Donation from Al Shamal Shriners Gives kids in Free2BMe program a boost

On Wednesday, October 21, two representatives of Edmonton’s Al Shamal Shrine dropped by The Steadward Centre’s Free2BMe program. They brought a gift of $25,000.00 to present to Centre Associate Director, Karen Slater in support of Free2BMe physical activity programs for kids and teens living with impairment. 

Established in 1985, the Al Shamal Shriners is known for their support of Shriner’s children’s hospitals, and also their support of children and families beyond hospital treatment. With this donation, the Shriners recognize the impact of Free2BMe in the Edmonton and Capital region.

“Free2BMe is unique in North America,” said Slater. “We do not require children to have a formal referral nor do we serve children of any particular impairment. Kids experiencing gross motor difficulties or are living with developmental, physical or sensory impairment can come to our program.” Also, highly qualified Free2BMe staff, trained in Adapted Physical Activity use their skill in assessment and fundamental movement instruction to adapt individual or group programs to the needs of each child. A strength of the Free2BMe program is that it is established, having been in operation for nearly ten years.  “Last year, we had over 440 kids in our programs,” said Slater, “and nearly 1,000 unique participants over the course tenure. It is not unusual for kids to participate in many programs as they get older, and some even become mentors to new children and teens in the program.

“This program is a wonderful connection to the community and children who need support beyond the hospital,” said Al Shamal representative, Isaac Brower-Berkhoven. 

“The donation from the Shriners helps us to make sure we can meet the demand for our services in the community this year, and keep the programs affordable for families,” said Slater.

“I am a picky mom, and I know that my son is in the very best of hands here. They (Free2BMe staff) believe in our kids,” said Perla whose son, Miguel, attends Free2BMe programs. “My son is so happy when he comes here, and he has learned so much. He can do much more by himself.” Perla noted that it can be challenging to raise a child living with impairment, and Free2BMe staff provide her with much needed encouragement and support. “They help my son and are like my psychologist too sometimes,” Perla joked. “They give me hope.” Spending time with parents who are facing similar challenges is a huge benefit for Perla.

“It’s clear that the benefits of Free2BMe reach beyond the kids and extends to the families,” said Al Shamal Potentate Grant Geldart. “Our focus is on helping children, but family support is also very important to us.”   

“At Free2BMe parents can learn from and support each other by sharing their experiences,” said Free2BMe program coordinator, Amanda Ebert. “One parent may have already dealt with a child going to school for the first time, or entering high-school.” To help facilitate their community, Free2BMe hosts parent networking nights where parents can share fears, milestones and triumphs with each other.

Maddie, mother of twin daughters, Erika and Cassie, aged six, and Tori, aged 8 agrees with Perla and also notes the growth her daughters have experienced at Free2BMe. “My daughters have gained confidence. They can do so many things they weren’t able to before. And I have learned so much too.”

Free2BMe staff are knowledgeable in exercise physiology, fundamental movement, and break down complicated activities, such as learning to ride a bicycle or to skate into core skills. Learning from the staff, and watching them work with her daughters has helped Maddie with activities at home. “If we reach a hurdle, I now have some ability to help my girls to get over.” Maddie said her daughters are not only able, but they are also confident enough to participate with other kids in activities at school.  A highlight for her is that they learned to skate last year.

David (name has been changed to protect his family’s privacy) echoes the sentiments of Maddie and Perla. His daughter, Sally, has a rare developmental disorder and underwent two heart surgeries before she was a year old.  “She wasn’t walking until she was three.” David, like many parents, heard about Free2BMe from a hospital employee last year. “When I first brought Sally here, she was so tired that I had to carry her up the stairs.” Now, Sally can go up and down stairs, hop on one foot and can play a game of tag. To a parent whose child was unable to walk until the age of three, achievements such as these are very meaningful. Sally’s impairment has significant impact on her movement ability, and her health. Like Perla, David feels that Sally is well looked after. “The staff really know their stuff,” says David. “They did a really thorough assessment of Sally when we first came to the program. She is really safe here. They make sure she rests when she needs to, and they have taught me an awful lot as well.”

Program coordinator, Ebert said that while physical activity is very beneficial to every body, it is always important to progress in increments, getting to know each child and managing each child’s abilities safely.  Each child is assessed thoroughly for contraindications to exercise and activities are tailored with their unique situation in mind. “One of the challenges and joys of this job is encouraging each child to explore what they can do. Each child can succeed according to their needs, desires and ability.”

When asked what he would say to the Al Shamal Shriners for their support, David smiles, and says very simply. “That’s easy. Thank you very, very much.”