September 4th, 1999 was the first day of the rest of their lives. This particular autumn day was carefully selected by Barb and Murray for their much anticipated wedding day! Although many obstacles were in their way, this couple never gave up and moved steadily forward for several years in their journey towards being united in marriage. Marriages are something that is seen infrequently for people who have intellectual disabilities. Often, when a couple expresses a desire to be married they may encounter undue resistance from those around them thinking they may know best for them. This was also the case for Barb and Murray and yet their tenacity, determination, and love for one another prevailed through that resistance to make their dream come true on that special day over ten years ago.
Barb and Murray celebrated their 10th anniversary this past September. They wanted to tell their story to inspire others to follow their dreams and not give up should they want to be united in marriage with someone they loved. They are frank when they talk about their life as a married couple and say “that being together every day isn’t always easy, you just have to know that you have people around you who will help you get back on track.” And they follow that statement with, “but we love one another and we will do whatever it takes to be happy together.” Their insight is admirable.
In a move towards creating awareness these past few years have found Barb and Murray being invited to speak to college and university students on their personal struggles and accomplishments during their journey as a couple. They openly express that their hope in speaking out is to tell their story so that the people who want to have loving relationships today will maybe encounter less conflict than they did years ago. They put it simply by saying that they hope that people will respect and accept the decisions people with disabilities make should they want to be in a relationship that may involve living together or being married.
Although this couple reached their big dream some ten years ago, Barb and Murray continue to set new goals they can enjoy together. They are currently planning an much anticipated anniversary trip in Florida, a place they both want to share in the celebration of their marriage and build new memories they can hold close to their hearts as they grow older together. They have expressed the importance of keeping their dreams alive and hope others can be as fortunate as them.
John has always been interested in hunting. Because he uses a wheelchair to go places and can use one hand to do things for himself, many felt this was one interest he would not be able to pursue. But John doesn’t understand the concept of “can’t”.
His first step was to take a hunting safety course, which he needed, in order to get a gun license. Not achieving a pass on the first try, John didn’t give up. He got connected with Silverdale Gun Club in St. Anne’s and they welcomed John with open arms. They helped him pass the safety course and then he applied for a gun license. Once he accomplished that and purchased a gun, they created a stand for his gun so he could pull the trigger. He bought a crossbow and they created a support for it so he could also use the crossbow in his wheelchair.
John didn’t want to just shoot at targets, but hunt deer and other wild creatures, so the members of the Silverdale Gun Club built him a tree stand and they take John on a ramped trailer into the bush to his tree stand. There are plans to modify the tree stand so it affords more warmth and shelter to John.
The connection with Silverdale Gun Club has expanded John’s horizons immensely. He has met men from all walks of life who have understandingly helped him achieve all these goals. And through word of mouth other people have become aware of possibilities for themselves if they have the same dream as John.
Because he believes he can do anything and because he doesn’t give up on an idea when it doesn’t work out right away, John now goes hunting with the guys on weekends. His next goals are a turkey license and a restricted gun license.
Being a part of the life of a school, graduating and becoming employed are things that most students want. Inclusive education means going to school in your neighbourhood, with your friends, attending classes that the whole student body attends. When you have a disability, this is often difficult and in some cases being truly included does not happen. I first met Michael at the Welland Pelham Chamber of Commerce Ruby awards last year. Michael was nominated for a Youth Citizen of the Year award. Being recognized by your peers and community is not only a great honor but you have to be outstanding, and this award is truly the most difficult one in which to pick a winner as all the nominees deserve it. One year later, while attending the Reaction for Inclusion conference hosted by Community Living Ontario, I met Michael again. Michael was a part of the planning committee for this event. Reaction for Inclusion brings together students who believe in inclusion for all. The main focus is the inclusion of students with disabilities.
Michael got up and shared his story from struggles to his successes. His message was clear – never give up and be yourself. Being bullied and struggling academically were topics most people in the audience could relate to. But for Michael, this turned into something else. Being an advocate for himself and others was a direction that came out of his struggle.
