Tag Archives: The Rainbow Society of Alberta

“And this is the San Diego Zoo?”

Our family travelled to San Diego earlier this month to fulfill Bennett’s wish through the Rainbow Society of Alberta, an agency that grants wishes to children with chronic or life-threatening conditions (Bennett has a genetic condition). We wished for a trip to San Diego because, at the time, the Calgary Zoo was still (mostly) shuttered after the flood and Bennett had been devastated about his favourite Calgary attraction being closed all summer. Since the San Diego Zoo is one of the world’s best, we felt that a trip to “America’s Finest City” to see its collection of animals, including Bennett’s faves — hippos and gorillas — would cheer him up.

Avery and Bennett pose outside the San Diego Zoo.

Avery and Bennett pose outside the San Diego Zoo.

In the lead up to the trip I created a social story for Bennett all about San Diego. It showed him where we’d be staying and what we’d be doing, such as going to the beach (with a picture of La Jolla Cove) and visiting the zoo’s Safari Park (with a picture of a safari jeep surrounded by giraffes). I included pictures of koala bears and panda bears in the story, and it talked about how we’d be seeing a lot of animals in San Diego. The social story didn’t mention the zoo specifically, only because ever since the Calgary Zoo re-opened in November Bennett has been weird about it — desperate to go but simultaneously scared about some of the animals and buildings.

Bennett marvels at a polar bear playing and eating carrots at the San Diego Zoo.

Bennett marvels at a polar bear playing and eating carrots at the San Diego Zoo.

Of course, when we first found out our wish-trip to San Diego had been granted Blake and I had gone on and on and on about the San Diego Zoo, but after the excitement simmered down and Bennett’s Calgary Zoo phobias surfaced, we were careful not to mention the San Diego Zoo by name. During April and early May we talked in code, referring to it as : “a place with animals,” an “animal park” and a “panda bear and koala bear place, with monkeys and stuff.” For all Bennett knew we were going to San Diego to see some guy’s private exotic animal collection.

Bennett and Avery stand pretty and proud as peacocks to be at one of the world's best zoos.

Bennett and Avery stand pretty and proud as peacocks to be at the world’s best zoo.

The day of our zoo visit we drove to Balboa Park, parked the car and started walking toward the entrance. Out of nowhere Bennett said, “And this is the San Diego Zoo?” I laughed. “Yes, Bennett, we’re at the San Diego Zoo!” “Yay!” He somehow knew exactly where we were without us telling him.  We were thrilled he was excited and not at all scared — evidently, we were being careful for no reason. After that he pretty much dictated where we went inside the zoo, based on what he wanted to see: peacocks, flamingoes, hippos, gorillas, all kinds of monkeys, lions and elephants. We also saw lots of animals Calgary doesn’t have, such as polar bears, orangutans, koala bears and tasmanian devils.

Bennett loved watching the orangutans and the polar bears, and especially the male silverback gorilla, who was eating a head of lettuce and who actually stopped what he was doing to stare directly at Bennett a couple of times (“He’s looking at me!”). He also adored the Skyfari (a sky ride that spared us walking from one end of the gigantic zoo to the other) as well as the double-decker bus tour, which gave us the lay of the land first thing in the morning. Avery loved all of the Australian critters; Blake and I were in awe of the lush gardens everywhere and the quality of the animal habitats — the elephants’ enclosure covers an area of three acres because the pachyderms walk 10 miles a day, and the gorilla troop lives in an Eden of trees, verdant lawns and waterfalls!

Aping around on a gorilla at the San Diego Zoo.

Aping around on a gorilla at the San Diego Zoo.

It was a great day and I can’t think of a better wish for our own little gorilla-boy, who got so tired walking all over the zoo to “see something else!” that he’d hit a wall by 3 p.m. (Blake nearly had to carry him out). We got Bennett what we think is an appropriate souvenir — a zoo ball-cap with his favourite animal on it. We can’t thank you enough, Rainbow Society!

A gorilla ball cap for Bennett.

A gorilla ball cap for Bennett.

 

What would you wish for?

Over the summer a women contacted me by email. She wanted to let me know she’d read my Swerve story about Bennett’s genetic condition. Her daughter also has a genetic condition, as well as autism (like Bennett), and so my story had struck a chord. She also told me she’d nominated our family to receive a wish from The Rainbow Society of Alberta, the same agency that had granted her daughter a wish years ago. I was really touched.

