In 1972 Illa Wood began working at Barrydale Dorm. It was her first experience working with the handicapped and she says that the experience has changed who she is. From the clients, she has learned “everything that is positive and good.” She loves the work and the people involved and wants to give back as much as possible.
Illa was initially overwhelmed at the Dorm and was not sure she would want to continue with the work. The Dorm was just new and they didn’t have much to work with. There was very little money available for staff, so thirty-three clients were supervised by two staff members. Conditions were hard for clients and staff alike.
It was hard work, I think everybody was probably really stressed out. We had little children and children from age six up to their late twenties, with such a variety of problems.
The staffing situation was so low that there wasn’t time to give any special attention to individual clients. Illa remembers a great focus on keeping the dorm “so clean that when you walked into it, it would remind you of a hospital.” She says the time spent waxing and shining the floors might have been better spent on quality time with the clients. Illa credits Chris Turnmire, the Association’s first Executive Director, with moving the focus away from housekeeping and redirecting energies toward the clients.
In those days no one was required to have training. Mainly because it was very, very low pay. I worked full time, a full month’s work and my first paycheck was $217.00
The younger children and adolescents were sent to bed at 7 o’clock at night. They had no time to relax and have an evening. The older children stayed up until 8 o’clock and they were not given a choice. Illa remembers that the bedtime routine was necessary because there was just not enough staff to adequately supervise the group during the evenings. The dorm operated on a strict routine that allowed residents few life choices.
Conditions remained that way for quite a few years. The Association could not ask for higher qualifications from its staff because the pay was so low. “All in all, the dorm filled a need that was there. The parents built a place so that their son or daughter could attend the Peace School of Hope. It was the best they had at that time.”
It was unusual to have male staff in the group homes in the early years. In the mid 1970s, the first male group home worker was hired. Illa remembers him as “such a special person that he fit right in with no problem.” He had moved to Grande Prairie from Cape Breton Island and only stayed for one year. From that point on, more male staff was hired and Illa says the male clients benefited by their presence.
Integration of the Peace School of Hope students into the public school system occurred while the students were still living in the dorm. The students occupied their own wing of Montrose Junior High School. Illa had reservations about how it was going to work.
When that happened, again, there I was. I was thinking ‘how is this going to work?” I just didn’t see how it was going to be successful. I was learning the whole time. The dorm was still open when they integrated. And that turned out to be so great. They had young people from the other part of the school who were involved. They were so smart about it. It was much easier for the clients.
By 1980 Barrydale Dorm had only eight adolescents in residence. They were eventually moved, along with all of the adult clients, into various group homes. Illa remembers that as a time when the changes really started to take place. They began to experience social freedom, made possible because there was more staff in place and more one on one interaction. The clients are number one and their choices are what are listened to. That’s what has made all the difference.
Illa says “it’s the most wonderful thing” that attitudes have changed from those of the early times. In the beginning, the public was just not educated about or familiar with the handicapped being out in the community. They were such a novelty and people would stare at them. Illa hasn’t noticed that happening for the last fifteen years or so.
People now are so accepting because they’ve had a chance to know the people with handicaps. They are educated now, more or less. Bad attitudes are not common.
When you work in the group homes you become a part of the clients’ lives. The biggest problem with medical issues was the attitudes of some members of the medical profession toward the handicapped. Illa remembers an adult client who was treated like a child during appointments, the doctor giving him a sucker at every visit. Another doctor didn’t administer freezing while giving stitches because his attitude was “he doesn’t feel it anyway.” Illa says it was tough to see the clients endure an attitude that would not be there for someone else.
Beginning in the 1980s, training became available for existing staff so that a higher standard of care could be delivered to the clients. “There are so many wonderful things happening in the group homes now.” The clients actually do live like it’s their own home. The residences are personal and comfortable and there is enough staffing to accommodate client preferences. Individual support is possible for clients.
Illa says that now is a great time to get involved in working with the handicapped. The biggest problem facing staff today is that wages are still not to the level where young people need them to be in order to support themselves. Attracting and retaining young workers is an issue that is important to deal with. “A lot of good people come and then they don’t stay long.”
Illa now works part time at New Generations, which is a used clothing store run by the Association.