Lessons in courage

by Gerald Haslam – founding member of Coast Mental Health Foundation, author, past member of The Courage To Come Back Executive Committee

‘Intrepid Pilgrim – Lorne Kimber’ by Grace Tan

My involvement with Courage began on a rainy fall day in 1998. Hugh Mitchell, a stockbroker and friend I’d done business with since the early 80s, reached me by phone. “I’ve found something really fascinating, something you couldn’t turn down in a month of Sundays,” said he.

That piqued my interest: whatever could he be talking about and how could he be so sure I’d want to be involved? “It’s called the Courage to Come Back Awards. It started in Pittsburgh; a local organization called the Coast Foundation wants to start it here.”

So? I’d never heard of the Coast Foundation (now Coast Mental Health), had no idea what these awards might be about. I must have sounded skeptical, to put it gently.

“Just come to one meeting,” Hugh insisted; “see what happens.”

What to do? When someone you trust asks you to do a little something – go to one meeting, nothing more – you repay that trust by saying yes. So I went to the meeting, met Darrell Burnham (then Executive Director of Coast, now CEO) and Shirley Broadfoot (first Courage Chair), and other volunteers, heard what they wanted to do, bounced ideas back and forth, made some suggestions and came away totally convinced that this Courage thing was a wonderful idea that could and would change lives for the better. That meeting began a relationship which has lasted, one way or another, ever since.

For the best part of 10 years I was chair of what we called “the vast and powerful media committee” (which had all of two members). I wrote virtually every press release announcing the names of recipients. I met virtually all of them. I went to scores of meetings in the Coast basement on East 11th Avenue. I wrote a book about Courage recipients and nominees called Heroes Next Door. I got to know a number of those folks very well. I came to regard them all as a kind of extended family. For months every year I was consumed by the Courage event. I watched it grow from its rather ragged beginnings into the important project and life-changing experience it has become.

But did it really affect me, change me, as a person? Yes, no question. Let me tell you how, abbreviated version, give you some of the lessons this experience imparted to this one individual. I want to do that by using the best example I can think of, the Courage recipient I got to know best, a hero named Lorne Joseph James Kimber. Born in Saskatoon June 3, 1948; died in Vancouver April 22, 2008.

“I am not a poor disabled person,” he liked to say; “I am, first, a person, and second, I have a disability.” For all the years I knew him, Lorne, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, never walked, never washed himself or dressed himself or brushed his own teeth. His ability to speak declined steadily. But he lived a fuller life than most of us: he was a blazing beacon for people with disabilities, a champion not only for himself but for others as well. He was a mentor and a role model. He was brave and tough and stubborn and cheerful and he had an impish sense of humour.

I first met Lorne in his room at George Pearson Centre, a long-term care facility in Vancouver. He was the recipient in the General Medicine category in the first year of the Courage to Come Back Awards, recognized for his years of successful advocacy for people with disabilities. He was a pioneer in the push for wheelchair accessibility and the initiator behind what he fondly described as Canada’s first wheelchair-accessible taxi fleet (Kimber Cabs, going strong since 1989).

That first time, I was drafting a press release announcing his award. “I may have MS,” it quoted Lorne as saying, “but MS doesn’t have me.” I read the line to him and he said, “Can I add something?” Yes, of course. “MS doesn’t have me,” he went on; “Jesus does.”

Lorne believed God gave him severe challenges because he was destined to inspire others. He believed in Heaven and knew to a moral certainty that when the Lord called him home, as he put it, he’d be reunited with Angela, the beloved wife he lost to cancer in 1987. We who saw him often figured his next bout of pneumonia – by 2008 he’d had survived a dozen or more of them – might well be the last. But that wasn’t how he went, passing on instead peacefully, in his sleep, to be sprightly and joyful again.

He taught me so much more than he realized at the time, about life’s challenges and how to confront them, about optimism and courage, about never giving up. His faith was real, his smile infectious. He taught me that the true measurement of your value is how much you help others.

Lorne Kimber was my friend; if he could face life as he did, the rest of us, with less daunting prospects, can surely do almost as well.