Abilities Centre a crowning achievement for Christine Elliott

TheStar.com – News/Ontario
Published On Fri May 21 2010.  By Jim Coyle Queen’s Park

There was a teacher who had a lovely phrase for the gratifying moments of his career, those magic times when the penny drops and the delight of understanding lights a student’s eyes. He called them “Golden Crowns.”

You might say Christine Elliott had one recently.

The Progressive Conservative MPP from Whitby-Oshawa participated in a ground-breaking ceremony for the Abilities Centre, a recreation, athletic and performing arts facility fully accessible to people with various challenges and disabilities to be built at the Iroquois Park Sports Centre in Whitby.

“It was one of the happiest days of my life,” she said Thursday.

For Elliott, it’s been a 10-year journey that began even before she and husband Jim Flaherty, the federal finance minister, came to fully know of the special needs of one of their own three sons.

What she did know, from her volunteer work with the Grandview Children’s Centre and Durham Mental Health Services, was that parents with adult children with special needs, “were really desperate about what was going to happen to their children when they were gone.”

Once out of high school, kids with special needs pretty much “drop off the face of the Earth,” she said.

What programs there were tended to be “add-ons (in which) they always get the least desirable time at baseball diamonds and in rinks and so on.

“So we wanted to have a place where their needs would be considered first and foremost – though it is for everybody.

“We didn’t want it to be isolated. We hope to promote inclusion by virtue of the fact it’s connecting with the Iroquois Park Sports Centre.”

The Abilities Centre is intended to be an international centre of excellence for the development of inclusionary practices for people with special needs.

Elliott said it has a chance to be unique in Canada. The nearest model is Variety Village. But the focus there is more on those with physical challenges and programs are largely sports-oriented.

“We want to do the whole gamut, not just sports,” Elliott said. “We also want to have an arts component, as well as music groups and an art room and community theatre (similar to what Famous People Players does.)

“We want to accommodate all of those things.”

The centre will be in the same area as a local gallery. There will be visual arts, painting, sculpture. There will be collaborations with Durham College and the UOIT. It might also provide a venue for the Special Olympics and Paralympics.

Elliott’s wish is that clients can have “a life that’s full and meaningful and have the same kind of social relationships that everybody else does.”

One of the ambassadors for the Abilities Centre is a Whitby teen, Hisham Mohammad, who was a legislative page at Queen’s Park last year.

“He’s an amazing wheelchair athlete,” Elliott said. “He does a lot of media interviews. He’s like a pro. And he’s got the most amazing brilliant smile.”

When Elliott talks about the Abilities Centre, she does, too.

“It’s made it all worthwhile,” she said. “That’s really why I ran in the first place, what motivates me to do all the stuff that I do here.

“This was an amazing coming together of all levels of government and the community.

“To me, it shows there is some relevance to what we do at Queen’s Park. There are some good things that we do. I know it’s hard for the public to believe that sometimes.”

In the often frustrating, soul-sapping world of politics, Golden Crowns can seem few and far between.

But they’re hard to miss when they come along.

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