Archive for the ‘Be Inspired’ Category

Rick: A Dedicated Team Member

August 1st, 2016

This #WeBelongWR video comes to us from Bridges to Belonging, produced by Commons Studio. In it, they share a glimpse into the life of Rick, a dedicated and passionate team member. Thanks to Bridges to Belonging and Rick for sharing this story!

Rick is a man who always loved to help on his local hockey team.  His friends will tell you that Rick is a dedicated, passionate team member. He is the first guy at the rink, and the last to leave.

What you may not know about Rick is that he has a developmental disability. When we pursue our passions, our limitations tend to disappear!

Enjoy this glimpse into one of the ways Rick contributes to his community each day.

I’m 25 years old and I finally feel home

July 29th, 2016

This #WeBelongWR story comes to us from TK, a sexual health educator with the SHORE Centre. By sharing his own story, TK leads us through the depth of challenges we can face in finding a place of belonging – a place we feel at home. A huge thank you to TK and the SHORE Centre for sharing this moving story. (A version of this story was originally published on

I’m 20 years old and I’m crying into the steering wheel of my rusty, old 95’ Sunfire. I’ve finally said out loud that I’m a boy and I stammer over and over again “I just want to be normal. I don’t want this to be me.”

I’m 21 years old and someone asks, “who would ever want to be with someone like you?” I begin to learn that questions like this will break my heart in a way that no partner ever will.

I’m 22 years old and a cis man tells me that I will never really be a guy. Then another cis man tells me the same thing. Then another… and another… and another. I feel these words burn themselves into my skin and I see them every time I look at my body.

I’m 23 years old and I finally feel a moment of freedom after my top surgery. But my cage is slowly rebuilt as people continue to misgender me. I shake the bars and yell that I don’t understand why people can’t really see me.

I’m 24 years old and I’m so sick of being hidden from, hated or disliked by the loved ones of my partners. I writhe in guilt for the dissonance I feel I’ve created in other people’s families. I wonder if I will ever be acceptable to bring home.

I’m 25 years old and these are snapshots of my life. I keep them stored in a mental album I like to call “Things That Have Tried to Drown Me.” I would like to say it’s a short album, but it is longer than I would prefer. I am lucky, I am privileged—I struggle to even imagine the horrible photos that follow around others. But I have another album, one I try to keep stacked on top. This one includes memories such as meeting the family of my fiancée, who have shown me only love and acceptance from the beginning. As well as the moment I began to love the scars across my chest, recognizing them as trophies which commemorate that I have fought for my body.

I am 25 years old, and I have just moved to Waterloo Region. I struggle with how to share my story as I meet and interact with new people-which album do I pull out? With the first, often my anger and/or sadness pours into my story. Not everyone wants to know that. There are many people who don’t want to recognize or hear about the hard parts. They deny that those moments are rooted in transphobia and make excuses for the systematic oppression that poisons our society. But if I only open the second album, I erase my true experience. Sure people love to talk about the good parts, and to hear “success” stories. But they fail to recognize that those positive mental photos are mostly made from two scenarios. The first are moments where I learned to overcome aspects of my own internalized transphobia and found some form of self-love or pride. The second set of scenarios are moments where others extended to me the same rights and courtesies that they offer freely to cis people.

I find that my only option is to honour my story. I refuse to let the bad moments dominate the narrative, but I note that they are present. I remind myself that my past experiences colour my daily interactions. I give myself the space I need to process how this affects everything I do from job interviews to moving to a different city. My memories have deeply impacted my fears of not fitting in and being accepted in a new community. But I am grateful, that so far, I have been able to find my place here. There are people and organizations who have been mindful and validating of my past, while supporting my identity. Being able to attend social events for trans identified persons, and learning about opportunities such as the Working Centre’s Queer and Trans Bike Night at Recycle Cycle, has made me feel incredibly welcome. Further, working for an organization that is not only inclusive, be celebratory of who I am, has meant that I feel safe and secure in my employment while I adjust to my new surroundings. I know there is a lot of work still to be done in Waterloo Region, but it is clear that are many who have committed to doing what needs to be done to honour and support diversity.

