Some people would rather step over the hole

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

There’s a hole being filled on St. Paul Street — and, curiously, there are some residents there who don’t want to see it happen.

In fact, these residents take the entire NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude to a ludicrous extreme.

It seems these residents don’t want to have children in their neighbourhood.

Not just any children, though.

These are children who would have fallen into that hole, were it not for the creativity of the city, the Interior Health Authority and the two women who run Insight Support Services (ISS).

Now, a cautionary note upfront: my son is a client of this support agency, so, while this has given me a front-row seat watching the two former nurses who run the agency work their magic, my son has also benefited from them.

But then, what good is an opinion column if you have no facts on which to base your opinion?

ISS is primarily an outreach business that provides assistance to families with developmentally disabled children.

As such, the bulk of their work is done out in the community, in peoples’ homes, in classrooms — in places children go.

But a small part of their work comes in keeping teenagers out of the hole that is the lack of any form of out-of-school care for the child who is a teenager chronologically, but not developmentally.

ISS owners Deb Hubic and Julie Chambers want to provide after-school care for these children, who don’t qualify for day care (they’re too old), group homes (they’re still living with their families) or any other IHA-sanctioned out-of-school care.

The two want to do this not in a sterile, clinical environment, but in a warm, cozy household setting, so they bought a home on St. Paul Street.

They’ve put plenty of work into it, restoring the outside to once again fit with the streetscape, painting and renovating inside and creating a place where kids want to come after school for tutoring help, for lifeskills training, for supervised care for those two or three hours between the end of the school day and the time mom and dad can pick them up.

The rest of the day, the house is as quiet as any other in the area where the kids are at school and the parents at work.

The house is also a safe environment for children who, left unsupervised as many teens are these days, might get into troublesome situations.

The house is also a comfort for those teens who are aware of their disabilities and don’t like the idea of going to a clinical setting for help.

They can come “home,” sit at the dining-room table and get help with their homework.

Or they can go into the basement and hang with others, all the while learning the social skills many disabled children lack.

Hubic and Chambers are concerned, however, that there are some neighbours fighting to force them out of the house.

As they point out, they could have bought it and turned it into a crack shack or an escort service, but that’s not who they are.

They’re helpers, people who have devoted the past 15 years to providing that much-needed guidance to families learning to cope with a developmentally disabled child.

They’re concerned enough that they’ll be at city council on Tuesday when a request for a temporary commercial licence for the house is introduced.

It’s the only way city and IHA officials can see to plug that hole, while others in the health authority work to develop a policy and get it approved to provide some sort of sanctioned care for these teens.

It seems so simple, though.

There are children in need.

There is help available for them.

It involves a couple of hours a day of child activity in a house.

And each time the child leaves and heads for home, he or she leaves a bit better, a bit stronger, a bit more aware or, perhaps, just a bit happier.

Seems to me it’s exactly the kind of atmosphere we’d want to see in all homes.

But I hate flying too . . .

Monday, October 22, 2007

Many, many years ago, an assistant city editor at the London Free Press (where I spent 25 years before discovering B.C.) found out I am terrified of heights.

Really terrified. Can't even go up a ladder terrified. Can't watch movies that show heights terrified.

Silly terrified.

This perverted little gem of a reporter, who probably taught me more about interviewing than many others I worked for while there, decided I was the perfect person to cover a poker run -- via small aircraft.

The idea was to go from airport to airport in the Southern Ontario region, pick up the cards, finish, play your hand, win prizes, have dinner, lots of fun.

My stomach still churns at the memory of it all.

The arrival of Pacific Coastal airline to Kamloops on Oct. 22 brought that incident back to mind. In addition to free food (a natural attractant for all reporters), there was this need to fly on the plane around the city for 15 minutes. Now normally, one of my co-workers would have had this assignment because, on Mondays, my world revolves around laying out the Wheels section of Kamloops This Week. But not this time.

Seems my co-worker is afraid of flying. So, being the daring role model I believe myself to be, off I went, camera in hand, nausea bag in plain sight.

It was horrible. It was like riding a bumping roller-coaster in 40-degree heat. It was truly awful. It was the kind of ride that makes you want to kiss the ground when you land.

But, notwithstanding this, the jubilation expressed by the many business people who attended the ceremonial lift-off of the first flight from Kamloops to Vancouver was palpable. And that makes it all worthwhile.

So, welcome to Kamloops, Pacific Coastal. It was fun, but I'll stick to the Coq, instead.

The fun of being a reporter

Friday, October 19, 2007

There are some stories that are just really hard to do and this week, one of them fell onto my list.

Well, to be honest, I grabbed it for my list by deciding I'd find the mother of the man who was tasered at Vancouver Airport. And, after a call to a contact, who made another call and then another call and then another call -- she had a first name and a phone number.

Reverse directory provided last name and an address. No answer to a phone call meant head on down and do that thing we dread to do: knock on the door of a grieving parent and try to do our job.

Zofia Cisowski, however, opened her door told me her story, as much as therapy for her, I think, as it was to let people know that something was very, very wrong with the way her son had been treated by police who confronted him, tried to calm him down (not realizing he spoke no English), tasered him and then watched as he fell to the floor, dead.

