60 years of making a difference

Elmira District Community Living celebrates its anniversary, and the people who’ve made it work for six decades

Marking  its 60th anniversary this year, Elmira District Community Living is hosting an open house to celebrate.

The open house, set for May 13 from 1-4 p.m. at Lions Hall in Elmira, will feature live music, door prizes and refreshments.

A feature of the open house will be the human library, where people can take out a human “book” and learn more about that person’s role and experience with EDCL.

“We’re going to have a table with staff, the people we support,  board members and we’re going to ask people to go over and we’re going to have specific questions that people can ask to learn more about our organization, learn more about why people work here, why people volunteer here, the people that are supported, what do they do? What do they like about living and being part of Elmira District Community Living, being part of this community?” said  Cheryl Peterson, executive director of the organization.

The organization officially incorporated Mar. 31, 1963, though it had been operating since 1960, she said.

Originally, the organization started as a grassroots initiative when families with children with developmental disabilities wanted a dedicated school in Elmira.

“They were going to Riverside school, but they couldn’t stay there,” said Peterson. “So they actually had to drive them into Kitchener to New Dawn School. And [the families] went, ‘well, this is just ridiculous. We should have a new school in Elmira for our children.’ So then that’s how the Guiding Light School started; they built the school with the support of the Waterloo school board at the time, and actually had classes and everything.”

Peterson spoke about how at the time children with disabilities were schooled separately from mainstream schools.

Liz Dietrich and Julie Jamieson had a brother, Raymond Dietrich, who lived with Down syndrome and attended Guiding Light School. He was the eighth child in a family of nine kids. Dietrich and Jamieson’s mother, Irene Dietrich, was a force to help establish the community that grew up around the school and beyond to support people with developmental needs. Dietrich and Jamieson’s parents were dairy farmers and their mother was also a school teacher.

Their mother was a member of the ladies auxiliary that worked on many events to raise money for the organization, as well as served on the board and various committees on and off until she was 85 years old. “That was the depth of her commitment and her belief,” said Jamieson.

“She was a big believer in education, being a teacher, and a lifelong learner herself, so she wanted Ray to have all the opportunity he could. And he did. Guiding Light had some of the best teachers, and he had a very rich experience there,” said Dietrich.

“EDCL supported Ray throughout his whole life,” said Dietrich. “First at Guiding Light School, then he worked at what was called ARC Industries, and then he joined the day program. He lived at three EDCL residences and some of his housemates were lifelong friends he met when he was 6. His last residence was EDCL’s assisted living centre, which is set up for aging residents where he received excellent care. He had two families: us and his EDCL family of residents and staff. To them we are ever grateful.”

Darrell Kunderman is a resident who lives at Elmira District Community Living’s home on First Street. Geri Reid is a long-time staff member who works as a direct support staff in Kunderman’s home. She’s been working for EDCL for more than 40 years.

Kunderman says his favourite thing about living at the home run by EDCL is that he gets to go out every afternoon to do things he likes, like having lunch at McDonalds or grabbing a pop with a friend at the pizza place near his house. Reid notes he also usually helps in the kitchen with dinner.

Reid notes the organization has grown substantially since she first started. She’s watched it move locations, grow and change according to politics and social norms. Through it all, she’s loved her job.

“I still want to be a part of this agency and contribute,” she said. “This is where my passions are. I don’t want to retire – I’ve done it all my life. This is where I found my niche,” she said.

“Sure it’s a job, and yes, there’s days you have your ups and downs,” she said. “But you also know that you love what you’re doing. As much as you want to make their [residents’] lives feel valued, you also feel valued. You feel you’ve brought some joy into somebody’s life. I would be like that with any friend of mine. We’re not all that different, come down to it.”

Reid hopes more people in the community will get involved with EDCL in some capacity, especially to come and be a friend to some of the residents.

“I think it would really be nice if our community would come and volunteer. You know, take somebody out for the day. Have lunch, get to know them as a friend. Because Darrell has had many volunteers through the years and they’ve become his friends.”

“Yup,” agreed Darrell.

“And he still talks about those people or they still stay in contact with him. But there’s still many other people we support that don’t get that connection because we have a hard time finding volunteers,” she said.

Today, Elmira District Community Living provides support services for about a hundred individuals  through access services, day programs, respite services, residential support, supported independent living or recreation activities, to name a few.

A great deal of work goes into raising funds, since the organization receives some government funding, but not for all facets of the operation such maintaining vehicles and buildings.

“When our wheelchair vans are done, we have to fundraise and pay for that wheelchair van, an accessible vehicle to get people around town, to their doctor’s appointments,  to their work,” said Peterson. “That’s just not something that the government is going, ‘yes that’s important, we need to make sure that these people can get around,’ especially in rural [areas]. It’s different in the city where you can hop on a bus.”

Both Jamieson and Dietrich have both served on EDCL’s board at length and helped in various committees. They say they are driven to carry on the legacy left by their mother and all the other families that worked to establish a community of compassion, care and participation in Elmira.

“Essentially to carry the torch,” said Jamieson. “She [her mother, Irene] and others raised it pretty high, and it’s up to people like us to continue to be sure it burns and support that legacy, and it’s an honour to do that. It’s a privilege,” said Jamieson.

“I would say we’d want folks, especially in the township, to be aware that [EDCL] exists, and that it exists with the vibrancy that it does. And that much of that is due to the people before us, who built it and maintained it and it thrives at that level today,” she said.

“You don’t know if people are new to the community and they don’t have a reason to necessarily be aware of EDCL services, maybe there’s nobody in their family who needs them, they may not know. But I think it’s an important piece of the quilt we call the Township of Woolwich. And one that you hope that people just know and value and are appreciative of, and further to that, get involved where they can.”

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