I’m 25 years old and I am normal (okay, I’m weird, but my trans identity isn’t the root of that). I’m 25 years old and I’m engaged, however I don’t balance my self-worth on being wanted by another person, I am enough. I am 25 years old and I know that my gender is mine. I’m 25 years old and I finally feel home.

The Impact of Positive Mental Health

July 29th, 2016

Social SupportsEvery day we learn a little more about mental health and its impact on our well-being. Check out this infographic from the Public Health Agency of Canada about the relationship between social supports and signifiers of mental health:

Social Supports

From Grand Valley Institution

July 28th, 2016

This post by Elizabeth Clarke of the YWCA reflects on her experience with the women at the Grand Valley Institution, and discusses the barriers to social inclusion that these women face prior to and during incarceration. Despite those barriers, these women make an inspirational effort to try to build and connect with others in community, with the help of organizations like Community Justice Initiatives. Thank you for sharing this story, Elizabeth!

“A charming and witty young woman was the evening’s MC. Another woman sang some songs and played guitar, and her voice was astonishingly beautiful. An older woman drummed and performed a piece she’d written, which was sad and funny and powerful all at once. Other women worked the sound system and acted as gracious hosts, serving tea and cake, and cleaning up afterwards. My role there was to say a few words about the YWCA and to receive a donation, and that’s something I’ve done countless times before. But this evening was different, because it took place inside the medium and maximum security wings of Grand Valley Institution, Ontario’s federal prison for women.

Stride_007There’s a remarkable program at the prison that’s operated by Community Justice Initiatives, called Stride. One evening each week, Stride volunteers attend the prison and build supportive relationships with the women who live there, while they make crafts, play sports, and share with each other. One of the crafts that the women and the Stride volunteers make is greeting cards. They sell the handmade cards in the community, and donate the proceeds to a local charity, chosen by the women. The YWCA’s shelter for homeless women and families was very privileged to be their choice this year.

When I was invited to attend the cheque presentation ceremony, I was told that there were a few things I had to do first. I had to submit a new criminal record cheque and attend a two hour orientation. Then I had to arrive at the prison at least half an hour early to give the staff there time to scan me for drugs and weapons. It wasn’t the simplest event I’ve attended, and the cheque wasn’t the largest I’ve ever accepted, but it was absolutely one of the most inspiring evenings of my life.

Incarcerated women don’t belong in community, or at least that’s what they’re told. They’re certainly told that when they’re sentenced to prison, and many have heard that message all their lives. Incarcerated women are much more likely than the general population is to have experienced poverty, racism and other forms of discrimination, physical and sexual violence, and mental illness and addiction. People who are poor, who are marginalized, who are abused and neglected often come to feel that society has turned its back on them, and so they turn their backs on society.

But the human urge to belong – to be a contributing part of a community – is very strong. Giving to others in our community, whether through volunteering or donating, is one way that we show that we want to belong and one way that we demonstrate that we deserve to belong. When the women living at Grand Valley Institution created their beautiful cards and chose homeless women and children to be the recipients of their charitable gift, when they gave me the gifts of their musical performances and their hospitality, they were proving to me – and they should prove to us all – that they do belong.”

Let’s Keep Talking

July 18th, 2016

This #WeBelongWR post comes to us from local TV and radio host, active community volunteer, and all around good person, Mike Farwell. He shares an anecdote illustrating the importance of telling local stories and how it impacts our own sense of belonging. You can find Mike on Country 106.7 and at his Twitter handle, @farwell_WR. Thanks for sharing, Mike!

The man on the other side of the bar had been watching me for at least ten minutes. It’s not like he was staring at me but there was no doubt he was trying to figure out if he knew me. And truth be told, it was getting a little awkward.

Not only was this man much bigger than me but I let my own mind race with how I might possibly know him and, worse, if I could possibly have offended him in some way.

