Thursday, November 6, 2008
Reading the earlier posts on Lynda Fletcher-Gordon, it reminded me of my early teenage years growing up as a part of the engine of civic democracy.
When I was in Grade 7, I remember having a bit of a mishap, cracking my knee and spending about 3 weeks at home on the couch in front of the Christmas tree with my leg in a splint. One day in the midst of that, there was a phone call for me: I didn't want to move (understandably at that point, the splint on my leg was bigger than I was) but my aunt insisted that this is one call I wouldn't want to miss.
It was then-Mayor, Betty Toporowski, calling to ask me if I'd like to be on an advisory committee - one of several committees open to public and business involvement, run by city council and help to advise on policy issues, research and citizen interest in certain areas.
The previous summer, Dad and I had worked with Gunther - a neighbour who was a park planner at city hall (I'll always remember he lived in the tan-yellow house on 1st street with the owls on it) - to offer some input on the development of a wheelchair-accessible playground in Queens Park (across the street from my childhood home). He had seen me so many times as a little kid, wheeling from my house at 1st Street and 5th Avenue, up and over about 5 blocks to get to the only curb ramp up and into the park. I'm told that he championed this park idea, and so brought it to our family when it was time to make the big decision... and how many kids get to pick out the playground equipment for their own park? (I tell you, this did nothing to keep my budding ego in check.)
Apparently as a result of that, word got back to Mayor Toporowski about the collaboration with our family, and she put out the invitation to my parents to have them sit on the Special Services and Access Committee, advising issues of accessibility all over the city. Unbeknownst to me, they declined, stating that I was the expert and perhaps she should invite me instead. (!) So that day when I was stuck at home with my leg in a huge splint, I was the youngest city appointee in New Westminster's history - at the age of 12.
I marvel at this in hindsight, as an aunt of 2 teenagers and 4 little boys, how a room full of adults - our council mandate included 2 or 3 city councillors, the City Engineer, a rep from Parks and Rec, 4 New West citizens and the Engineering Department secretary - coped with a VERY chatty teenager in their midst... I'm not sure if I could have been so gracious if I were to be forced to do so with my almost-14-year-old nephew in such a formal setting.
But they did, and that experience remains one of the most formative in my life. I regularly attended the meetings, on the first tuesday of the month at City Hall. I had special permission from school to leave early, and the Engineering Department secretary, Betty, would call and arrange a Handy-dart to bring me down to City Hall (until I became too cool for the loser cruiser and started getting there on my own). I met lovely people like Martin Bowles, a gentleman who had had polio as a child and had spent his life doing volunteer and civic service, who was a true model of an advocate for people with disabilities to me.
Our work was measurable and rewarding: we directed the city to install audible crosswalk signals at major intersections for people who are visually impaired. We gave out awards to buildings and agencies in the city who made special effort to become more accessible, and directed City Engineering to upgrade curbs to ramps. We issued warnings and took complaints from people with access concerns on public land, and gave feedback to City departments like Parks and Recreation for how things could be made better. (Ever used the wheelchair change room at Canada Games pool? You're Welcome.)
I was able to work with and learn about politics at a very early age, and became familiar and interested in the electoral and governance process in a way that I'm not sure I would have otherwise. I learned a lot from the people I served with, but even more, I think that their enthusiastic (and patient) acceptance of me as I was in my early teen years gave me an enormous amount of confidence that has shaped the way I tackle obstacles to this day.
One of the things I am most proud of that I participated in was our effort to partner with then-BCTransit to increase the amount of accessible bus stops throughout the city. Back then, riding the bus was hit or miss for me, because only a very few of the bus stops were designated as accessible stops. When I brought this to the committee, we used our allocated funds that year to match BC Transit's funds so they could upgrade twice as many bus stops all over town - something that no other city was doing.
At the age of 16, I was the longest-serving member of the committee. I had worked with 5 city councillors, accepted an official proclaimation ("National Access Awareness Week"), and been in the paper a bazillion times. This is one of the brilliant things about New West - I remember my childhood, and particularly my experience on this Advisory Committee - with such a sense of volunteerism and cooperation that I see in New Westminster's people even today. I wouldn't say it's necessarily unique to our city, but it certainly does make it better.
So - my thanks to all who served with me and made me into the advocate I am today:
Betty Toporowski Lynda Fletcher-Gordon
Pat Connolly - City Engineer Helen Sparkes
Betty G. Martin Bowles
Casey Cook Gaby Gasztonyi
Betty McDonald ...and others whose names I can't remember!
So - citizens of New West. Don't just sit there and gripe about your city... volunteer on an Advisory Committee!