Taylor Allen taught her younger brother Alex how to talk, walk and crawl. These are seemingly normal-sounding duties for an older sister, but if your brother has high-functioning autism like Alex, things can sometimes be more complicated.
Although Alex is only three years younger than Taylor, he has mental and physical challenges that require a lot of extra support and care.
“Alex is 12, going on five,” his mother, Lisa Knechtel, explained with a laugh.
VHA Home Healthcare (VHA), a non-profit charitable organization, selected Taylor as the recipient of the Young Caregiver Award at its 13th annual Heart of Home Care Awards. The new award was created to acknowledge the younger caregivers in the community.
Every year, the Heart of Home Care Awards ceremony is held to honour the outstanding efforts of friends or family members who’ve gone above and beyond to care for a loved one at home. This year’s ceremony took place at The Forth, an event space located at Pape and Danforth avenues in East York. It was held on April 3, also National Carers Day, a day to acknowledge caregivers across the country.
To start the event, president and CEO of VHA Carol Annett talked about how vital caregivers are to our lives, explaining that every person in the room would either be a caregiver or need a caregiver at some point.
“They take on many roles: nurse, physical therapist, counsellor, chauffeur and advocate for their loved ones—and that is just scratching the surface,” Annett said.
“Many caregivers do this in the shadows with very little support. The Heart of Home Care Awards are VHA’s way of saying, ‘We see you and we appreciate you.'”
She said when the event first started in 2005, nobody was listening. Caregivers were rarely recognized for the crucial role they play in society. But as she addressed the full room almost 20 years later, she said, “I am more than happy to say that has drastically changed.”
Taylor, originally from Welland, Ont., Madolina Sasa from Scarborough and Zulfikar Alladina from Toronto were all chosen as exceptional caregivers out of the 24 deserving nominees.
In addition to Taylor’s award, Sasa won the Caregiver to a Child Award for her support of her daughter Joy and Alladina won the Caregiver to an Adult Award for his support of his father Sultan.
Taylor was nominated for the award by her mother, Lisa Knechtel, who says her son Alex wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for Taylor.
During the ceremony, a video of each award-winner’s story played for the audience. The videos were made in collaboration with VHA and video agency Big Red Oak.
In Taylor’s video, a teary-eyed Knechtel explains the impact of Taylor’s constant help and support on their lives, especially after Knechtel was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
“Sometimes she knows just by looking at me. And she’ll say, ‘Mom you look tired. Go lay down; I’ve got him,'” Knechtel said in the video.
Like the other award-winners, Taylor is much more than just a caregiver for her brother. She is also an A student, an artist, a competitive bowler and a normal teenager, something she likes to point out.
“I don’t feel that I do anything out of the ordinary,” Taylor said in an email interview. “I help my Mom and help her with Alex, which at times can be difficult. Each day I learn new ways to help him get through his day.”
But to her mother, Taylor’s help is invaluable.
“She needs to realize that what she’s doing is special,” Knechtel said in the video. “She cares more about others than she does about herself. She’s a remarkable kid.”
Watch and listen to Taylor Allen’s story below:
Zulfikar Alladina, known to most as Zul, was selected as 2018’s Caregiver to an Adult Award winner, and his story is no less inspiring. Alladina first started caring for his father Sultan in his mid-20s after his father lost both of his legs to diabetes.
Alladina’s unwavering support of his father brought many audience members to tears, but for him it wasn’t a burden. It was a duty to someone he deeply loved and a reflection of the profound connection and relationship they shared.
“I can call him my father, I can call him my mother, I can call him my brother, I can call him my best friend,” Alladina said in the video. “We were all of those put together.”
Even after Alladina suffered severe injuries from a car crash in 2010, injuries he is still recovering from today, he continued to care for his father.
“The joy I received from making sure that my father was all taken care of and comfortable was extremely important to me,” Alladina said, “…incomparable to anything else.”
Watch and listen to Zul Alladina’s story below:
The final award-winner was Madolina Sasa, who took home the Caregiver for a Child Award, acknowledging her ongoing support of her daughter Joy who lives with a disability. She deserved to win best-dressed too, joked Stacey Ryan, selection committee chair, as she presented the award. Sasa wore a gold-sequined evening gown accompanied by her husband in a matching suit with gold-sequined lapels.
Sasa was nominated by her employer for her extraordinary care of Joy, but also for her determined attitude at work. Sasa works for the Extreme Clean program, a cleaning service that helps people who are facing eviction due to uncleanliness or sanitary issues.
Sasa’s supervisor witnesses the long hours Sasa devotes to the job, sometimes in tough situations dealing with clients suffering from mental health issues, and then always going home to take care of Joy afterwards with a smile on her face.
However, when asked about Joy, Sasa doesn’t talk about how long her days are or how exhausted she is. Instead, she discusses what Joy has taught her.
“Taking care of Joy helps me be better with other people. It gives me patience and the more time I spend with Joy, the more I open up,” Sasa said. “She is so special.”
Watch and listen to Madolina Sasa’s story below:
All three award-winners had strong personal messages to share with other caregivers.
“You are not alone. There are many caregivers out there in the same situation. Just remember that your hard work and dedication is appreciated more than you realize. You help keep your family whole.”
“If you are blessed with the opportunity to serve anyone (whether it be a loved one or not), do the deed with genuine love and compassion. To help someone in need is a true blessing and should be handled with utmost importance. Do not expect anything in return. Believe me, the joy you bring to that individual who needs it is a blessing from God.”
“My philosophy is that if you have a child with a disability, you don’t need to panic. You don’t need to worry, you don’t need to stress or depress yourself. Even though they don’t talk, you have to listen.”
They all thanked VHA for their awards, but also for the continuous support VHA has provided for families in Ontario over the past 93 years.
Other highlights of the event were keynote speaker Manjusha Pawagi, author of Love and Laughter in the Time of Chemotherapy, and a special musical performance by Ania Soul.