and we believe that with the right support, each and every child with special needs will flourish.
One of the hurdles we now face is the need to expand our operation. Because we’re limited to such a small group in our home setting, we’ve had to turn away many families because we’re full to capacity.
My heart breaks every time I have to tell a parent that we don’t have a space to offer their child. I see myself in their shoes, just a few short years ago. I wonder how they’re coping and where they’ll go from here. I feel that I need to do something more and we do have plans to expand to serve a greater number of children.
Little Tulips is the type of child care we wish our son could have attended, and because of that we feel compelled to ensure that our children receive only the best that we have to offer. We're committed to working with families to achieve the same goals and dreams that they have for their children, and we're thankful for the opportunity to work with each and every one of them.
It feels wonderful to be able to provide such a rich, nurturing environment to the children who need it most.
Follow Julie Brocklehurst on her blog Tiptoeing Through. Read about why she chose the name Little Tulips.