Stories from the side of the road

Writer Heather Ray Bax interviews Cliff Block resident Richard McDonald, 69, as part of the Royal City Writers project which gives voice to those largely unheard. - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
Writer Heather Ray Bax interviews Cliff Block resident Richard McDonald, 69, as part of the Royal City Writers project which gives voice to those largely unheard.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

While toxicity from heavy metal poisoning left Diane Haynes stuck in her Queen’s Park home for more than a year the isolating illness was also inspirational.

Haynes felt like she was stuck on the side of the road while everyone else whizzed by with their lives. She needed to talk about what she was enduring, but the only person she could burden with her experiences was her partner.

“He got a lot of it, but I could also tell it was too much because he still had to hold the fort,” says Haynes. “I just found that I needed to talk.”

It was particularly frustrating for Haynes because as a writer—she’s the author of the Jane Ray young adult wildlife rescue mystery series and a speechwriter for the UBC president’s office—she loves telling stories.

By the time her health improved early in 2012 her perspective had changed.

“I was well enough that I started to turn the lens back outward again and think about people who were going through the same thing and needed to talk about going through their illness or chronic situation,” says Haynes.

She also started yoga, which has community contribution as one of its ‘intentions’—and she decided giving people an outlet to tell their stories was a good one.

“It was like two pieces of lightning hitting together that sparked my feeling to do something,” says Haynes.

The first person she talked to was Coun. Jonathan Coté, the previous owner of her home. He put her in touch with a few organizations including Dave Brown of the Lookout Society which runs the Cliff Block transitional housing residence in Downtown New West.

Brown told her the residents have stories she wouldn’t believe.

“They’re amazing,” he said to her. “They want their stories to be heard. They’ve got a lot to offer the world.”

Together they launched Royal City Writers in October pairing writers and residents for eight weeks.

Human nature to share our stories

Heather Ray Bax is the author of The Charm Tree, the first book in a four-part series for tweeners, age 9 to 12. She’s also a librarian at the New Westminster Public Library where Haynes held her information session on the project.

“It’s human nature to want to share our story and share the stories of others,” says Bax. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to help those who are less fortunate and struggling, and help them find a connection with the community.”

Bax was matched up with Richard McDonald, 69, who is developmentally disabled. In 1952, at the age of nine, McDonald was put into New Westminster’s notorious Woodlands institution where he remained until 1962. He was transferred to Tranquille Sanatorium in Kamloops and then sent to another institution in Powell River in 1970 before moving into that community in 1976. In October 2002, he moved back to the Lower Mainland, spending seven years in Vancouver before taking up residence at Cliff Block.

“It thought it was a good project to be part of,” says McDonald. “It was something that needed to be happening because without it nobody would have known what I was doing.”

He’s anxious to have his stories told so his family (he has a brother in Hope and a sister in Chilliwack) knows what he went through. He even wants to make a book out of it.

“Richard is a true gentleman with a kind spirit and he immediately made me feel at ease,” says Bax. “I was struck by his intelligence and his incredible memory for detail.”

She’d go home and organize his stories into chapters trying to use McDonald’s voice and not imposing her writing style on his stories.

“It was difficult to hear about some of the events. But I was struck by Richard’s attitude that he’s a survivor, and not a victim. I have a lot of respect for that type of attitude,” says Bax. “He’s taken his painful past and it has made him stronger and instilled in him a desire to help others who may be suffering.”

When he was two, McDonald’s father accidentally hit him on the head with an axe while tethering a clothesline to a tree. At age 11, he fell out of a car when the family was in an accident on the way to a wedding. And during his time at Woodlands, he says he witnessed residents being punished in despicable ways.

“I’ve seen a lot and I was very upset about that because that was no way to treat people,” says McDonald, who is now an advocate for the disabled. “I was glad to let it out because I didn’t want to pass on without sharing that knowledge with the public.”

While McDonald was more than willing to talk about the past, the other writers found their subjects were more interested in focusing on the present, says Haynes.

That was OK because her vision had always been to give people forced to the side of life’s road a chance to be part of the journey again.

It could turn into a book one day, but Haynes says that doesn’t really matter.

“For me it’s always been about the process. This is for them.”

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