PHILANTHROPY

The home that love built for the handicapped

HARRY BRUCE January 1 1974
PHILANTHROPY

The home that love built for the handicapped

HARRY BRUCE January 1 1974

The home that love built for the handicapped

PHILANTHROPY

HARRY BRUCE

The Premier himself would drop down to the hilltop in his red-whiteand-black helicopter; the big band from CFB Halifax Stadacona would be oom-pah-pahing away all through the sunlight of the late afternoon; there’d be surgeons, heads of hospitals, professors, bankers, educators, MPs, mayors, clergymen, merchant princes, lawyers, deputy ministers, admirals, top dogs from all over Lunenburg County, from all over the province even; and there might be 1,000 lesser folk who’d all come out to see the sudden little miracle of the Bonny Lea Farm School at Chester, NS; and the brain-damaged kids, the ones the whole beautiful shebang was really all about, they’d be there, too, holding the ribbon for the Premier to cut; and then, on the day before this grandest of all openings, somebody remembered. No flagpole. Good God, how can you have a grand opening without a flagpole?

So David Stevens came over from Second Peninsula. David Stevens, the master schooner-builder. In the barn where he builds his superb vessels, he’d already fashioned a magnificent table for Bonny Lea’s boardroom; and now, he and David Chisling, the school principal, dragged a big pine out of Bonny Lea’s own forest and, after eight hours of sweaty work, they had it up. Unpainted but up. And sure enough, when the Premier arrived, the flag of Nova Scotia flew in the breeze off the nearby ocean.

Stevens is one among several hundred people of the South Shore who’ve succumbed, to one degree or another, to a sudden passion to make Bonny Lea Farm the happiest, most loving, most understanding, most responsibly experimental, most outgoing and respectful school for the handicapped anywhere in the country. The respect is for the separate talents and human worth of kids, teen-agers and adults whose mental, physical and emotional deficiencies often inspire “normal” society to declare them unfit for anything.

The bulk of the effort to build Bonny Lea has come from Nova Scotians. The bulk of the inspiration first came from a rich American couple, Dr. and Mrs. David Baker of St. David’s, Pennsylvania, who chose in 1971 to settle forever in Chester. The bulk of the money has come, through their influence and energy, from other rich Americans. The school started out in a few people’s heads as little more than a cottage-workshop but the dream expanded so frantically that it has already cost at least $400,000, and it’s far from finished. By midwinter there’ll be 70 students there, ranging in age from 5 to 50, and the whole adventure represents a style of U.S. investment in Canada that few South Shore people feel like knocking these days.

Mrs. Baker is one of those nicely comfortable Americans whose families have spent their summers down in the old, green, seaside charm of Chester since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. She is a slight, wan, quiet woman with qualities in her face of both warmth and mournfulness. Her diffident manner, however, belies her determination. It is no discredit to the self-exhausting, after-hours work of dozens of Nova Scotian friends of the Bonny Lea Farm School to say that, without her, it simply would not have happened.

David Chisling, the principal, who happens to be the father of a braininjured child himself, says, “Never underestimate the drive of a parent of a handicapped child”; and, in a sense, the story of the Bonny Lea Farm School began more than a dozen years ago when the third of the Bakers’ six children fell victim to cerebral palsy. Her name is Bonny and, when she was four, medical authorities in Boston told her parents to put her in an institution, that she would never walk or talk. Bonny is pretty well grown up now. She walks and talks. At the Bonny Lea Farm School.

One year ago, the school did not exist. Now, it’s the biggest new, wooden structure in the province. It’s got 18,000 square feet of floor space and, if it looks like an institution at all, it’s the sort of place you always hoped the dining hall of a beautiful summer camp would be. The outside shingles are the familiar cedar shakes of old Nova Scotia. The whole place snuggles against its hill like a centuryold barn in a valley and, inside, the light from the sky combines with the warm, seagoing tones of pine, and spruce to build good moods. The architect, Alan Lorimer of Chester and Halifax, was in a pretty good mood himself at the grand opening.

The building has 22 doors to release the youngsters to the gardens, crops, livestock, barn and forest wilderness that the school also owns. “Our day,” Chisling says, “is not inhibited by school bells and four concrete walls. We can scream on our 85 acres and no one seems to mind.”

The school has already inspired not only a certain amount of fascinated attention among authorities on mental retardation in the United Kingdom, the States and other Canadian provinces, but also the zealous and crucial cooperation of educational and medical authorities in Nova Scotia. It has attracted some financial support from the municipal and federal governments, but nowhere near enough to keep it going for long without charging tuition. And, for anyone sour enough to harbor a cynical thought during the bright joy of the grand opening, there was a touch of irony in the star billing the Premier enjoyed.

The Bakers are neither nasty enough nor politically dumb enough to blame anyone for the terrible educational dilemma in which Bonny found herself in Nova Scotia. The truth, however, is that they rapidly discovered that, in their part of the province anyway, the public education system offered no special programs at all for kids like Bonny. And dismal lobbying experience finally drilled home to Mrs. Baker the lesson that, if she waited for the Regan government to act, an awful lot of the Bonnies of Nova Scotia might have to live an intolerably long time before they would ever get a school they could call their own.

It was only then that she, and a few Nova Scotians and Americans, decided that, well, they’d just have to make the place themselves. And when the moment came to cut the ribbon — just before the school laid out the 3,000 sandwiches and 5,000 cookies that the ladies of the South Shore had whipped together — the Premier asked Mrs. David Baker, of Pennsylvania and Chester, to rise, please, and share the scissors with him. It was certainly the graceful thing to do.