Sydney Gillam, Napanee
It was a life changing moment, more than seven years ago when Sydney joined Vicki Keith’s Y Penguins Swim Team in Kingston. Sydney couldn’t swim and she was extremely fearful of water and pools. Vicki challenged and supported Sydney. She faced her fears and today she not only swims independently, she races in meets. Sydney says she learned much more than how to swim with one arm; she learned the value of commitment and never giving up. Focusing on her abilities, Sydney developed physical and emotional strength, independence and confidence. She learned how important teammates are, and that anything is possible with the right support, the right attitude and with grace and strength.
Once you meet Sydney, you never forget her and her can-do approach to life. KidsInclusive Occupational Therapist Jane Boer, who is now retired, met Sydney on her first day of junior kindergarten and never forgot her. Born with cerebral palsy, from a very young age Sydney relied on mobility equipment and assistive technology. “Even at that young age it became very clear that Sydney was not going to be limited or defined by her disability,” says Jane. They worked in school and at home for nine years, and Jane cannot recall one time when Sydney said “I can’t do this.” Instead, she always asked “How can I do this?” Sydney articulated what she needed to gain more independence, and achieve her goals, embracing assistive technology to complete school assignments. In her primary school years, Sydney often preferred to have her school-based therapy sessions in the classroom, so her classmates could join in and learn more about her specific challenges. In junior and intermediate school years, Sydney would ask if a friend could join her for therapy. Sydney’s self-advocacy skills helped her participate in a broad range of school activities.
Many youth struggle with accepting or asking for assistance. Not Sydney—she has an ability to direct her care to ensure she can participate in the activities she enjoys. She uses her sense of humour to make the best of challenging situations, and put those around her at ease.
She embraced pursuits outside of school, too, maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle as part of the Penguins Swim Group as well as therapeutic horseback riding and as an ambassador for and spokesperson for Easter Seals and for the KidsInclusive annual walk/run, a major fundraiser for the centre, sharing her experiences with families and potential donors, championing the need for supports to ensure all kids have the right tools to be successful. Sydney has been a mainstay at the KidsInclusive Music Camp, as a camper and later as a mentor to the younger children. Actively involved in KidsInclusive’s life skills groups, Sydney shared her insights and experiences with others, including wisdom and tips for surviving high school. When she learned to cook and bake using adapted tools and equipment, Sydney blogged about it. Sharing her kitchen adventures, she encouraged other kids to develop skills and gain independence.
Perhaps Sydney’s biggest impact so far is her work as the first person to represent the student voice on the Limestone District School Board’s Accessibility Planning Committee and several planning subcommittees. Alison McDonnell, Associate Superintendent of Education, Learning for All, says Sydney was an invaluable member of the committee. As the only student surrounded by Limestone District School Board staff and community members, Sydney conducted herself with a maturity and confidence uncommon in most students. Unafraid to express her opinions and share her lived experiences in an effort to change systemic practices that have created barriers to accessible education, Alison often thought Sydney could just as effectively chair the committee as any adult. “When Sydney talks, people listen,” she explains adding that Sydney is known for contributing “powerful words from an influential student.”
Sydney’s leadership on the Accessibility Planning Subcommittee resulted in an addendum to procedure giving educators an opportunity to carefully consider, plan for and remove possible barriers that may impede a student from fully participating in experiential learning or out-of-school activities.
Driven to create a school environment that is better for others, Sydney has been relentless in ensuring an accessibility audit process would be in place before her June graduation. The audit includes the student voice in identifying barriers and suggesting possible solutions, and will ensure other students benefit from accessible learning environments Sydney wished were available during her own school career.
She inspired the adults around the table with honest, impactful anecdotes of her own educational experiences—not to assign blame, but rather to ensure barriers are removed for those who follow.
Sydney is excited to attend Algonquin College’s Social Work program this fall. Her goal is to work with families that have children with challenges—physical, intellectual or both—supporting them and their kids as they navigate a world that isn’t always prepared for people with disabilities.
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