Sure enough, a month or so later a woman from The Rainbow Society phoned me to get some more information about Bennett, who has a genetic condition called 18q-. His condition expresses itself as developmental and cognitive delays that look a lot like autism. Autism on its own doesn’t qualify a child for a wish, but because of Bennett’s underlying condition it looked like we’d be eligible.

Bennett and me in San Antonio in 2012, where we attended the Chromosome 18 Registry & Research Society annual conference.

Bennett and me in San Antonio in 2012, where we attended the Chromosome 18 Registry & Research Society annual conference.

When I told Blake the news he couldn’t believe it. Like me, he’d always thought wishes — like those granted by charities such as The Rainbow Society or the Children’s Wish Foundation — were saved for kids with life-threatening illnesses, whose families wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a trip to Disneyland, for example. We felt guilty wishing for Bennett — he has daily challenges, but he’s healthy. Surely there were more deserving families out there?

The Rainbow Society considers Bennett’s condition chronic. It is; he can’t be “cured.” Like other families referred for wishes — regardless of income or the child’s particular disability or disease — we live with our child’s struggles and challenges every day. A wish is small thing but something with the power to transport us from the unromantic and imperfect grind (as it often is) of raising a child with special needs.

Once it was settled that we would make three wishes on Bennett’s behalf (he is not cognitively capable of understanding the concept of a “wish”), we talked as a family, including our daughter Avery in the conversation, about what Bennett would want. There are certain rules around wish-making; for example, not all wishes can be travel-related, and those that are must be in Canada or the mainland United States (no African safaris or trips to Hawaii). The society also doesn’t grant wishes that involve medical equipment or medical travel.

After the flood Bennett was devastated about the Calgary Zoo being closed. He didn’t understand what had happened; he only knew that it was closed and we couldn’t go. The worst part of it was we’d been planning an outing to the zoo on Friday, June 21 — a.k.a. Flood Friday — with his SAS aide and behaviour therapist from Renfrew. We’d been preparing for that outing for weeks — the therapist had even created a social story about Bennett visiting the zoo. And just like that, the trip was cancelled. Almost every day for the month of July Bennett asked if the zoo was open. When I said no he would start to cry. He still asks every time we drive by the zoo (I don’t have the heart to take him there until it is completely reopened on Nov. 28). So, if we can’t take him to the local zoo…

Bennett’s wish No. 1: A trip to the San Diego Zoo.

The Rainbow Society will only grant one vacation wish, but it will let families wish for things that involve travel, such as a trip to a family reunion, or a trip to Ottawa to meet the prime minister. When Blake and I took Bennett to San Antonio in 2012 to attend the Chromosome 18 Registry & Research Society annual conference, we enjoyed meeting other families whose children have the same genetic condition as Bennett. We thought that maybe now, since he’s older, he would like to meet other kids like him — and Avery would have a chance to meet their siblings and perhaps talk with children in her shoes (e.g. kids with a brother or sister with special needs). So, since there are only three other people in Alberta with Bennett’s condition…

Bennett’s wish No. 2: Attend the 2014 Chromosome 18 conference in Connecticut.

Now it becomes more difficult. You want the third wish to make sense for Bennett, and to count. We thought of experiences (a hot air balloon ride? No, he’d freak out!). We thought of possessions (his own iPad? He spends too much time on the family iPad already!). What does Bennett love to do? He loves to swim. And since we can’t wish for a swimming pool…

Bennett’s wish No. 3: A hot tub.

Just last week our contact from The Rainbow Society called to let us know which wish had been granted. The best part was telling Bennett that night at dinner.

Me: “Bennett? Guess where we’re going to go? The San Diego Zoo!”

Bennett: “The San Diego Zoo! Yay!”

I’m not sure he knows all about this zoo in particular, but he heard, “We’re going to the zoo!” and all was well. Yes, a wish is a small thing, but its granting transformed that dinner into a magical trip planning session. We had Bennett guess all the animals he thinks we’ll see in San Diego (no surprise hippos, gorillas, tigers, elephants and butterflies are on the list), while Avery mapped out some other stops on our itinerary, such as Sea World. Now we just have to decide when to go. Thank you, Rainbow Society.