I started my career as a helper at my sister’s daycare, the Frontenac Club Day Care in Kingston Ontario. I had just graduated from Guelph University and was looking for work at the same time my sister needed help to get her daycare ready for licensing. Before I knew it, I was putting hooks on the newly installed cubbies and greeting the first children enrolled at her newly-renovated centre which opened in 1983.
Around the same time, I applied for funding to start the Integration Programme at the Frontenac Club Day Care and I became the first Resource Teacher to work there. As such, I was responsible for the integration of 4 children with special needs; 2 of the first 4 children had Down Syndrome.
One of the children enrolled at the Frontenac Club Day Care was Rosemary, the oldest daughter of Cathy McKercher, who was working as a journalist at the local newspaper. Rosemary was feisty and precocious and a delight to be around. I remember her saying, “Rosemary – a savory herb”. (To this day, I think of her whenever I use rosemary for my roasted potatoes!) Rosemary had a quick wit and great sense of humour. She also was quick to respond when I said I’d remembered that she wanted to be a wildlife artist when she grew up… “No!”, she said emphatically, “I want to be a wildlife illustrator – not an artist!” I had been corrected by a 4-year-old!
Rosemary and her family moved to Ottawa when Cathy started teaching journalism at Carleton University. I moved to Ottawa a few years later and I visited them soon after I arrived here, probably sometime in the early 90s. I then lost track of them until recently.
A few months ago, I found myself walking on the street where they lived so I stopped and knocked on their door to find that, indeed, Cathy and her husband Vinny still live there. I asked what Rosemary was up to and learned that she was now writing and illustrating children’s books… Of course, she was! Cathy went into the house and brought out 3 of the books Rosemary had either written or illustrated or both. She insisted that I take a copy of Rosemary’s children’s book entitled Butterflies are Pretty Gross. (Later that evening, I was delighted to read her book as it is so wonderfully like the Rosemary I remember – funny, informative and very entertaining!)
Cathy and Vinnie asked me what I was doing these days. When I said I was working as a Resource Consultant Team Leader at Children’s Inclusion Support Services, Cathy disappeared into the house and returned with the book she’d recently written: Shut Away, When Down Syndrome was a Life Sentence (2019). It was then that I vividly remembered a conversation I had had with her 35+ years ago. Cathy had asked me what I thought about the Integration Program; I had gone on and on about how it was great that children with Down Syndrome and other special needs were able to be with and learn alongside their peers… eventually I noticed that Cathy had started to cry. She explained that her younger brother Bill had Down Syndrome and had been living at the Ontario Hospital School (now known as the Rideau Regional Centre) in Smiths Falls since he was 2 years old. He never had the opportunity to live in the community that most children with Down Syndrome born after 1960 have had. Understandably, it was bittersweet for her to see other children benefitting from opportunities that Bill never had.
After Cathy retired, she decided to write a book about her brother’s life. This book is as the cover promises: “A book that breaks your heart wide open.” – Carolyn Abraham
SHUT AWAY is well-written and well-researched. “McKercher’s meticulous research and precise, understated prose creates an unforgettable history of children placed in overcrowded, understaffed, and sometimes violent living conditions, and a searingly honest portrait of a family ruptured by the decision to send Bill away. Above all, Shut Away is a moving portrait of a brother.” – Judy McFarlane, author of Writing with Grace: A Journey beyond Down Syndrome.
As we explore what it means to be truly included in childcare and in our communities today, Cathy’s book offers a history lesson of how individuals have been shut away from their communities in the not so distant past. While it is not an easy read, I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants a better understanding of the medical model versus the social model of inclusion.
Rebecca Vosper, RECE, ECRT, BSc (HK)
CISS Resource Consultant Team Leader