I had just asked for my bill when he decided to come around the bar and take a seat in the chair two spots over.

“Are you Mike Farwell?” he asked.

I answered that I was and he immediately extended his bear paw of a hand.

“I just wanted to say ‘thank you,’” he explained, as his hand swallowed mine. “When I first came to this community, I watched your TV show. It helped me with my English and it helped me learn what was happening in my city. I want to buy you a beer.”

He wouldn’t take no for an answer and so we shared a drink while I learned about his experiences emigrating from Ethiopia and settling in Kitchener.

What a perspective-changing conversation that was for me. And as I look back on it now, I recognize the importance of sharing our stories.

11030388_10206781481718232_3358736114884609832_n-878x494This is not a story of a long ago TV show I once hosted and how it led to a free beer.

This is a story about a man who learned about his new city and found out how to navigate it by watching a TV show we created to tell the stories that were happening in our community. Whether good or bad, these stories helped this newcomer learn more about the place he was now calling home.

And it made him feel a part of that place.

In these days of increasing pressures on bottom lines and the ever-changing media landscape, we’d do well to remember the importance of sharing our stories. If we don’t know what’s happening in our community, and we don’t know the people who are making things happen, how can we possibly expect people to find a way to fit in?

I think we might be surprised to learn the impact of storytelling.

Let’s keep talking.

Cheryl’s Story

July 11th, 2016

How Person Directed Planning Works!

This post, shared with us by KW Habilitation, takes us on a journey with Cheryl towards finding fulfilling employment; a workplace where she enjoys what she does, where she can form positive connections with her co-workers, and where she is recognized for her abilities. Her personal skills and the support of those around her helped her achieve that goal. Well done to Cheryl, and thanks to KWHab for sharing her story with us!

“Using Person Directed Planning (PDP), Ontario community agencies collaborate with natural and community-based supports to help adults with an intellectual disability meet their individual, independently chosen needs and goals. KW Habilitation is thrilled to have had the opportunity, along with the Participatory Action Research team, to create a comic style product to share Cheryl’s story highlighting the success of PDP.


Cheryl Part 1

Cheryl was an employee at a restaurant in Waterloo, ON, working in a food prep position from April 2002 until June 2008. Cheryl enjoyed her job very much and made some long term connections with her co-workers.


Cheryl Part 2In June of 2008, the location she was working at changed ownership and quickly many of the staff that Cheryl had built solid working relationships with, including management, resigned. New management/staff were brought in, causing many changes in work dynamics and the way that Cheryl was used to doing her job. Cheryl became frustrated with the changes and felt anxious about going to work. Cheryl sought out the support of KW Habilitation (KWH) Employment Supports about her frustrations. With the support of her family, friends and KWH, who know Cheryl, listen to her and are committed to her happiness and success, she decided it was time to resign and look for another job.


Cheryl Part 2.5

Cheryl knew the process for finding a new job could be challenging, but she was determined to find new employment.

During the process she focused on the things that she enjoyed doing, such as volunteering as an office assistant at Cystic Fibrosis and Meals on Wheels, participating in Sports for Special Athletes (power lifting, bowling and soft ball), and maintaining her social network with friends.


Cheryl Part 3In January 2009 she got the break she had been waiting for. Through her employment supports at KWH she was able to secure an interview and accepted a position at Wilfred Laurier University working for the WLU Students’ Union in the campus food court. She was responsible for cleaning tables, taking out garbage/recycling and filling drink orders for all the businesses in the food court. Cheryl embraced the new position, made new connections and had a great sense of belonging in her new work community.


However, in May of 2011, all staff was given notice that a new company was contracted to run and make changes to
the food court. Everyone, including previous management, would be losing their jobs. Cheryl was devastated by this news. She loved her job and the people she worked with, and this time she didn’t have the option to resign; she was being let go. It was back to the drawing board for Cheryl, but she kept her chin up and pushed forward, continuing to do all the things she enjoyed doing all the while looking for a new job with the help of her employment supports.