At first, when Michael started high school he was in a self contained class. Michael soon realized that this was not for him. He also decided that he wanted to graduate with a high school diploma. With the help of his parents, Michael started classes and is well on his way to graduation. Both Michael and his parents commend the school for the work they are doing on accommodation and modification with the curriculum. Advocacy has been another important part of high school life. Michael gives this great analogy – it’s like the movie “Limitless“, you can only see and use 80% but once you take the special pill you are using and seeing 100% of your abilities. When you start advocating and talking people have a different approach and can see other possibilities.
One of the biggest benefits of being included and having natural connections is relationships that happen. Michael and Daniel Tisi have been friends for the past 17 years. When asked, Daniel tells us that they have been friends since Michael moved next door to the Tisi family 17 years ago. As with most friendships, it is based on common interests such as movies and video games and just enjoying hanging out. Daniel reflects on Michael’s humor and optimism. As with all friends there are times when they disagree, but the disagreements are always easily worked out. It’s safe to say that hard work, optimism and humor are contagious and Daniel and Michael look forward to these shared moments.
Not only is Michael on his way to graduation, he is working at Sobeys in Fonthill. This started out as a co-op placement in school and they wanted him on their team. Ron Kore, Franchisee, has nothing but greats things to say about Michael: “He is such a positive person, it’s a quality that is infectious to other employees.” Michael is a valued team member and even helps train other students when they are there on co-op. Michael’s work ethic and glass half full philosophy has helped to opened the door to others.
Michael has shown what perseverance, advocacy and being included early on can do to help obtain all those things in life that we all want.
Walking into Bill’s home and seeing his room I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of pictures on his wall. Spanning the entire room is a visual history of 30 years of Bill’s friendships and relationships.
This was not always the case, Bill spent many years at South Western Regional Centre which was a large institution for people with disabilities. Institutions like this are dehumanizing places. Bill met Janet while living at South Western Regional Centre. Although Janet started out as a paid support worker to help Bill with his move, this soon blossomed into a 30 year friendship.
Bill spends weeks at a time with Janet and her husband at their home in Chatham. Bill takes the train and they meet him at the station. Bill spends every holiday with Janet and her family, spends summers at their trailer where they fish together. And what summer is not complete without an ice cold beer! Janet has a large pig farm and Bill works on the farm and enjoys the animals. When talking with Janet, the first thing she says “Bill is my best friend and part of my family”.
Janet and Bill have been friends since 1977. Bill has gone with Janet and her husband Tom to their friend’s cottage and Bill will fish for hours. Myrtle Beach has been a family adventure for the past four years and Bill has been there every year. Janet says “I don’t know why people come in and out of our lives, but what I do know is that Bill is a big part of mine, my family and my friends lives. We love him and he has a special place in my heart”.
Bill has known Janet’s daughter since she was a baby and still to this day he calls her baby.
When Bill is in Welland he works at Lynn’s Pet Centre. Bill has worked there for over 25 years. Lynn Whiteley, owner of Lynn’s Pet Grooming and Supply Centre in Welland, has been Bill’s employer for over 25 years. This relationship has expanded from an employee / employer to a true friendship. Bill spends many special occasions with Lynn and her family. They do things together and Bill is missed when he is away.
Although Bill started out at Lynn’s as a work placement in the mid 80’s with support from Community Living, it was soon clear that these supports were not needed. Lynn is quick to point out that Bill is more than my employee, he is my friend. Bill and Lynn spend time together outside of work hours, whether it is shopping, fishing or dinner and beers. Whenever we are out, someone always says “Hey Bill”. Being an integral part of the life of the business, Bill assists in grooming the dogs, helping people carry out items to their cars. Customers will often bring gifts to Bill at Christmas. Bill never forgets a face!
When talking with Bill for this article, I spoke to Bill and Paul Keary who has known Bill for many years, One of the comments that struck me was that Paul said everywhere Bill goes, people know him…not only that, Paul’s social network has expanded because of Bill. People Paul would have never met, he has met through Bill and out of this friendship happened.
