Hans Best is crouched in front of his dad’s ambulance, tracing patterns in the muddy tire tracks with his nine-year-old fingers.
In another part of the Whitehorse emergency response centre’s ambulance bay, his sister, Abida, squeals with delight and throws her arms around her father’s neck before promptly bursting into a 10-year-old’s tears at the sight of a photographer’s camera.
Sister Jaime, seven, wanders ghostlike with a coat hung over her head like a Halloween costume, and Danielle, the youngest at four years old, squirms as her mother peels off layers of winter clothing.
Trying to corral four small children into the back of an ambulance for a portrait with their paramedic dad would be a challenge for any parental duo, but for Nathan and Lissa Best, it’s just another day in a somewhat chaotic life.
“We call it the circus,” Nathan says, grinning.
The family didn’t end up clustered together in the ambulance garage by accident. Three of the Best’s four children have autism and a number of other disabilities -“Jaime is the only neurotypical one,” Nathan explains – and they came to Whitehorse to look for help.
Originally from P.E.I., the Bests were getting desperate. The support services there for disabled children were barely enough for families with even one special child, let alone three.
“What we were facing there, the government-funded programs were fairly minimal.”
Living in P.E.I. it was a herculean struggle just to make ends meet. All the doctors and specialists, the extra cost of childcare and support, it all adds up. Nathan was working 90-hour weeks and holding down three jobs, and had all but abandoned his career as a paramedic – a dream job he had worked towards since he was a boy.
“I drove a truck, milked cows at night and then I’d go wash buses for the city transit company. I also volunteered for the local fire department, but we were barely surviving, financially.”
In early 2012 they decided to move, Nathan explained, but they had no idea where to go.
“So we did our research, calling all across Canada and through a friend of mine we basically stumbled across Whitehorse,” Nathan said.
“She called the Department of Education, told them of our situation, and the people from the department were absolutely incredible at accommodating us, and taking care of our children when we got here. Just the way that first phone call went, we knew this was the right choice.”
But packing up an entire life and moving across the country is no small feat for any family. For the Bests, it was even bigger.
One of the most important things for children with autism is stability, and the prospect of uprooting their lives to move to the Yukon was a calculated risk.
They sold almost everything. Nathan packed up the family VW wagon with what was left and drove the 7,006 kilometres across the country alone. Lissa followed with the four kids on a plane.
“It was a huge risk. I didn’t even know if I would have a job here when we decided to leave,” Nathan said.
But since arriving, things have gotten much better. Back east, the school system doesn’t have enough money to provide every special needs child with their own educational assistant, but having one is one of the most powerful supports a family can get.
Here in the Yukon, each Best child has their own EA, and it’s made a huge help, Nathan said.
“Our oldest – Abida – goes to Jack Hulland elementary where there is a teacher who is absolutely exceptional with disabled kids. Her confidence and her scholastic ability has grown by leaps and bounds, just this year,” Nathan said.
That teacher, Jeff Frizzell, also had a surprising idea for the family.
“They were on some pretty potent drugs, to help moderate their behaviour and outbursts. Jeff told us he wanted to get them off of those drugs, through behaviour therapy and careful scheduling work.
“He said, ‘I want to work with Abida, not with her altered self.’”
With a lot of effort, it worked, and the result has been very good for the kids, Nathan said.
But even with that hurdle cleared, finding activities for the kids to do is another enormous challenge.
“Most parents can get some time away – even a few hours – by sending their kids to soccer, to scouts or something. We can’t do that because we can’t send our kids there alone. They need one-on-one support. With three kids like that, there’s no way we could pay for all those babysitters,” Nathan said.
That’s another place where the Yukon system has been indispensable for the Bests. The Yukon’s Health Department has a program called Family Support for Children with Disabilities that provides a range of support, but one of the most important is respite – time away for Nathan and Lissa to be together and get a break from the chaos.
The help has been so astounding that Nathan wanted to find a way to give back.
This past August, just after the family’s one-year anniversary in the Yukon, he was hiking with some co-workers from emergency services, and they started daring him to grow his hair out.
“I’ve been bald for years. I said, ‘No way, I hate hair,’ but they kept pressing me. They offered me money to grow it. At first I said, ‘No way am I taking money for that,’ but I thought about it for the rest of the day and decided we could use it as a fundraiser for Autism Yukon,” Nathan explained.
Nathan created a Facebook page and started asking for donations. More co-workers kicked it. Family and friends from across the country started sending money.
A few months later, Nathan was sitting in the Roadhouse Pub just before Christmas with his running club – the Hash House Harriers – getting strangers to pay for the chance to shave his head.
“They heard about it, so we did a run on December 20. Whenever you go to a Hash Run you have to put up $5 cash, so the people in charge of this hash said all the ‘hash cash’ will go towards Autism Yukon as well.”
They coupled the run with the Harrier’s 12 Bars of Christmas – pub-jogging their way around town, taking donations and slowly reducing Nathan’s crop until it was gone. They raised $676 that night alone.
By the end of the campaign, Autism Yukon had $2,500 and Nathan had his smooth, hairless head back, much to his and his family’s relief.
Nathan fairly beams when describing how much of a difference the Yukon’s support system has made in his family’s quality of life, but perhaps one anecdote encapsulates it the most.
Ever since he was a toddler, Hans has had an almost crippling fear of fire engines, ambulances and sirens – which makes what his dad does for a living more than a bit complicated.
But over the years, Nathan and Hans have been working together to overcome that fear.
“We’d start by just being in the ambulance bay. Then slowly, I’d let him get comfortable and even try sitting in the driver’s seat. Then we’d try turning the lights on. Slowly, he started to get over his fear,” Nathan said.
It’s been a long process, but the comfort and stability of Whitehorse has also helped.
“Now, he says when he grows up he wants to be a paramedic and work with his dad,” Nathan says, with a catch in his throat.
“I don’t even know if it’s possible yet, but it would be absolutely incredible.”
Contact Jesse Winter at