Cheryl Part 5In September 2011, her employment supports discovered that the new owners of the food court at the University were hosting a job fair and were hiring for many positions. Her support system followed through with helping Cheryl to prepare for the job fair and encouraged Cheryl along the way. Cheryl attended the job fair with her employment supports to submit her resume. At the job fair Cheryl was happy to see some of her previous co-workers, who had re-applied and had since been rehired with the new company. These co-workers who knew Cheryl advocated on Cheryl’s behalf to the new company, and requested she be rehired. Cheryl received an interview and was offered employment in the same role she previously held.


Cheryl Part 6Cheryl has been working at Aramark Food Services at Wilfred Laurier University ever since. Over the course of the last few years Cheryl has taken on new responsibilities and roles at her job due to her excellent work ethic, efficiency and team work. Cheryl has also submitted ideas and suggestions to her workplace Health and Safety Committee. She has also been a two time recipient of the employee of the month award during her total work tenure at the food court at Wilfred Laurier University.


Cheryl continues to stay busy outside of work as she is still involved in Sports for Special Athletes, where she participates in power lifting, bowling and softball. Over the last few summers, Cheryl has also taken on tennis as a new sport, which has become a passion of hers. Cheryl is also a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fanatic and organizes pay per view events with her friends.

Cheryl lives successfully on her own, with her bird, and receives support through KWH Supported Independent Living. She does her own grocery shopping at Central Fresh Market and has made natural connections with employees of the grocery store from being a regular customer over the tears. Cheryl also does her own budgeting and with the assistance of her KWH Direct Support Professional she is able to enjoy the things that are most important to her.

Anyone that knows Cheryl would agree that she has amazing enthusiasm and connects with people very easily. She is very vocal about what she wants, as well as what she doesn’t want, and is an active participant in the process of achieving the goals she sets for herself. Cheryl says “my supports have helped me achieve the goals that I have set for myself and I feel confident that they will continue to support me when I have new goals.”

Through this story telling process, Cheryl clearly identified that a support system that knows you, listens to you, is committed to you and does what they say they will do, makes person directed planning work!”

Cheryl Part 7

To see the full comic, click here.

Everyone Has a Disability… No One is Perfect

July 8th, 2016

In this post, long-time writer, nanny, and community advocate Melissa Martz reflects on her experiences of growing up while feeling isolated, and on how she was able to overcome those challenges. By taking the initiative to participate in her community and finding people who appreciate and support her, Melissa has grown to be a happier, stronger, and more fulfilled person today. If you’re interested in contacting her, you can reach her at Thanks for sharing, Melissa!

“It’s the insecurities in your life” is what was recently implied about me. I was a bit taken aback by that comment, as I didn’t think I had any more; my life was going amazingly well. I am happy.

Maybe the characteristics of insecurities were presenting themselves again from when I was a child and teenager, as I organized my thoughts to tell ‘My Story’ of triumph over adversity.

The following saying has gone around Facebook several times. It really resonates with me…actually, fits me to a ‘T’.

I’m stronger because I had to be

I’m smarter because of my mistakes

Happier because of the sadness I’ve known

And now wiser because I learned

A few days after I was born, I had both a seizure and a brain bleed; rushed to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and put on life support. When I was one week old, doctors wanted to take me off life support, and my parents were forewarned that I would not live very long when life support was disconnected, and if I did, I’d be a ‘vegetable’. Well, I am now 39 yrs old, and I have now power walked the  Minds in Motion Walking Classic (Canada’s ONLY Competitive Walking Race) for several years now.  I have placed FIRST in the 5K for the 35-39 age category…..three years in a row!

My development was slower than average. I met developmental milestones at my own pace; with the help of physio, occupational and speech therapies at the Rotary Children’s Centre (now called KidsAbility). It was at Rotary where I was diagnosed with a mild form of cerebral palsy. Although if you looked at me, you wouldn’t suspect that at all.

School started right on schedule. Grade one is when my challenges in school started. The teacher I had always seemed to be picking on me. I remember one day my desk was messy, she picked up the desk, dumped it out on the floor, and stood there watching me like a hawk as I cleaned up the mess. My first taste of being bullied right there.

