Growing up, Paul Tiller had little contact with neighbourhood kids, rode a separate bus to school and was taught in segregated classrooms.
By Lise Diebel
“His intellectual disability seriously impacted his comprehension, speech and behaviour,” wrote his mother Lucinda Hage in her recently-published book about Paul’s life titled, ‘What Time is the 9:20 Bus?’ The book got its title because it’s a question Paul asked repeatedly. As an adult, the 9:20 bus was his ticket to freedom and his job vacuuming at a local hotel.
Paul, 28, of Peterborough was born with tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic condition that caused a serious developmental delay and seizure disorder. “Only once was he invited to a neighbourhood birthday party,” wrote his mother, reflecting on Paul’s childhood. “I was so excited I bought the kid an over-the-top expensive gift but it didn’t make a difference to Paul’s awkwardness or acceptance. He was rarely invited anywhere. I understood why other kids didn’t want to play with him, but that didn’t make it hurt any less.”
It wasn’t until Paul attended YMCA Wanakita in Haliburton, Ontario, at age 10 that he felt truly accepted. He returned for two weeks each summer through Reach for the Rainbow, an organization serving children and young adults with developmental and/or physical disabilities across Ontario. “I thought I was merely registering Paul for summer camp, when in fact, he was headed for a life-changing experience,” wrote Lucinda.
“For the first time ever, Paul was treated like a regular kid, not like a kid with a disability. His role models were campers and well-trained counsellors who accepted and valued him for who he was. Trust was built into every aspect of camp life, and it wasn’t long before Paul put complete confidence in the counsellors and the camp experience, and so did I. Every summer, and some March breaks in between, Paul continued to go to YMCA Wanakita—a place where he belonged.”
Paul’s YMCA Wanakita experience caused Lucinda to see her son differently. “He had slept in a cabin and under the stars, walked the trails, canoed, roasted s’mores over the campfire, sung camp songs and swum in the lake,” she wrote. “If he could go to camp on his own and manage so well, he was more capable than I thought. I began to raise my expectations of Paul at home and encouraged his school to provide him with work placements. When he was 16 and still a camper, he was hired by Parks Canada as a summer student at the locks near our home.
When he was 20, he became a part-time employee at the Holiday Inn. At 24, he moved into his own apartment. Paul has attended YMCA Wanakita for 18 years—first as a Reach for the Rainbow camper and now as an adult volunteer supported by camp staff. “When you raise a child with a disability, letting go can be difficult,” wrote Lucinda. “I wanted Paul to achieve his full potential which meant having his own life. It all began with YMCA Wanakita, 18 short years ago, one summer at a time.”
Lise Diebel is a communications specialist with the YMCA of Hamilton/Burlington/Brantford, which operates YMCA Wanakita. Lise is also a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Hamilton Spectator.