A colleague said later his journalism teachers taught that, when dealing with a subject who is emotional, to stay calm, separate and just wait it out. Probably good advice for someone starting in the business -- we don't want them to start crying the minute their subject does -- but for me, the mother side took over and I stopped asking questions and just hugged Zofia as she cried.

It's not the first time I've done this kind of story. In fact, throughout my 30-plus year career as a reporter, I've had to do it more times than I wanted to. But then once is too many.

The next day, I stopped in to see how she was doing and return a photograph she had lent me to use with my story. Zofia had accidentally dropped her purse and all the contents were strewn over the livingroom floor. And she was crying. Just crying.

So I put the photo back in the small shrine she's created in memory of her son, got down on the floor, picked everything up and put it on her table. I asked if she needed anything, asked a couple of questions I needed for the story and then had to stare down a very big, very angry Polish man who decided that I was a leech taking advantage of a distraught woman.

It wasn't an argument I was going to get involved in, other than to tell him I didn't appreciate his choice of words. Because, by not following my young friend's caution from his teacher, but in letting my own emotions lead the interviews, I don't think I was using Zofia.

I'd like to think she was using me, and every other media person she's talked to, in an effort to find the truth behind why her son is dead.

There but for the grace of God go all of us . . .

The mayor and several councillors are off on their all-expenses-paid jaunt to China — but there are still plenty of city councillors left in town.

So here’s an idea — head to the Kamloops United Church on Sunday at about 5 p.m.

Bring your sleeping bag and warm clothes and spend a night living the way too many Kamloopsians do every night.

On the street. Cold. Hungry. Probably not with a down-filled sleeping bag. More likely with a worn blanket.

When you’re out on the church lawn, where the overnight vigil is being held, talk to people.

Talk to people you might not normally talk to.

Ask questions. Ask them what their lives are like. Ask them how they survive. Ask them what’s wrong with a country that cannot care for them.

And then listen.

You’ll all be better politicians — and human beings — than you are now.

And then take the information you get and do something with it.

Talk to your colleagues — after they return from their trade and tourism promotional jaunt — about ways Kamloops can make a difference.

About ways Kamloops can start to mend the shattered social safety net.

Don’t do any more studies.

The statistics are there for the reading. We’ve done the homelessness census.

We’ve counted the paltry number of affordable housing units in the city.

Don’t hold any more workshops, because it’s the same people at every one.

It’s like preaching to the choir.

The people who really need to know aren’t the people who take part in these repetitive sessions.

They all sit and nod and know those statistics because they either helped compile them or they see them every day in their agency offices.

Behind each statistic is a story and, combined, it’s a tragic anthology of dreams lost, hopes dashed, lives ruined.

But that does not mean these are lives to be ignored.

I met an incredible woman once who has a mental illness.

She had been homeless. She had been lost to society.

But people showed interest in her, listened to her and discovered she too had dreams.

She was not her mental illness, but it was what was defining her.

Once people were able to see past that, an incredible support group developed around her that helped her leave the streets and start the life she wanted.

Today, she’s a homeowner with the most adorable little boy who is growing up surrounded by the kind of love that only those who have lost it can ever really express.

I spent time once in the old tent city that erupted behind the New Life Mission years ago, talking to a Maritimer who was once bringing in more than $70,000 a year.

He had a wife, kids, friends, hobbies — everything most of us take for granted.

Then his government job was gone, the victim of downsizing.

And out in the Maritimes, well, the jobs weren’t all that plentiful then.

Rum became his reason to get up every morning. Eventually, rum was more important than his wife and kids because, when he spent time with it, he forgot that his life was a disaster.

Eventually, it led him to a tent behind the mission, where he talked of wanting sobriety but not being able to handle the wait to get into a program.

One day, when I went to talk to him again, he was gone. His buddies in that back lot didn’t know where he was.

To this day, I wonder.

It’s too easy to ignore them, the panhandlers, the “strange ones” we see on the streets every day.

It’s too easy to think those thoughts you know you’ve had before. We all do at some time.

But it’s important to remember that these are our brothers, our sisters, our parents, our friends.

These are who we might be if the cards had been shuffled a bit differently for us.

And it behooves our politicians, those who claim the right to represent us and work for us, to learn who all of us are.

And that means spending some time at church on Sunday.

