Merv & Winona Lancaster

Looking back, Merv and Winona Lancaster agree that they have no regrets regarding their decision to care for their handicapped third child, Mark, at home.

We had to work very hard to keep the family together and to try to look after everyone’s needs. It was difficult.

When the Lancasters first came to Grande Prairie in 1968-69, the only option they found for help was to put Mark into a foster home. There were problems trying to get babysitters and there was no standard set. Winona says that, as far as babysitters were concerned, “you more or less took your chance and there wasn’t any place to even have them checked out.”

Winona remembers a time when she was being advised to move Mark to Moose Jaw so that she could concentrate on educating her two older children. This advice really upset her, so she asked her doctor what he thought she should do. The advice she received was that, until the time that caring for Mark at home posed a threat to her marriage and family life, she should just continue to do what she had been doing with Mark.

If you have three children they are all conceived out of love, so because one is lesser, why should you throw that one away? That one needs more help than the two normal children in a sense. It was hard but I could never have slept not having my child with me.

The Lancasters were persistent in trying to find a day program for Mark, as he was not accepted into the Peace School of Hope. Chris Turnmire was the one who really worked hard towards getting a school and a place for young people with disabilities. It was in about 1976 or so that the Child Development Centre started in what was the St. Joe’s college or high school. There were only about five or six kids enrolled in the program; Gerald Miller, Debbie Smashnuk, Ralph Carafelle, Len Hachey, and the Lancaster’s son Mark.

The Child Development Centre operated out of the high school location for a while but found that the stairs were difficult to deal with. The program was moved to the Family Court building, right beside Rentco and at this location there were a lot of new students and staff involved. During those school years Mark was a “socializer.”

As the school got bigger there was a need for a larger facility. Chris Turnmire and a committee met with Gerry Mazer, the Assistant Superintendent of the public schools, to develop a plan to administrate the school under the public system. The students moved on to Crystal Park School. Mark was nineteen at that time and instead moved on to the Developmental Activity Progam (DAP) at the Association, in which be spent his “best” years.

There was never anything waiting for us. For every stage of the way we had to plow the ground to get there. It was a fight. And yet they knew these kids were coming up. Why couldn’t they have the next step in place? But we had to fight for every new beginning.

During the early years that the Lancasters were raising their family, they were aware that public perception was largely that “just the lower class people had handicapped children.”

“Years ago it was a belief that a family that had a handicapped child was less than. And they were said to be of the poor socio-economic group.” Winona went to great lengths in order try to dispel that misconception.

We might have been scraping pennies, but I proceeded to dress my children well. I sewed and pressed and mended and knit and I stayed home those thirteen years and did good economizing. I dressed Mark to the hilt. I was determined that all three would be well groomed and Mark even had expensive cologne in his teen years.

High school and college kids made fun of Mark from time to time. Winona would ask them if they would like to be sitting in that wheelchair. She let them know that Mark didn’t ask to be there either. Mark’s two older siblings were very defensive on his behalf as well. If somebody saw Mark and laughed or made comments, they would be angry and make sure to protect him.

One time Winona came across two young men ridiculing Mark outside a storefront and told them, “Gentlemen, that is my son.” They apologized. Other people would show their discomfort with Mark by moving carefully past him as though he had a contagious disease. On occasions when somebody would pull away from Mark, his niece would say, “You don’t have to be afraid of him, he’s just “Uncle Mark.”

There was a lot of give and take and learning and on the whole. When you look back, you say well, many bad things can happen, even with a normal child. So in these growing pains, I guess there were a lot of things happening too.
“It’s a bit of hurt, anxiety and happiness all mixed up, year by year. A little bit of each in every year. We were really challenged and proud of all our children.”

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