Pairing amputee children with veterans as role models through The War Amps

Veterans pass on their legacy to help child amputees and spread the message of remembrance

By Ashley Pfeifer | October 31, 2022 |5:00 am

Charlie Jefferson, left, with Isla McCallum, who are both part of The War Amps CHAMP program, which launched in 1975.

Photo: Submitted

Remembrance Day is a time for reflecting on all of the sacrifices veterans have made as Canadians thank each one for their service. 

Many veterans didn’t return home at all, while many others lost limbs during their time in the First and Second World Wars. 

These veterans took their misfortunes and used them to create The War Amps in 1918 as a way to connect and share their stories with other amputees across Canada.

“The War Amps [veterans] had all come back from the war… and they were this group of amputees looking to share their expertise, knowledge, and their life skills of living as an amputee,” says Liz Gareau, the Calgary regional representative for The War Amps.

And it’s not just for adult amputees. 

“There were children who had lost limbs to an accident or illness or were born without limbs. And so [the veterans] felt there was a need to support these younger kids and their families, living life as amputees,” she adds.

Child Amputee program helps the younger generations 

The War Amps supports amputee children and their families through the Child Amputee (CHAMP) program, which launched in 1975 and brings members of the amputee community together to raise awareness and support for children born with a missing limb or who have lost limbs throughout their lives. 

As an amputee herself, Gareau has been a member of the CHAMP program since the ’80s. 

“CHAMP means everything to me. I was one of the first few,” Gareau says. 

“At that time, [my family and I] didn’t know any other amputees prior to living in Calgary [and] enrolling in CHAMP. I didn’t know anyone that was like me.”

While having a supportive family around a child is important, having a relatable community outside of that  is also beneficial to disabled individuals. 

“Meeting people who were like me was an amazing experience. There’s a bond there that is everlasting. [There] are a lot of the kids that I met, when I joined CHAMP, that I still keep in contact with,” Gareau says. 

 Liz Gareau, Calgary regional representative for The War Amps
Liz Gareau, Calgary regional representative for The War Amps

 

Children meeting their mentors and others like them 

Eight-year-old Isla McCallum, who was born an amputee, is a member of CHAMP program who had similar experiences in finding a community of people like her.

“We didn’t find [The War Amps] until Isla was just about to start school, so she hadn’t really been out there in the world without me and her dad,” says Isla’s mom, Jamie McCallum. 

Isla’s first interaction with other amputee children was at a War Amps conference. 

“Up to that point, she thought she was the only person with a little hand. There were a whole bunch of older CHAMPs and a couple of the girls had hands that looked very similar to Isla’s.”

Representation is important for everyone and being a part of a community can help someone thrive throughout life. 

“They came right up to her and introduced themselves and brought her into the group…I could see her just feeling like ‘OK, these are my people,’” McCallum says. 

Not just for the children 

Not only does the CHAMP program support children, but also the parents of children with amputated limbs. 

“Knowing lots of parents of amputee children, it’s super overwhelming to be told at that ultrasound or when the baby’s born that they don’t have 10 fingers and 10 toes,” Gareau says. 

“To be able to talk with a family that [has an amputee child], or an amputee that’s been successful and managed just fine. [They] learned to drive a car, got married, and had their own children. That really helps new parents with an amputee child.”

CHAMP encourages open dialogue among children with or without amputated limbs to minimize stigmatization and isolation. 

“CHAMP comes into Isla’s classroom every year and they’ll do a presentation for the class and all the kids can ask questions. And so then there’s less whispering and wondering. It’s all out in the open,” McCallum says. 

Building community awareness 

For CHAMP to continue helping amputee children and their families, community support and awareness is imperative. 

“Donating to The War Amps is so important because… it helps pay for [artificial] limbs. Limbs are very expensive. The government in each province often covers a big chunk of the cost, but not always,” Gareau says.

There are many different types of artificial limbs. Some are for daily use, such as hands with opposable thumbs. Others are for specific activities. 

“[Isla] really loves to ride her bike. But she really wasn’t able to until we had a device made that attaches onto her handlebar so that she could steer safely,” McCallum explains. 

“CHAMP provided funding so that that could be made for her so she could bike with the rest of our family.”

It’s OK to be different 

Not only does CHAMP encourage children to not let their differences hold them back, but it also teaches them how the program started and how the creators are similar to them. 

Through Operation Legacy, parents and children of the program are taught about the organization and become the torch holders for reminding the community about the sacrifices veterans have made. 

“Isla had heard the stories of how CHAMP was started by these soldiers who came back from the war who had been wounded… and they’d had to overcome that, [but] it was still within them to help other people,” McCallum says. 

“This is a way that we can show our appreciation.” 

Generation to generation 

Through the CHAMP program, Isla was able to meet 98-year-old veteran Charlie Jefferson, who quickly became her role model. 

Jefferson served as a Lieutenant with the Queen’s Own Rifles Regiment. In 1945, in the Rhine Valley, Germany, he was injured by an anti-personnel mine explosion, resulting in the loss of his left leg below the knee.

“For Isla to meet one of the people who started this program that has helped her so much was really amazing,” McCallum says. 

“Isla said to me after, ‘Mommy, he’s 98, and he’s missing a leg. But he still walks everywhere. I thought he would be sitting in a wheelchair.’ When you can see somebody overcoming something, it helps you to feel that you can do those things, too.”

CHAMP is one of many programs within The War Amps, and it has encouraged children for many years to accept their situation and make the best of it. 

“The association will continue to support families and children as long as they possibly can. It’s an organization that’s been around for a long time and has really changed the lives of many, many people,” Gareau says. 

To see everything The War Amps do, visit the website

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Ashley Pfeifer

Ashley Pfeifer is an intern at Calgary Citizen.

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