In a brief 26 years, Darcy touched so many

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Darcy Robinson — as a person, a hockey player, a student, a friend, a fiance, a son and a brother — touched too many lives during his too-brief 26 years.
They will be coming from near and far for his service Monday morning at the Calvary Community Church on Rogers Way.
They may be coming from Ontario, Calgary, Saskatoon, Red Deer — all to pay their respects to a young man who was taken from the earth far too soon and as yet without explanation.
They’ll join together on Thanksgiving Day, a time when families are supposed to gather around the dinner table and reflect on all their blessings.
Perhaps Darcy’s parents Ernie and Dave will find some time to think about the blessing they had for those 26 years, nurturing a young man whose death Sept. 27 has impacted far more people than they could imagine.
Perhaps his brothers Ryan and Daniel will also think about how their lives were blessed by Darcy, the oldest son, the one they got to watch as he started to live out his dreams playing hockey in Italy.
Perhaps his fiancee will also find some solace as the community gathers together at the church — the scene of many happy graduation ceremonies for young men and women about to set out into the world — and know that she, too, was blessed.
It’s a testament to this young man’s impact on those who knew him, or had watched him play, that they came together so quickly, thanks to technology, to create a website where they could post their thoughts, share their grief.
In a few short days, a Facebook site had registered more than 800 people, including a former teammate on his Italian hockey league squad Asiago, former classmates from Aberdeen elementary and a former Kamloops sports reporter who will make the trip from Calgary back to Kamloops to pay her respects to a young man she watched — and often wrote about — as he developed his love of the game.
Even the omniscient YouTube has a video honouring the man who had dreams of playing for his mother’s native Italy one day in Olympic hockey.
Kevin Stinelli, a student at Pennsylvania State College, copied a slide show of Darcy the hockey player from a tribute one of his former teams created, and set it to lyrics he chose especially for Darcy:
“It’s good to have you with us, even if it’s just for the day, Outside the sun is shining, seems like heaven ain’t far away.”
Heaven wasn’t far away when Darcy missed the puck, turned, collapsed and died with Kristen sitting in the stands, watching.
Some have said it was good she was there but does the heart ache any less if you’re there to say goodbye?
Is the pain any less knowing your son died doing what he loved the most?
Surrounded by his teammates, his coach, his fans?
Is it eased knowing that even young men who never met Darcy remembered him by placing his initials on their helmets, next to the blazing B he never wore? An honour they’ll carry into many games in this painfully young season.
Parents never really know who their children will become, what dreams they’ll have, what heartbreaks they’ll endure.
All they can do is the best they’re able to do, and then watch and hope — until that day comes when they know they did OK, their child did right and the world is a better place because of it.
Even if it was for just 26 years.

© Copyright 2007 Kamloops This Week

I am one in four — and taking those scary steps

Someone asked if it’s true my husband and I have academic expectations for our youngest son.
The person on the other end of this conversation seemed stunned when I replied that we did.
But he has autism, this person continued. Wouldn’t his time be better spent learning life skills and collecting attendance slips?
Well, as my other children would say, that’s a big N-O!
I’m sure this person didn’t realize the comments made were reinforcing a negative stereotype.
He doesn’t know that Sean has been successful in every grade so far, that he was well ahead of his class last year in some areas and definitely behind in others.
He doesn’t know we were once told Sean would never speak or interact with others, but now has many friends — including his beloved Kailah B. — and loves to act out his self-written stories, which he illustrates with his own “movie posters.”
The conversation left me not so much angry, but rather sad that an educated adult would have that immediate reaction.
It comes as no surprise to Christa Haywood-Farmer of the Kamloops branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Even in 2007, she said, the stigma of any mental illness is incredible.
In far too many minds, a person with a mental disability or illness is dangerous, scary, unemployable — images Haywood-Farmer said are reinforced in popular culture, particularly movies.
It’s her job to try to dispel these stereotypes — not an easy task considering a Mustel poll, released earlier this week, that shows that less than half of British Columbians who thought they might be suffering from depression would seek help.
Only about one in four would look for professional help.
The rest either wouldn’t or didn’t know how they would react.
The statistics may seem alarming, unless you’ve been one of them. Count me in that group that wouldn’t seek help.
There was nothing wrong with me — it was everyone else who had a problem.
The world was making me nuts — but it wasn’t my fault.
Sure, I cried a lot and got angry a lot and then got happy a lot — but that was just me.
My husband used to dread the days I’d wake up in a truly great mood, because he knew what was coming next. Only I didn’t see it and wouldn’t listen to the family telling me to get help.
Until the day I sat in a corner of the living room in the dark, crying.
And crying.
And crying.
For hours, I cried.
Doctors diagnosed bipolar disorder, put me on medication and into therapy that lasted a year.
Most of that time was spent coming to accept the disease and learning how to deal with it.
That took some time.
I spent about two years saying I had a chemical imbalance in my brain. Just couldn’t get those two words to come out.
I didn’t want people to think I was crazy.
That’s when Sean provided the life lesson that was needed.
He has a disability. He works hard to overcome and compensate for it. I want people to accept him as he is and understand we’re not all made with a cookie cutter.
And just as he puts another face on the concept of autism, it seemed right for me to add my face to the community that battles the stereotype of mental illness every day.
Yes, I’m bipolar. And I work, have a family, a truly messy house, friends, volunteer work, a monumentally bad sense of humour, goals and aspirations.
For those of you out there — and statistics show one in five B.C.ers is living with some form of mental disorder — Haywood Farmer is the organizer of Beyond the Blues, a depression anxiety education and screening day on Oct. 4 at Thompson Rivers University from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
People can attend and learn about mental illness, take an anonymous test that will indicate if they should be addressing their own mental health and get information on how to get help.
It’s a long road being walked by the people with mental illnesses and for those who advocate for them — but for Haywood-Farmer, “every step that we can make is a positive.”
Even when those steps are scary.

© Copyright 2007 Kamloops This Week