I was petrified of her. I recall going home for lunch every day and not wanting to go back for the afternoon. My favourite piece of playground equipment was (and still is) the swing; so my Mom would take me out to our backyard and just let me swing and swing and swing, to alleviate my anxiety and help me relax. One day we had a police officer visit our class, and he showed us his set of handcuffs, and proceeded to demonstrate how they worked by putting our teacher in them. I vividly remember clear as day saying in my head “throw away the key.”

Phil Grominsky was both my Grade 5 and Grade 8 teacher. He was a teacher like I never had before. It didn’t matter to him if you had different abilities or learning styles; he did not ship you off to the special education room like many teachers do. I asked him several years later why he didn’t just send me off to the special ed room for math and language arts (yes, language arts!) for an article I was writing about anti-bullying. His response was: “I believe that it’s best to keep children in the classroom as much as possible. It helps with their self-esteem, which helps promote a better learning attitude. It also showed the rest of the class that we work together as a community.”

Thanks to him I stayed in the classroom, doing assignments at a level that I could handle and working alongside my peers, rather than going to the special ed room for 25%-50% of the time, which was somewhat unusual at the time.

I repeated Grade 6, and as I sit here contemplating my first year of grade six, there were incidences throughout the year where I was made to feel ‘this small’ and was embarrassed. When I would give a presentation in class, it seemed I wasn’t able to do it independently; my teacher was sitting on one side of me, and the special education teacher was on the other. Not the way to instil self-esteem. The news that I had to repeat the grade was devastating to me, and the following year I cried in class the first day of school, I felt so sad, alone and stupid. Watching the grade 7 class pass my classroom, noticing me and hearing their snickering… yeah, not a nice feeling at all. Another time classmates were going to present their speeches as part of the public speaking competition, it was the time I would normally go to the special ed room, so I was sent there, and missed listening to the speeches. Fortunately, the one I really wanted to hear about my classmate’s life with a sibling that had a disability went on to the finals, and I was able to hear it then.

12049246_1224111820938410_3181503364170907110_nThe good outweighs the bad, right? Despite all the difficulties I had in elementary school, the seeds of my future careers were planted during those years. For a few years, our school had a congregated classroom of students that had autism. I used to help in that classroom, as well as accompany students out for recess. I was also a library helper during recess for several years, and wrote 12 books that parents would type out and bind for students. The hobby of writing which originated in the primary grades has turned into publishing magazine articles on an array of topics in more than 30 publications thus far. I released my first book “Inclusive Playgrounds: Play for Every Child” on September 18, 2015, and will be releasing my second book, this one on finding childcare, this fall. As well, my Mom kept a record of our school years in a ‘School Days Treasury’ which included what we wanted to be when we grew up. Most years I  said I wanted to be either a teacher or a babysitter.  Today, I will soon start my 17th year as a Nanny, and in that role I have taught early childhood concepts. Working with children with disabilities has happened in various roles from feeding individuals who had significant disabilities at a residential institution, childcare provider, 1:1 worker in the community, and volunteering at fundraising events at KidsAbility.

In high school, most academics didn’t pose a struggle (I took basic math all throughout high school). The one class that I had difficulty in was computers. I just got by. I was lucky to have yet another caring and compassionate teacher come into my life: Bernie Pickett. He came in and took the time to help me understand the various programs and assignments. I undoubtedly referred to him as my favourite teacher. I am so fortunate to still have that favourite teacher from high school in my life today, now as a very dear friend. He was actually the one who was adamant that I get my story written. Recently he relayed to me: “I enjoy our emails, calls and get togethers because of the connection to ‘times gone by’ but mostly because of you. You have always had a special place in my heart for the way you carry yourself, and how you have dealt with the many challenges sent your way. You have maintained a positive outlook on life and people and that is what makes you special to me.”

