Mark Lerner’s Journey in Campbell River

By Maddie Bonser

    Tell us a good story about how the Campbell River School District has helped kids on the spectrum? 

    I first met a person on the spectrum as a respite relief worker. I was driving down the old Island Highway going south of town and saw this young man in eighth grade, (we’ll call him Derek), running along the road. He stopped suddenly and jumped in the air with both of his arms pointing up and waving and was very close to coming out into the traffic. I recognized him from a school that I worked in, so I stopped and picked him up. It took a bit to convince him to get into my car; however, thankfully he did. I asked where home was, and he informed me that he lived on York Road and that he missed his bus and was walking home. It was a long distance from his school, the road itself was seven miles long. As we drove down the road, his house was at the very end and as we got out, I met his parents and he explained what had happened. From that day on I was working with him as a respite and outreach worker.  

    This relationship continued into his early forties; however, Derek was very convinced that he was able to rid himself of his ASD. He wanted no part in any services or help, including his sister and mother, whom he had lived with in an apartment for many years. Derek was one of the first youth to go through an extensive program called Gateway. From there the school district, with the assistance of The Provincial Outreach Program for Autism and Related Disorders (POPARD), offered many summer school programs to assist staff to work with youth on the spectrum.   

    When I retired from School District 72 there were teams that worked with youth on the spectrum with speech, education psychologist’s, physiotherapy, ASD support teachers, and at times, Behaviour Relaxation Therapy. In Derek’s case, he was one of the first to be designated and receive support. Over the years I have seen how the school team has assisted, but I want to highlight the benefits of the summer programs ‘Cruisin’ For Fun’ and ‘Summerside Express.’ Those who attend have been able to build friendships and get out, into the community and enjoy their summer on Vancouver Island. These program offers many things; for example, for kids from ages 7 to 11, there are day camps offering crafts, games and tours of places like the fire hall, etc. The Teen Camp takes youth to beaches, swimming pools, camping on Denman Island, Hornby Island, and Victoria each for three days and two nights. Over the years, these programs have seen significant increase in participation of youth with ASD. 


    How did you feel about being nominated for the Vancouver Island Community Impact Award in 2019? 

    I feel very privileged to have been nominated for the Community Impact Award on Vancouver Island in 2019. I have great passion in working with youth with disabilities since I have had seven major hip operations and walked for more than 20 years on crutches, leg braces, etc.  I have had 5 hip replacements and have had my left wrist fused, and now am going to have my right foot fused in four places on Sept. 19th.    

    I was very surprised by the nomination for the Community Impact Award, I retired from SD72 after 32 years in June 2018, where I was employed as a Youth Care Worker in which I worked with many children on the spectrum. I have worked for the City of Campbell River since 1994 as a supervisor of summer camps with a major focus of providing staff for supporting children with special needs, many of which were on the spectrum. I started this summer program in 1986 with the Association of Community Living. Last year I also retired from this program however they could not find someone so I am back for another summer.    

    What were your expectations when you first started this job at the School District and did those expectations change over time? How so? 

    Behaviour Resource Team is a behaviour-focused program that I was working with, within the school district before retirement. As I have considerable experience working with youth on the spectrum, I would often get youth with ASD on my case load, which I enjoyed. When I started in the School District, the understanding and awareness of ASD was very limited and the assumption was youth with ASD didn’t have the ability to understand language and behaviour change. I think some of these expectations have not really changed but we are better organized to bring in the right people now, to ensure everyone gets the right level of support for them. I was often called in to support families and help them navigate the system since I had done this many times, with my own disabilities.     

    What are the most important things that the Campbell River School District does to improve the lives and learning of kids on the spectrum? How did you help facilitate that? 

    In my view, the most important things that the Campbell River School District does to improve the lives and learning of kids on the spectrum are developing strong partnerships. As a YCW, I worked extensively to bring many agencies and governmental bodies to the table to work together and facilitate conversation and share resources for youth with ASD. Having a huge connection with the City of Campbell River Recreational department, I was often able to bridge school and summer and after school gap with inclusive programs they children with ASD could enjoy and benefit from. We have a very open community and there have been many programs that have been offered by community and school district to recognize the needs of youth on the spectrum. Now as I enter retirement, my hope and goals are to turn this legacy of summer camps into a continuation of support and to continue to provide opportunities for summer fun.  

    I am confident that the school district will also further refine their processes. One of the biggest hurdles I see families with ASD facing is the WCB requirements to have safety plans, or also known as ‘harm reduction plans, in place because of behaviour. This is something that is very delicate to balance and maintain for these youth in school and community programs.