Gander — Michael Gaultois knows what it’s like to be treated differently because of the way he looks.
As a teenager, he sustained burns to much of his body in a tragic accident.
But he didn’t let that stop him. Instead, he uses his experiences to help others.
“I paid a price for my mistakes. I don’t want to see other kids have to go through what I’ve gone through in my life,” he said.
Gaultois has been sharing his story with groups of people since 1993, when he was 17, only two years after he and several friends were involved in a fire caused by a candle at a makeshift cabin they had built in the woods near their home in Irishtown.
A 13-year-old boy perished in the fire, and three others survived with injuries. Gaultois sustained burns to 86 per cent of his body.
“Most responses I got were fear responses — people would run away. Kids would want to ask questions but their parents would pull them away,” he said.
“I really felt like I needed to get the education out there.”
Gaultois now lives in Gander with his teenage son, Ryan. He’s now a full-time motivational speaker, and while his message used to be primarily about fire safety, it now has a broader focus. He’s spoken to groups of all sizes throughout the province, from kindergarten classes to medical personnel.
On Dec. 9, kids at the Gander Boys and Girls club got the opportunity to hear Gaultois speak as a part of the club’s Afterschool With … program.
Lori Roach, program co-ordinator with the Gander Boys and Girls Club, said she thought Gaultois was a perfect fit.
“Our children are all different sizes, shapes, different disabilities,” said Roach. “We felt it would be important to teach them how to accept that they are all the same on the inside.”
Gaultois talked to the children — ranging in age from five to 11 — about fire safety and the importance of using candles safely, and how important it is to have a working smoke detector in every household.
He also talked about the importance of listening to your feelings.
“My grandmother used to warn me before the accident, ‘Don’t be up there, you’re going to be burnt’ ... and I didn’t listen to my gut. ... If I trusted my gut and went home that night, a lot of things would be different,” he said.
“Kids today have to be careful not only in public, but in their homes and on the Internet.”
He also left the children with a strong message about self-acceptance. Using Smarties as an example, he explained that although they were all different colours and shapes on the outside, on the inside they were all the same.
He said that realizing after his accident that although he looked different he was the same, was a big part of his personal recovery.
“When my son was seven years old he said to me, ‘Dad, why do people stare at you so much?’ I said, ‘Well, I look different and some people don’t know what your dad has gone through.’ And he said, ‘I know, Dad, but you’re only burnt.’ And it was right then and there I knew no matter what happens to me that I don’t have to change myself. I’m his dad and I love him, and that’s all he sees.”
He said he feels his message about self-acceptance is pertinent at a time when many young people — especially girls — are subjected to unrealistic standards of beauty as portrayed in movies, on TV, in ads and in the media.
“We live in a very superficial world,” he said. “Some young girls are trying to obtain these standards that aren’t even possible.”
Roach was pleased with how the children reacted to Gaultois’ message.
“I’m amazed. What they learned was outstanding, and you can tell,” she said. “They just took in every word.”
Gaultois also spoke to older youths involved with the Boys and Girls Club’s Community Youth Network as part of the Keystone program.
Although he likes talking to groups of all ages, he said he finds talking to younger groups one of the most rewarding parts of his job.
“Kids are extremely receptive,” he said. “Many older groups already have a pre-conceived notion of the way things are and sometimes it’s hard to get people to change. I hope kids can take a lot from my message and carry it with them for life. ... Knowing that right away I’ve made a difference is so rewarding.
“If I’ve managed to help just one person, I’ve achieved a great thing.”