My name is Stephanie Brennan, and my son Brook Sokalski, has been a part of Semiahmoo House for about nine years. A number of years ago I felt compelled to write to you to express the profound gratitude that I felt, because the role that SHS was playing in Brook’s life was literally life altering. He emerged wonderfully!
In many ways, Brook has moved forward in his life in ways that he has now outgrown some of the programs that he was involved with over the years, particularly the Personal Development program – but really that’s a good thing!
But what I am compelled to reach out and express to you right now, is the important role that SHS has played in other directions, and in particular, to highlight two of your staff members. My heart fills as I finally make the time to sit down and compose this.
First, I want to express the sincere and heartfelt gratitude that I have for the input, effort and support of Nolda Ware in creating an Essential Life Plan for Brook. I still cannot believe that this service was allotted to us; and I cannot believe how remarkable Nolda is. She is someone that I hope that you hold onto for as long as she is willing!
Like Nolda, I grew up with a brother who has special needs and so I was quick to recognize that she too has gained incredible insight and compassion because of that background; and I knew immediately that Brook, and I, would be treated with respect, fascination, and at times, the all-important humour, that only people who really “walk this walk” have the right to share. She is incredibly personable, fun and sensitive which is so important and appreciated, especially for parents when we are taking the steps to create documents like this for our beloved children.
And I will back up a little and let you know about the circumstances of Brook’s life during the months that Nolda worked on this document. In August, 2018, Brook suffered a very serious mental breakdown, which required an 11 day stay at the Peace Arch Hospital Psychiatric Ward. Though Brook has led a very complex life, due to the nature of his challenges, we have never dealt with anything at this level, and we did not know if a recovery was even possible. In a “nutshell”, as it is an extremely complex story, he had become rather depressed, feeling that he really did not fit in with “the disabled community” or with “the typical community” – and then he became entangled in a truly gut-wrenching situation with Twitter scammers posing as a “WWE superstar, claiming to be in love with him.”
Brook has worked so incredibly hard (as has his family), for him to become a really special person, whom he can be proud of, and he has such a big heart; and he did not deserve this. His recovery was very slow and complex, with many snares along the way; but I am beyond thrilled to say that he is now doing wonderfully, and is more than his old self again.
However, at that time, there were more intense challenges thrown at us as a family, as seven weeks after Brook was released from the hospital, his older brother Cameron, who was just 31, suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. He required immediate brain surgery to save his life and was in critical care for ten days at VGH. I am also beyond thrilled to say that Cameron not only survived, but at this point, he has made pretty much a full recovery with no significant loss of function.
But it was beyond comprehension that within a matter of weeks, both of our sons could be dealing with life-threatening brain issues. And it didn’t quite stop there, as during that time, Brook’s sister Jenna who is also autistic, was faced with her boyfriend being diagnosed with Bone Cancer. For an autistic young woman to find who appears to be the love of her life, who accepts and loves her for who she is … that does not always happen; the thought of him potentially not surviving was so frightening. But again, I am beyond thrilled to say that she found the strength to stand by him loosing his knee, sitting next to him through his chemo treatments, and they have now weathered that horrific storm together, with a bright future ahead of them.
Anyway, I am giving you this information, as further “proof” of Nolda’s sensitivity towards Brook, and all that he was going through – and for me and the intense stress that I was under. Despite it all, she and I were able to work away at this important document, and now it’s down, and I’m so grateful. And her gentle reminder that it is a fluid document that will need updating as time goes on, and her offer to continue to be a part of that, is absolutely amazing to me. Again, I’m not sure that I can express my gratitude sufficiently.
The other person that I did want to recognize is Liz Deschenes. I am quite certain that I don’t need to spend too much time singing her praises, as I can’t imagine you not frequently “thanking your lucky stars” for her passion, her personality and her drive!
Liz and I have had many interactions over the years that Brook has been involved in the Personal Development Program, and I have always been literally blown away by the times when she would stop by and check in with him when he was there at his program – or the number of times that she would just send me an email and check in with me, not just about Brook, but how I was doing as well. And that was in past years as well, not just when we were dealing with the horrid complexities of his breakdown. And anytime that we have had any stumbling blocks along the way, she was always quick to address, and set up a meeting with which ever staff would be beneficial to involve, to solve the problem.
She is simply extraordinary – and I have benefited so enormously over the years, even simply knowing and feeling that she was in the background. There have been times when that extra edge, that feeling, was enough to give me a boost of support, because when you have such an incredibly complex family, as I have, there are times when as a mom, you do feel very alone, and there are always decisions to make, and things that typical parents just can’t even imagine.
I’m quite certain that I’m not revealing a secret, in saying that in one of our more recent conversations, Liz has mentioned that her retirement is not so far away – I do hope that you are starting to search, because those are some tough shoes to fill!
In closing, I know that in conversations with Nolda, with Liz, with pretty much anyone at SHS, your name and your vision come up. As wonderful as people like Nolda and Liz are, they make it clear that so much of their drive is what extends from you. I do remember you well, as I know when you were a teacher, you taught Cameron, and possibly Jenna and my oldest daughter Brittany.
I have lived and breathed young people with disabilities and challenges since I was five years old, when my brother became a paraplegic, and then two years later, when my other brother was born with Down syndrome and he just stole my heart. When I see a rare individual like yourself, who has the courage, conviction and ability to make a dream a reality, to affect the lives of such precious children and adults …. I feel so many things; but most of all, I feel heartfelt and boundless gratitude.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
UNITI is the partnership of three affiliated societies that have provided important community services for decades. Semiahmoo House Society provides quality services and supports to people with disabilities and their families in Surrey and White Rock. Peninsula Estates Housing Society provides affordable and inclusive housing that reflects the diversity of our community. The Semiahmoo Foundation assures that UNITI has the recognition, relationships and resources to support an inclusive community. Together we’re stronger!