Why is this story important? Most of us take our friendships for granted. Most people who have disabilities live isolated lives and are only connected to paid supports. All of us want to have friends and contribute to the life of our communities. This story shows what being connected is all about!
It has been almost a decade since the tragic events that lead to the loss of Brian. During the three months Brian was missing, we witnessed the community come together with concern for their fellow friend and citizen – “Has Brian been found?” , “I really Hope Brian returns safely…” or “Our thoughts are with you…” and “I’m looking for Brian.”.
It has been overwhelming how many people knew Brian and not only in the Welland community but in Fort Erie and Port Colborne as well. Many would have a story to share about Brian and these were not merely strangers but people who knew Brian well.
Brian’s friends had so many questions. They missed him and wanted him back so they can once again spend time together talking over coffee, or attending their regular People First meetings, and maybe just hanging out while they work on their favorite puzzles together.
From citizens and friends organizing search parties and sharing stories it was clear that Brian was missed. It was apparent that the extent of Brian’s connections in our community reached much farther than we ever thought. Brian’s funeral service was standing room only.
Tiffany Beverly, is an employee at Community Living Welland Pelham and supported Brian. Tiffany recalls meeting a mother and son at Brian’s funeral. They were talking about how they knew Brian. It turns out that Brian and her son would be on the same bus every day. Brian would always make her son laugh, the son looked forward to seeing Brian every day. He really wanted to come to the funeral to pay his respects to the man who made him laugh.
Brian was a tireless self advocate with People First Welland. People First is a national federation made up of self advocates with chapters in many cities including Welland. People First has done enormous work on equal rights for people with disabilities and most recently, in partnership with other organizations, saw the last large institution for persons with an intellectual disability label in Ontario close. Brian was an active member in the Welland Chapter and was newly elected as their Treasurer. At this past People First Ontario Annual Conference, Brian was elected by his peers to represent the members on the People First Ontario board as Member at Large. This was a stepping stone for what we have no doubt would have been a long passionate career advocating for people across this province. At Brian’s funeral, Kory Earle ,President of People First Ontario and Vice President of People First Canada, spoke about how Brian will be missed and how valuable his contribution to the board was.
In her eulogy, Debbie Richards, a friend said “The last few days have brought me to a place where I have been wondering why a young man with so much yet to offer in his self-advocacy in causes such as People First had to leave so soon – he had work to do. What I have come to understand is that Brian would have been excited and had that great smile of enthusiasm if he knew how our community came together these last few months. We had community members like neighbours, friends, colleagues, volunteers and police aggressively searching to find him. Is that a sense of what he was working towards? I would have to say yes. Brian would say yes with that gigantic smile, Proudly. If he were sitting here today he would be saying this is what it means. See – Community Matters! In fact he would be proud that his community came together.”
We may never know exactly what happened that night. But we do know that out of this tragedy, Brian not only helped us realize what it means to be a part of a Community but he also showed us just how connected he truly was. Brian made us aware of what being included was all about.
Perry Wilson is the original drummer for Momentum Choir, he has been performing with them for 6 years. Perry takes great pride in being a member of Momentum and often introduces himself as “the drummer for Momentum Choir”. Perry says he feels like he was meant to be drumming and looks forward to Choir rehearsal every week.
Perry has travelled with Momentum Choir for many performances including an audition for Canada’s Got Talent in Toronto. When Perry hears a song he likes on the radio, he laughs and says he thinks Momentum should perform it. Thanks to Perry’s suggestion, Momentum Choir now performs “Thank You for Being a Friend” the theme song to Perry’s favorite television show The Golden Girls.
After performing at a fundraiser in Niagara Falls, Perry had the opportunity to meet retired CFL legend Pinball Clemens!
Pinball said that Perry inspired him with his drumming and asked if they could have some photos taken together. Pinball brought Perry’s drums out to the main auditorium for the photos to be taken and told Perry that he has always wanted to be a roadie!
It was a fun and memorable evening Perry will never forget!