11256871_10153351986758200_4765771394528653491_nThe seeds that were planted in high school were for community service. Early in my community service endeavours, I was recognized for my commitment with a  Youth Appreciation Award for Outstanding Community Service from the Optimist Club of Waterloo Region, and a Coaches Award for St. Mary’s High School’s track and field team where I was their manager. When I graduated in 1995, I received The Rotary Club Award for Community Citizenship. Since graduation, my community service has expanded in many ways from volunteering in classrooms and event committees, to promoting community events via social media and financially supporting my favourite charity, KidsAbility. Receiving an award for track and field, even though it was for a support role (I do not run!) inspired me to start power walking and now, I’m power walking in many charity races!

I didn’t really have many friends in school. I recall one day in grade 12 when I just broke down at home saying I was so lonely, I had no friends. My family couldn’t comprehend why I was so upset about this all of a sudden, as the past four years it hadn’t bothered me. It in fact did bother me, I just kept to myself and hid my feelings. I was told once that I was an “old soul.” I wasn’t  drawn to what others my age were interested in, in terms of music, hobbies, and extra curricular activities. I was afraid to say that I liked country music… because no teenager likes country music.

Now in 2016, look at how many people my age like country music!

Sharon, Lois and Bram were on tour for their Christmas album; they performed two concerts back to back in Kitchener. I went to both shows; accompanying  individuals with significant disabilities  After the second concert, we went backstage to meet Sharon, Lois and Bram in person. That was a thrill for me… growing up on their music, and now had the chance to actually meet them. Everyone else could have their dream of meeting The Backstreet Boys or Barenaked Ladies… I met Sharon, Lois and Bram!

Facebook has become a great tool for me to network.

I now have Moms who contact me to find out about children’s activities around town.

Going on dates? Yeah, I went out with a few guys in my early 20’s. One of those guys I could tell was hoping to start a deeper relationship, but I just wasn’t interested, I knew it wouldn’t have worked out.

I have watched all my siblings get married, and beginning to have families of their own. Initially I was quite upset about this, after all, I’m the oldest, I should be the first one to get married, right? I worked through my emotions, and today it doesn’t bother me.

In retrospect, if I had gotten married to that guy in my  early 20’s and had a family, I would most likely would  not have met in my 30’s the two people who have ultimately become my closest, if not my best friends. I can’t imagine my life without either of them.

Theresa is younger than me; actually went to school with my one of my brothers. We met at a weekly children’s event called “Kids Hop!”, a free children’s concert held on Tuesdays at The Kitchener Market. I would bring the little girl I was a nanny for, and she brought her daughter. We have now developed a close friendship. We both still go to Kid’s Hop, me with the new kids I look after and she with her son. She was the very first person who I ever heard say that I was someone’s best friend.

20130930_220224 (1)Ontario children’s entertainer Erick Traplin is the other person. He is the one who performs at Kids Hop! I initially met Erick in 2001 when I hired him to perform at at an event I was organizing; but we didn’t become friends until five years later. That friendship has become one-of-a-kind. We’ve been asked on several occasions if we are father and daughter. He is indeed someone who has become another father figure in my life I can turn to. I am certainly a more confident, compassionate and open minded person because of him.

Looking back at not only all I have overcome, but what I have achieved, and how busy I am in the community; the t-shirt I recently bought on vacation fits me to a ‘T’ now: Life is Good… Grow Your Own Way. I have grown and continue to grow – my own way.

Strong Bonds, Resilient Neighbourhoods

July 6th, 2016

This post, written by Darren Kropf of the City of Kitchener’s Community Service Department, shows us how building strong connections in your neighbourhood can not only lead to fun, but to safer and more cooperative communities. Thank you for sharing, Darren!

“A young family recently moved to Kitchener from Chicago. As you can imagine, a big move like that can be quite challenging for children (and for us adults too!). What will their new home be like? How will they make friends?

The family attended Kitchener’s 2nd annual Neighbours Day on June 11, 2016. The whole family enjoyed free outdoor activities, a magician and a community art project. The children especially enjoyed the popsicles on a sweltering hot day!

