Monday, July 17, 2006


Last week at lunchtime, I stepped into a local used bookstore for a quick look see....... I was in the market for a book on Leadership and thought maybe I'd get lucky and find a used copy. This particular store is a jumbly haphazard mess of various genres stacked way up to the rafters and bulging at the seams. You have to be in the right frame of open non-judgemental "I'm up for a mystery tour" kind of frame to enter this place. Turned out, since I wasn't too rushed, my brain was in that gear. Unfortunately, the specific book I was looking for wasn't around. Instead, I stumbled across a jewel tucked away under a bunch of university text books, written by a spiritual writer named Henri Nouwen.

I was first introduced to Nouwen last fall when I read a book called
Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey, and have been intrigued since then. Yancey writes a whole chapter on Nouwen and the power of his words. My husband and I have talked at length over the winter about wanting to read something of Nouwen's works and there I was....................with one of his books in my hands. Here and Now: Living in the Spirit found me.....................and I brought it home.

It is a gentle meditative book that encompasses a variety of his personal reflections all lovingly couched with his religious beliefs, and an invitation to use his thoughts as a jumping off point to write your own reflections. It took a matter of minutes for me to be immersed in his stories as well as flying through my own personal encounters and stories when I found myself lost in thought wondering about a little girl named Jenny. It is Jenny whom I want to write about today.

I was blessed to have had the opportunity to find my first real full-time job at the Hugh MacMillan centre in Toronto. It is a well regarded rehabilitation centre for children who have disabilities of all severities. I was hired to start up and run a "sensory stimulation" program for kids who were multiply handicapped, through a "Child Life/Recreational therapy" department. This was way back in the 80's, when this type of program was truly in it's infancy stages. I had just completed running a successful summer daycamp program (also a new concept back then) for the kids at the Centre, and had fallen in love with the idea of putting off my Master's degree for a year to tackle this challenge. It was the best decision, because it allowed me to learn a powerful lesson.

Jenny was an 11 year old little girl, who despite her severe physical and cognitive limitations, was full of joy. When I first met her, however, she sat in her encumbering wheelchair lost in her world, with a look of resignation and boredom. Despite the fact that this institution was a rehab centre, Jenny had been "living" there for close to a year. She attended "school" and all types of recreational type programs in the evening, but she lived on a ward with no privacy and with not a lot to stimulate her. I had no idea how I would reach her, but I knew that she had more potential than she was exhibiting. From the very beginning of our relationship, I decided to ensure that Jenny would attend and be involved in any programs that I was providing. She would be my assistant so to speak.

I saw my role primarily as an entertainer; someone who "brought" the world to these kids because they weren't able to go out to the world themselves. It was a critical part of their rehabilitation and therapy, and definately the most fun part of their daily routine, which consisted mostly of medical interventions, orthotic and seating fittings, speech therapy, physical therapy..........the gamut. At the end of the day, my colleagues and I would show up on the wards with various activities lined up for all the patients. I was given my own playroom which I decorated with the idea that all senses must be respected and addressed. Bright colours, textures, music, fresh breezes, sand and water and a big blow up mattress, tasty treats, books and puzzles and crafty supplies were all there for our enjoyment. As well, a weekly trip somewhere fun in Toronto was arranged. Out in the back garden, we had a firepit, shady trees, flowers and a vegetable garden. Even the fence was decorated with colourful strips of cloth that blew in the breeze. Musicians, dancers, crafts people and other enthusiastic volunteers came and went. It was a magical place, that came alive because of the Child Life program.

When I first began working with Jenny, she refused to even wheel herself and I told her that I refused to push her. At first, she didn't know what to think of this or me, because she was so used to being completely dependent. Everyone did everything for her. It was easier, right? So, I turned into a game. Either I would run ahead 10 feet and hide in a doorway or I would pretend to be chasing her. Like a toddler, she loved the surprise and would startle at me jumping out with a big "BOO" and then would start laughing joyfully at the fun. Before too long, she anticipated my game and would wheel herself more quickly to find me. A game of hide and seek.............a first for her and a huge step towards Jenny finding some motivation. The game turned into progress. I would often find Jenny exploring her home on her own, waiting for me to arrive for our evening of fun.

