Andrée-Ann Madore’s face lit up on Tuesday when she finally returned to the trails she had once walked through a few years ago.
Before her accident, Madore, 23, was just like any other teenager who enjoyed running through the park, camping and sleeping under the stars near her hometown of Coaticook, Que. about 160 kilometres east of Montreal.
But in 2018, when she was 19, she lost control of her car, which ended up in a ditch.
“I never imagined she would recover, ” said Nathalie Thibeault, her mother. It took a long time, but in January 2020, Madore began to heal.
“They have never seen a recovery like my daughter’s,” said Thibeault. “She is not able to speak but she can communicate.”
Arranging physical therapy sessions, specialists and round-the-clock care, Thibeault says the past couple of years has made her realize how little is accessible to people with reduced mobility — she couldn’t even take her daughter on the park trails.
“It’s only when you have a child with certain needs, like Andrée-Ann, who cannot walk, that you realize that there are a lot of things you would like to do but it’s not accessible,” said Thibeault.
In the fall of 2021, she called the office of Gorge Park in Coaticook with the “crazy idea” that the park get the necessary equipment to ensure trails can be used by people with reduced mobility.
Now, that project is a reality.
Starting Saturday, people with varying accessibility needs have access to the park in both the summer and winter thanks to three new wheelchairs and the park’s work to adapt its trails and facilities.
Thibeault says she feels lucky that she can advocate for her daughter. When the park responded positively, “I said to myself: ‘Yes, I worked toward this for Andrée-Anne but I also did this for other people.'”
‘What a gift’
Madore tried out the a so-called Sea Horse on Tuesday, a wheelchair with three interchangeable wheels which allow for movement on all kinds of surfaces — such as snow, sand, gravel or even water.
Thibeault says it was “beautiful to see.”
“When she started to go through the woods, she looked everywhere with a big smile on her face. That has no price. When you see your kid light up … I said ‘My goodness! Wow what a gift,'” said Thibeault. “It allows us to live again and have that normality, like everyone else.”
Thibeault says when she first called the local park office, she never expected such a large-scale project.
“Maybe [I expected] a seahorse wheelchair so we could walk around the trails but they started a project that was unimaginable. I am so grateful,” said Thibeault. “It’s about gaining normality in her life — in my daughter’s life — but also in the lives of other people.”
‘The need was there’
Caroline Sage, executive director of the Gorge Park and Parc Découverte Nature, says it took over a year to get the funds for all equipment.
After the park approached the Eastern Townships council for sports and recreation, they acquired three wheelchairs: a TrackZ, a Dahut and the Sea Horse.
“We know that wheelchairs have small wheels so the surface needs to be very, very firm so they can go outside,” said Sage.
The park had its trails assessed by Kéroul, a disability rights organization.
Sage says the park is also working toward making its buildings more accessible.
“The need was there,” said Sage. “We know that nature does us well. We experienced that during the pandemic. It does us well in terms of morale. So we have to make nature accessible.”
While thousands of dollars were spent on the equipment, she says another big investment was taking the time to train staff.
“We had different vehicles but do we know how to operate them? The type of mobility [to match with] the type of wheelchair? The type of equipment that has to go on one trail and not the other? That’s what was the most complicated,” said Sage.
She says she hopes other parks across Quebec follow their lead and give people the ability to engage with the outdoors autonomously.
“This is not a money-making project, it’s about inclusion,” said Sage. “I’m convinced it will respond to a need. Even if it’s only 10 people who benefit from it,” said Sage.
“We saw it with Andrée-Ann. To see her face and smile …. Just that [made me] say ‘okay it’s all worth it.'”
Mom hopes project can ‘improve daily life’ of others
Thibeault will be at the park on Saturday with her daughter for the official launch of the project. She says she hopes this can positively change other families’ lives, as it has for hers.
“You could say it’s a rebirth …. You have to live it to understand what this gives us in terms of liberty,” said Thibeault.
“If I can improve the daily life of other people and help them get out of their house … If this can help them to discover other things, to put a smile on their face, to get fresh air … To go in the forest and to walk around and to go with family and reconnect with nature, my God, it’s marvellous.”