When he was 11, Ges Bushe’s mother, Carmen Farrell, wrote a powerful essay on the compassion of children, published in the Globe and Mail in 2012. In it, she describes how nine- and ten-year-old children worked together to create “Club G”, a recess and lunchtime playgroup focussed around the social and physical well-being of her son with special needs. The response from the children in his North Vancouver elementary school was overwhelming – more than 60% of the students in that grade volunteered to take a journey that would prove to be life-changing, not only for Ges, but for everyone involved.
Ges was born with a movement disorder that affects the quality of his motor movements, including both fine motor control and large muscle coordination. He is also on the autism spectrum, and communicates by typing on an iPad.
“Part of Ges’s disability is a major disconnect between his mind and his body,” explains his father, Gervase Bushe,” a business professor at Simon Fraser University. He started walking and running quite late, developmentally-speaking– he’s still not very fast, but he’s always been very persistent.”
Student led and organized, Club G provided the perfect balance of social and physical stimulation for Ges but perhaps more importantly, provided a place for the social and emotional learning of his peers to blossom .
“One of the reasons Club G was so exceptional was that it got away from the idea of ‘charity friendship’,” explains Farrell, who is also the founder and executive director of the Social Emotional Empathy Development Society (SEEDS). ” ‘Charity friendship’ is a relationship where one person is ‘good’ for spending time with someone else who needs ‘help’. The relationship can never be genuine because it will always be about that imbalance…I am ‘worthy of praise or reward’ because ‘poor you’ needs my help. It is my belief that when kindness gets rewarded, you actually kill it.”
Farrell, a communications specialist with experience in public schools – says that in order to create interactions between children with typical neurological development and those with challenges, adults are tempted to offer external incentives, as opposed to encouraging interactions that happen naturally around common interests. She disagrees, and says that the paradigm – particularly at the high school level, needs to change.
“I believe we are born kind. It is our human nature to want to be a part of something that is larger than ourselves. We all want to belong. We just need the natural opportunities and structures within which we can express that.”
Farrell says natural social opportunities like “Club G” give kids safe places to practice living their innate kindness. “In Club G, the kids saw that life was tougher for Ges, but they didn’t view him as “less than” or different from themselves. My generation marvels at this and Ges’s generation has so much more potential to change the world…elsewhere I have said ‘no apology rests in their gaze’ and this is so true of children.”
Now that Ges is in his first year of high school at West Vancouver Secondary School, Farrell is pushing the envelope again, with help from Ges’s Learning Support Teacher, Marianna Karkouch, Principal Steve Rauh and Coaches Colin Dignam and Leslie Buchanan. His sister Shannon, who is in the Grade 10 IB program at the school and on the girls’ volleyball team, is also on hand to help Ges with the transition. His first challenge is the Cross Country team, where he has been training and competing with junior boys his own age in an area of mutual interest.
Farrell describes how Ges’s efforts were rewarded when, during a race where he was approaching the finish line in last place, the crowd broke into cheering and loud clapping for a kid who wasn’t on their team.
“His being there… was worthy of their recognition,” says Farrell. “It pleased me that there was no fuss made about it – Ges got invited to race and that was it – but then it had this huge impact for him, and on everyone there. Any onlooker would immediately see how hard this kid was working just to cross the finish line. And instead of feeling pity, they felt admiration for his grit. Instead of responding from a sense of obligation they could respond from their generosity…and here’s the key…without any expectation of anything else. Opportunities to work on things together, to play together, and to engage with one another through our abilities…not our disabilities…is what creates a naturally inclusive community. This experience is a lovely example of what we need way more of in secondary schools.”
Farrell says that true connections between students happen when they see someone struggling to do something they take for granted.
“It shows them they can try hard too, and maybe they value their own success that little bit more,” she explains. “In order for Ges to race, I’ve had to find people each week to run with him. This week, Luke Harris, a student at St. Thomas Aquinas who is the 2014 provincial champion in the 800 metres and ranked fourth in Canada, volunteered to run with Ges. Luke is remarkable not only because of his athleticism, but because he’s recovering from surgery to remove two large benign tumors from his lower leg that were impairing the peroneal nerve that controls leg and foot function . The pain from these tumors was something he was living with when he won the 800 metres and earned bronze in the 300m at the high school BC Provincials earlier this year. He’s training six times per week and doing rehab three times a week to get back to where he was.”
Luke’s mother, Krista Harris, says that kids like Ges, who give everything that they have, put life in perspective.
“Luke is still on the Canadian ‘Power the Podium’ program for track, but he will have to work for his spot, says Harris. “Kids like Ges are very special because they remind the Lukes of the world what really matters — Ges motivates and brings joy. It has been tough for Luke but he is willing to do the work to get back on top.”
And what does Luke say? “Actually, Ges is helping me more than I am helping him.Working with kids who have special needs puts my life into perspective. This year has been both challenging and disappointing, but my special needs friends have shown me that despite their challenges, life can be full of happiness. The lessons that kids like Ges have taught me will make me a better athlete and motivate me to make a full recovery. It is going to be tough road to run at a high competitive level again, but if Ges can do it, then so can I. I am so grateful to be able to participate and run with Ges. He is like my personal trainer on the road to recovery.”
Another story Ges’s mother shared was related to the transition from Grade 7 to WVSS. At the end of Grade 7, Ges’s class decided to give a buddy bench to the school, but they couldn’t afford to have it made, so they arranged to build it by connecting with woodworking students at a neighbouring high school. Ges was part of the discussions and planning, but even though his receptive language skills are good, few could tell what he really thought of the idea, since his expressive language skills are not.
“Ges was very reluctant to attend the WVSS orientation tour, texting the name of his elementary school repeatedly,” explains Farrell. “Eventually, we were able to work through that, and when he came back from his tour, he seemed very animated and excited.”
His mother asked him what he’d liked best, and he told her that it was the woodworking room, so she asked him why.
“Because I want to build furniture,” texted Ges. “What kind of furniture?” asked his mother. “Buddy benches for kids in elementary schools,” replied Ges, giving his mother a big hug.
“This is an example of what is possible if you take a vulnerable child like my son and treat him with nothing but kindness and compassion,” says Farrell.
While Ges won’t be able to run competitively on his team due to the championship rules and structure at the high school level, there is a para-athlete event coming up on November 7 in Vancouver in which Ges will be running with either Luke or his brother Andrew, who’s known Ges for several years.
While Farrell wants to see changes in the approach towards inclusiveness, she has high praise for the people at West Vancouver Secondary School, and is confident that the district as a whole is progressive.
“Ges does six classes in regular rotation, then two support blocks with his learning support teacher, Marianna, who is a rock star and has a great reputation in the community,” says Farrell. “WVSS has a very well-known and robust resource room program that’s recognized across the North Shore.”
As a newcomer to the school and school district, Farrell says she always feels like someone has gone ‘above and beyond’ when she goes to WVSS…even if it’s just a smile or holding the door open. But often, she says, it’s much more than that.
“I remember one of the VPs saying during the orientation that they didn’t have strict rules, but that they did have three important values to guide student conduct – respect, responsibility and kindness,” recalls Farrell. “They are really doing an amazing job of living those three ideals.”
So many people are working together so Ges will be as independent as possible when he graduates: A class act – and a lesson that will pay dividends for his classmates and educators.Tags: SEEDS, special needs, WVSS