IMG_2071Afterwards, the parents shared how excited their kids were to be part of such a fun neighbourhood where cool events like Neighbours Day happen. Their family had completed one step towards feeling like they belong in Waterloo Region.

Currently, the City of Kitchener is developing a Neighbourhood Strategy.  To do so, we’ve put together a large project team of passionate volunteers and city staff. We’re going all over the city with “street teams,” asking for people’s input. Fun and inspiring focus groups are being held by neighbours and organizations. We threw a big party back in April and are hosting a placemaking challenge on August 13. Of course, there are engaging online tools as well.

Why go to all this effort? Is it really such a big deal if neighbours know each other and have fun things to do together? Yes!

On February 22, 2011, a massive earthquake hit the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. People are still rebuilding from the damage caused 5 years later.

In looking back on the emergency situation, first responders noticed a difference between certain neighbourhoods. In the close-knit neighbourhoods, people worked together to make sure everyone was safe. On the other hand, some people waited days for help, simply because no one was looking out for them because they had never really met before.

Thankfully, there’s not much risk of earthquakes here in Kitchener. But other emergencies can still happen, and imagine how that new family from Chicago might feel if a crisis hit their neighbourhood. Would anyone look out for them?

Helping-HandsOur neighbourhoods are constantly growing, changing and adapting – just like the people within them! Through fun events like street parties and carnivals or random encounters at the park, trail or sidewalk, social connections are built. Once people belong, they can respond to any crises or challenges that come their way.

Even better, they start to work together on a proactive basis, making their neighbourhood the best it can be. Who knows what kinds of ideas and talents that family from Chicago might contribute to their new neighbourhood? Maybe they’ll host a party of their own!

After all, a party is more than just a party. It’s a pathway to belonging and the transformation of a neighbourhood.”

Would We Embrace Emperor Norton?

July 4th, 2016

This post, written by Bridges to Belonging‘s Executive Director, Cameron Dearlove, tells the heartwarming tale of one community’s love affair with their “Emperor”, and challenges us to consider whether our community would similarly embrace Emperor Norton. This piece was originally published in The Community Edition.  Thank you for sharing this piece, Cameron!

On September 17, 1859, in the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper, Joshua Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States. Though the editors may have printed his words as a joke, this ludicrous declaration was the beginning of a 20 year love affair between Norton and his community.

Early in his reign, Emperor Norton issued decrees dissolving congress and ordering the US Army to depose the elected officials. Though these decrees were ignored, Norton persisted in his reign, proposing changes that he believed were necessary to better the city and nation.

At times he was visionary: he issued a decree to form a League of Nations (later founded in 1920), and a decree for the construction of a suspension bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco (the Bay Bridge opened in 1936).

When not issuing royal decrees, Emperor Norton could be found inspecting the streets, sidewalks, cable cars, and even the appearance of police officers in San Francisco. His regal attire consisted of an elaborate blue uniform adorned with decorations given to him by US Army officers, a beaver hat with a peacock feather and a cane or umbrella.

Nort10dOver the years, citizens of San Francisco grew to love and revere their sovereign. Though penniless, Norton ate at the finest restaurants and had reserved balcony seats for theatre openings. He issued his own money, which became accepted local currency. When his royal uniform became ragged, the Board of Supervisors purchased him a replacement, for which he issued each of them a “patent of nobility in perpetuity.”

When a police officer arrested him for lunacy with the intention of committing him to involuntary mental health treatment, the citizens and newspapers were outraged, leading to Norton’s release and a formal apology from the police chief. Emperor Norton graciously issued an imperial pardon to the errant police officer. From then on, Norton was saluted on the street by the police.

And why wouldn’t they love Emperor Norton, when he kept the city safe? With racial tensions high, there were occasional demonstrations and riots against the Chinese community. During one riot, Emperor Norton placed himself between the two parties and recited the Lord’s prayer until everyone peacefully dispersed.

