It wasn’t until Project Canoe brought 17-year-old Thomas Baartman on one of its Algonquin Park excursions that he was independent for the first time.
A cavernoma, which his mom Jill Clements describes as a bulge of arteries “like a blackberry or a bunch of grapes,” has led to one enlarged vein rather than multiple ones connecting to his brain.
He battles severe ADHD, anxiety and a learning disability, making him nervous to leave his neighbourhood in Whitby. They also forced him to drop out of high school in Grade 11, as he was unable to stay in class for 20 minutes.
But his mom also says he’s “like Teflon he’s so resilient.” He’s willing to rescue anything, and is great with kids, seniors and the disabled.
“All he wants in life is to have friends. He wants a family, he wants a job to support a family,” Clements says. “Thom is a Duracell bunny. We always joke that the best friend he ever had was a set of twins. He could wear one out and then he’d go and hang out with the other one.”
Clements has been waiting for spinal surgery for three years and so hasn’t been able to be as active with her son as she’d like. Project Canoe helps fill a void.
“Going and being so successful with all of his challenges, they have done a phenomenal job where most others have failed,” Clements said.
“It’s a judgmental-free environment,” Baartman said, the morning after returning from an eight-day excursion. Kids “deserve a life full of experience and motivation and this group is the most motivated and experienced people I know.”
With Project Canoe, he gets to fish, see moose, canoe, portage with 200 pounds of gear, build campfires and cultivate friendships — which he says can be hard.
“They have the best outlook on how to treat kids, they’re always there if you need help,” Baartman said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself and a lot about how I work with others. I find that if someone needs help carrying something or they just need a day to get picked up or a pick-me-up, I’m really good at that.”
The project has served over 4,000 youth in 40 years. Tim Richardson, the project’s executive director, says it gives those in need a chance to learn and contribute in ways they didn’t know they could.
“There’s a huge gap between doing something never and having done it once,” Richardson said. “Once you’ve done it once, you can do it many times. It really helps youth tell a different story about their lives.”
This year, a grant from the Fresh Air Fund will send out three canoe trips the project couldn’t otherwise afford.
“It’s a large grant for a grassroots organization like us,” Richardson said, crediting all the people who contribute to the Fresh Air Fund. “It’s really meaningful for us and for the youth.”
This summer, Baartman served as a counsellor-in-training. At the project’s last fundraiser, he was asked to be the keynote speaker, and he made the crowd cry.
“They’ve helped me through a lot of rough times,” he said. “This is a life-changing experience.”
“It’s going above and beyond and succeeding with a young man — this man is very complex,” Clements said. “They have just nurtured him. Oh my gosh, they have taken it over the top.”