Joan Chaisson says she was “excited, shocked and very proud” when Autism Involves Me (AIM), an organization she co-founded, won Volunteer Group of the Year at the Recreation N.L. Awards presented in Gander on Saturday, May 12.
“After I made my acceptance speech and everyone said you are doing such a wonderful job, I think I was awestruck. Like, I didn’t realize it before,” Chaisson laughed. “I thought that maybe it was someone else they were talking to.”
Chaisson started the group five years ago with April Billard, whose son is on the autism spectrum. In a few years the group has made a significant impact on autism awareness in Port aux Basques.
Chaisson and Billard also raised funds to buy equipment and create a space for kids with autism to develop their physical skills and fitness at the Bruce II sports complex. They developed autism friendly swim programs and successfully applied for provincial government funding to install a touch screen computer system at their local public library.
They also worked with Hotel Port aux Basques owner Cathy Lomond to make a portion of the rooms autism friendly with higher locks, bolted down appliances and a fully equipped sensory room for children with autism to relax and play in.
The group’s initiative and hard work resulted in the town of Port aux Basques receiving the designation as “the first autism friendly town in all of Canada” by Today’s Parent.
Chaisson acknowledged that her group could not have achieved that level of awareness and success without the generous assistance of the Town of Port aux Basques and their recreation centre, the Bruce II.
“The connection between the town and the group is very much alive,” Chaisson said. “We couldn’t do all the things that we did without the town’s support. A lot of the things we did were only successful with the town and our Bruce II supporting us so well.”
The biggest benefit of winning Volunteer Group of the Year for Chaisson is the additional awareness the award will bring to autism.
“I do all this work for AIM, but I don’t do it for recognition,” Chaisson remarked. “I’ve been doing this since 2012 and all of a sudden all this awareness is coming to it.
“A lot of people attended the awards ceremony from different communities, mayors and councillors and what not. It was an opportunity to spread the message. There were pictures on the screen so people could see exactly what we’ve done and achieved here in our town.”
Chaisson hopes the delegates from other towns will take their group’s example to heart.
“I think it will help the awareness of autism and also the awareness of what a town can do,” she said. “Any town can do what we did. You just have to have the leadership and the cooperation.”
Chaisson said AIM will be wrapping up its activities in June to take the summer off but will resume in the fall. In the meantime the group is planning to hold an autism education workshop for people who run stores in Port aux Basques. They also plan to look into creating a Special Olympics chapter in the town when they reconvene in September.
The Recreation N.L. Awards also recognized the Town of Burin for creating fully accessible recreation facilities; the Town of Conception Bay South, which created youth sporting programs; Jenna Pike who received the Youth Leadership Award; Keith Antle, winner of the Cy Hoskins Award of Merit; Volunteer of the Year Jamie Brake and the Town of Springdale, which won the Active Communities Award. Student scholarships were awarded to Shawna Young and Chelsea Brake.