For a whole year, we were inseparable every evening. Our bond grew to a level of comfortable love. Even if I was working with an older group of kids that were higher functioning than Jenny, she was by my side. If I wasn't able to give her my full attention, my assistant was still a part of the group interactions. At times, if I was working with another child who was multiply handicapped and needed my full attention, I would set up a tub of water and toys on Jenny's wheelchair tray, put on her favourite music and situate her nearby. During those sessions, Jenny would often sing garbly words while she contentedly played. Every now and then, she would stop and call my name out in a tone that always tripped me up to thinking that what she was going to follow up with a string of words that formed a ponderous question.

"Yes, Jenny"............... I'd reply and wait to hear what she had to say...............

"Um.........." and then a long garbly worded question would follow.
It would make me laugh, because I just figured that one day, clarity would happen. I also wondered if only I could understand her own language. She was saying something profound amidst the gibberish. What I did know is that we were both happy hanging out together. What I did know is that I had opened a few doors for her to follow me through.
Henri Nouwen writes about finding God and the Holy Spirit in the individuals in our lives that are less fortunate..........whether it's financial poverty or whether its because of a disability. Through his experiences, he learned that it is through working with people that we are blessed. We are not the ones to provide the blessings. It's the other way around.
I was blessed by Jenny. She taught me the same lesson that Nouwen writes about. My year with this little girl who for the most part lived a life that was limited in many ways showed me the face of God. Through her trust, her infectious laugh, the sparkle in her eye and the smile that would spread over her face when she saw me enter her room every evening, Jenny reinforced the lesson of appreciation, kinship and love. She always made me smile, and continues to warm my heart many years later...........
Thinking of you Jen.................


urbanmonk said...

Serendipity Huh?

There may be something serendipitous about me visiting your blog just now..

Do you mind if I add you as a link?

awareness said...

Yes, please do. And if I ever figure out how to add links :) I will do the same.


Bar L. said...

Hey the three of us could start a Henri Nouwen fan club!

X said...

It's great that you can find a book that relates to a memory so well. I hope Jenny is doing well now :)

I love used book stores because they are so random. However, I have always loved the smell of a brand-spanking new book. :)

urbanmonk said...

Layla, ( Im beggin darlin please)

Have you checked out the nouwen societys site?
there a link on one of my posts called the Cup. i believe awareness has perused said post

urbanmonk said...

Ive only just worked out the link thing after six months my self, once you get it, its easy, and you can link to your hearts content..

Ellen said...

Isn't it amazing that the biggest miracles come in the smallest packages?
How clever of you to assign a title for Jenny.... it made her feel important to have that, and it implied a need she was lacking: faith in herself. Very lovely story!

As for the linking thing... I had uber troubles figuring it out too, then had lots of help from fellow bloggers. It isn't as hard as it seems, but then it wasn't at all easy when I didn't know how to do it. Blogger instructions were not coherant enough for me. I'd be happy to help you if you feel comfortable enough to e-mail me.
My e-addy:
I think I can e-back the instructions in a lot easier form to understand than blogger gives.

awareness said...

Henri Nouwen's works are so accessible to read......very gentle and convincing. I will read more of his work for sure. BTW Bar bar a...... how do I access your blog?

Outinleftfield..... I helped Jenny move to a residential place closer to her mom. Because she was totally dependent and couldn't get in and out of her wheelchair on her own, her mom was not able to care for her by herself. The residence was nice, but not suitable for her. It broke my heart to leave her their with other residents who were much older and more "institutionalized." Sadly, the last time I visited, which was so long ago, Jenny had lost most of the "gains" she had made. The environment was not conducive to the sensory stimulation environment she had left.
Jenny's disabilities were severe. My feeling is that she is an angel now......... happy and running through a lavender field, always looking down with her big smile.

Urbanmonk.....welcome, welcome!!
Your own posts will be wonderful thinking fodder. I look forward to reading them.

Ellen.......I will be in touch possibly this weekend when I have time to mess with links. Thank you for the offer to help me.
It's the small miracles that make life so enchanting. It's the small miracles that offer the most learning, don't you think?

TMelendez said...

ah.. what a touching little story about Jenny... thanks for that inspiration!