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From Billy to Bill

The following talk was given by Steve Newroth, founder of L’Arche Daybreak on the occasion of Daybreak’s 40th anniversary Gala celebration.

Bill Van Buren with the Newroth family - 1970

Bill Van Buren with the Newroth family - 1970

Happy Anniversary Daybreak! Congratulations to all on making it through 40 years of successes and challenges; I won’t say unscathed but certainly wiser and fitter for the journey forward.

Significant anniversaries are usually a time for organisations to crow about what has been achieved and to plan to avoid old pitfalls as they set new goals and directions. But I am sure that the Board and Carl will thank me for not advising on issues of management and future directions.

This evening my job is to share with you the memory of so many events, relationships and illuminations and perhaps to remind you of a bit of history that was launched at Daybreak 40 years ago. Some of the detail may be lost in the haze of time and, if you suspect I’ve got it wrong, ask Ann. She has a much better memory than I have. So much happened in 1969 and the year that preceded it!

* There was the all too brief planning phase, the incorporation, the gathering of a stellar Board, including our ex-Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, the great educator Roby Kidd, and the jurist Arthur Stone.
* Then in October of ‘69 the “kick-off” event – the arrival of the residents; first Billy Van Buren, then Peter Rotterman, Bill Rous, Brian Turner, David Harmon, Alva Gain, George Gregan, John Bloss, and many more.

Jumping ahead – there was the official opening presided over by Jean and Madame Vanier with Minister Yaremko as guest of honour.

In the following years a major preoccupation – the addition of new houses (six in the first seven years. The joint rocked!)

* The building of the pond – a favourite project of mine;
* The Canterbury Pilgrimage – a mammoth undertaking organised by Ann.
* The inspiration of the many conferences and the Federation meetings;

Interspersed among these major events were the many celebrations of the growing community:

* Birthdays, Christmases, summer holidays;
* Arrivals and departures of much loved assistants;
* The weddings and the arrival of babies, including our own Stephanie Ann;
* The annual picnics for parents and friends;
* The illnesses and eventually the funerals.
* All the “stuff” of a family living life together!

In 1969

In 1969, Ann and I had returned from two years in France, where we had lived with Jean Vanier and had opened our own little foyer with Bernard, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Marie. We were immersed in Jean’s philosophy, his theology and his gathering vision for L’Arche.

Some of you may be surprised but there was no grand plan for an international movement or for an International Federation linking 130 communities in over 30 countries around the world. L’Arche and Daybreak grew much more organically than that. Jean would probably say he just listened to the prodding of the gospels and to the needs of people with disabilities. Ann and I simply listened to the incredible generosity of Sister Rosemarie and the Sisters of Our Ladies Missionaries when they said:

“We don’t need that farm in Richmond Hill anymore. Would you like it?”

It was offered complete with furnishings and equipment right down to the towels, cooking pans and an old station wagon. Having been raised an Ontario farm boy, it didn’t take me long to make up my mind. Convincing Ann, a city girl, may have taken a bit longer because in those days Daybreak really was a farm with fields fences, and horses and cows. Today you would never know it!

The offer of property was quickly followed by an application to the Government of Ontario to operate under its legislation. After a suspenseful delay, a positive reply came back from the Minister of Community and Social Services along with a cheque for $5000 per bed for the home the Sisters had given us! That was a very good omen! New possibilities were created. The hand of Providence was so evident!

Billy Van Buren

I mentioned the arrival of the first residents. Leading the parade was Billy Van Buren. He came to us October 16, 1969, a very young 16 year old in frail health and a new green suit. (He loved that suit!) Billy had been born into dysfunction and instability and, at age 10, he was taken into guardianship and institutionalized. At age 16, his wardship ended and he came to Daybreak – a rather lost boy, vulnerable, and lonely. Billy was easy to live with because he was so dependent and his only expression of self or of personal desire was the odd mention of a niggling awareness that somewhere he had a family.

Sadly, a week ago today, we buried Bill and here is where the contrast begins. He was eulogised as a man of great sensitivity, as a man of relationships, and as a man humour. “How do you get Holy Water? You boil the hell out of it!” Bill got a lot of mileage out of that joke!

Thanks to the love and support Billy received from so many during his life at Daybreak, he grew beyond all expectations. His was not an easy life and he had much to be angry about but, in his journey to wholeness, he became truly human – a gift to others – and some how his label just slipped away.

When any of us find ourselves in an environment of acceptance and affirmation, we realise these are the greatest of pedagogical tools and these are the magic of L’Arche Daybreak. As we began Daybreak, our vision could be expressed in two words. In French, “Vivre Avec”, for it came with us from France. In English (and I translate only for those from the United States) “live with”! Not so much “to work for” because, “living with” is the work of L’Arche; it is therapy of L’Arche – sharing life! When you have been born into a world that rejects you, when you have been shuffled to the fringe of society and you see yourself as waste material and someone says to you “I would like to share life with you”, that is the most life giving therapy that can happen. And it has been happening at Daybreak for 40 years!

The battle to replace institutions

I want to say a word to a special group – the parents of the men and women of Daybreak. I learned so much from you. You were my most valued mentors and sternest critics. I learned that your row has not been an easy one to hoe. None of you have told me that the birth of your child with a disability was a moment of great joy. You told me how life had been an exhausting quest for a more optimistic diagnosis. You told me about the expensive charlatans who claimed they could repair the CNS. You told me about the family doctors who advised: “you must find an institution and learn to forget.“ You had such courage because, when Daybreak was born, the institutions were not a place you would willingly choose – but you often had no choice.

The battle to replace the institutions was hard fought and Daybreak was there, along with the National Institute on Mental Retardation and the Ontario Association for the Mentally Retarded (as it was called then). L’Arche was in the forefront of that immense social change and, as some of you know, after leaving Daybreak, I went on to direct and actually close one of those institutions. While academics were talking about deinstitutionalization and the theory of community-based services, Daybreak was living and growing the new reality. Do you realise that the first Comprehensive Regional Plan of Services for People with Mental Disabilities was written right here at Daybreak, in 1972, by Brian Halferty.

Parents taught me that their greatest fear was and is “what will happen to my son or daughter when I am gone”. It was traumatic for parents in the late 60’s and early 70’s to give up the “apparent” permanence of government operated institutions and bring their son or daughter to this upstart organisation called Daybreak. Twice in my career as Director, I sat with parents on their death beds and promised them that we would care for their son or daughter for the rest of their lives. It is such a credit to succeeding Boards, benefactors and assistants that those promises were kept.

In the totally unbiased opinion of a former Director, I would say to all who have supported Daybreak over the years, you have made possible the growth of human potential – physically, mentally and spiritually – and that is the very essence of God’s calling and the heart beat of L’Arche Daybreak.

Thank you for this time to share with you.

Steve Newroth