Community Living Oakville: How one mother found hope for her special needs son

By Allie Murray

Raising a child with special needs is a role that Brenda Kerr never expected to face. That changed, however, when her son Ryan was born with autism and significant developmental disabilities.

Ryan was three-years-old when Kerr was encouraged to add his name to the residential care waitlist. Although she never thought she’d seriously consider this option, when a spot opened for him 10 years later at a Community Living Oakville (CLO) 24-hour care home, she accepted it. This was the toughest decision in her life. She and then-husband Chris realized that caring for Ryan would be increasingly difficult over time, and the waitlist was long and growing. As of today, approximately 450 people are on the Halton waitlist for residential services and more than 800 for day service options. 

Ryan is now 25 years old and CLO has been his primary home for 12 years. His living environment, along with the organization’s many programs and services, have made a profound difference in Ryan’s life and that of his family. Kerr has volunteered for CLO since her son entered into its care and is now a member of the board of directors. Since this year marks the organization’s 65th anniversary, we spoke to Kerr about the impact CLO has on the community, as well as fundraising events planned for its milestone year.

Can you provide some background on Community Living Oakville?

CLO was founded in 1954 by two sets of parents who didn’t want their disabled children to be isolated, shunned and denied. Today, CLO supports more than 300 people with developmental disabilities in Halton with approximately 270 staff who ensure that our most vulnerable population have the opportunities to lead active, rewarding and fulfilling lives. The staff work tirelessly to help the individuals they support achieve the best possible quality of life. CLO programs include various levels of residential support, day service programs, employment services and after school support. While CLO is government funded, many of the programs and services offered rely heavily on annual fundraising initiatives, the largest of which is its annual golf tournament.

What would you like us to know about the upcoming golf tournament?

The 34th annual golf tournament takes place June 4, 2019 at Royal Ontario Golf Club. This fun-filled day includes a Ladies Only Nine & Dine in the morning and a mixed 18-hole tournament in the afternoon. While the ladies’ tournament sold out quickly, there is still space available in the afternoon for anyone interested in joining. We are also always in need of additional sponsors and silent auction donations. This year, our goal is to raise at least $50,000. These funds will be used to maintain CLO’s high-quality day service programs and to provide equal access to its recreational and educational activities. Additionally, CLO is hosting an exciting new event this year – the Starry Night Gala. It will take place Oct. 17, 2019 at the Oakville Conference Centre, and will subsequently occur every two years.

What impact does a child with special needs have on a mother?

Having a child with special needs impacts the entire family. It changes how you live your life and is trying on all relationships. Having a demanding special needs brother has been hard on my other two sons, Kevin and David, but especially on the eldest, who is just 11 months older than Ryan. Growing up, we often had to tell him no, leave places earlier than he would have liked and give Ryan time and attention that I’m sure Kevin so desperately needed and wanted.

What are some of the challenges and rewards of raising a son with a disability?

I never thought I’d have a special needs child. I’m sure nobody does. And to be honest, I felt sorry for myself at the beginning. I wondered why me and for many years it was hard to see my friends’ children interacting, doing normal things, growing up and moving on. Sometimes it still is. Raising Ryan has required patience, compromise and teamwork for myself and Chris. He has, however, taught us understanding and tolerance. We’ve also learned to celebrate the small wins, appreciate what we do have and how to truly love someone despite his or her differences. I think having Ryan in our life has made us all better people although it has certainly not been easy.

As a mother, how important do you think places like Community Living Oakville are for adults living with disabilities?

CLO has given Ryan opportunities that I couldn’t have. He lives among his peers, is respected for who he is, and his days are full. CLO has provided Ryan with a full and meaningful life and they have given me mine back. My heart goes out to the hundreds of people on both the residential care and day service waitlists, as well as their families, who are struggling to cope with no relief in sight.