On January 9, 1880, the San Francisco Chronicle’s front page headline read “Le Roi est Mort.” His pauper’s coffin and funeral were replaced by a rosewood casket and a royal farewell, funded by the San Francisco businessman’s association. An estimated 10,000 people representing all classes from the community came out for the funeral, paying respects to the fallen “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

Emperor_Joshua_A._Norton_IWould Waterloo Region embrace Emperor Norton? In today’s busy world, would our community spend the time to get to know and honour someone a little bit different? If you saw Emperor Norton inspecting King Street in his full regalia, would you take an interest in him as a person, or walk the other way?

If we aren’t that community, we could be.

A great community is one where our differences are not only tolerated or accepted, but embraced and celebrated. Where our diversity is our strength, and compassion our glue. Where the oddballs, misfits, and shockingly ordinary all belong. Where different is an undeniably positive adjective.

This summer, Bridges to Belonging is launching a campaign called #WeBelongWR to get us thinking not just about the importance of belonging, but about what each of us can do to create a community where everyone belongs. Belonging often feels abstract, but its impact is very real. Our actions should be real, too. We Belong encourages each of us to foster a sense of belonging in others through simple, everyday actions with friends, neighbours, colleagues and strangers.

Everyone deserves to be embraced like Norton was; to have their presence welcomed, their voice heard, and their life and impact on others celebrated. I invite you to visit to see how you can get involved and make your community one where everyone is treated like an Emperor.


July 4th, 2016

This post, written by Kat van Groove of Organic Groove, speaks to the healing and transformative power of community, and the particular way that power manifests through drumming in community. Thank you for sharing this piece, Kat!

“Have you ever felt incredibly alone even though you were surrounded by other people? It’s a heavy, lonely feeling. I felt this way for 4 long years, when I was in university and couldn’t seem to make a single new friend.

Being shy didn’t help, but my biggest barrier was that I was unaware that I was suffering from depression. I didn’t have a name for it or understand what I was experiencing or how completely it was affecting my life. All I knew is that I was often emotionally overwhelmed and unable to connect with the other students in my classes, even though a good friend could have made a world of difference. And even though I was studying English, I had no words.

My story may surprise people who know me now because today, my life’s work through Organic Groove involves connecting people and creating community through rhythm. If you were meeting for the first time, you might describe me as extroverted, confident, happy and relaxed, and always laughing.

So how did I go from depression and fear to openness and love?

Although I have also found good emotional release through love, yoga, meditation, counselling, medication, walking, making art and strong friendships, the simple answer is drumming in community.

Tala_Syrian Refugee Fundraiser_2015When we drum together, we become more the same. Everything synchronizes: our breathing, core temperature, physical movements, right down to the beating of our hearts. When we entrain to the same rhythmic pulse, differences fall away. We enter a magical state of flow, where it’s easier to be in the rhythm than not.Everything in nature longs for this sameness, right down to the molecular level, where high pressure seeks low pressure: wind is literally nature’s desire for sameness. We belong to this natural world—we are made of stars!—and we are social creatures. We need our friends and family. We need community, at work, at school and at home. We are happier and healthier when we share our lives with one another, from eating and talking and dancing and singing to hugging and laughing and yes, of course, drumming.

The gift of my time of not belonging is remembering the awfulness.

Because I know how it feels to be surrounded and still feel lonely, I teach group classes instead of private lessons. Because I know how it feels to crave connection, I create safe and welcoming spaces. Because I know our inner critics can sound like shouting from rooftops, I promise that there are only happy accidents instead of mistakes. Because I remember wanting desperately to connect with other people but didn’t know laughing our heads offhow, I ask people to introduce themselves and share something about who they are. Because I know we can spend too much time thinking negative or anxious thoughts, I encourage my students to try to relax, close their eyes and just breathe. Because I know how it feels to feel on the outside, looking in, I see every circle I lead as an opportunity to help people connect with themselves and others. And the next thing you know, we are friends.

Every circle, every class, each time we gather, I do what I can to help us connect with ourselves and others. Tiny, brave steps, added up and taken courageously together, create community.”