When Donald George turned 12, we celebrated his birthday in style.
I baked a cake, Donald blew out the candles and afterward we played games.
It was 1978, and I was the substitute parent at a Whitehorse group home for children.
I was there in January and again during the summer holiday to take care of the kids while the couple who ran the group home was on vacation.
It was not easy to look after the kids on my own. I was in charge 24 hours a day and coped as best as I could.
Donald was the one I could and would rely on. He had been at the group home for most of his life and was able to help me manage the daily chores.
Donald had trouble with schoolwork, but he was very knowledgeable about the outdoors. One of his favourite activities was beading and doing crafts.
Without Donald and his outdoor skills I doubt I would have taken the children fishing to Little Long Lake. And without him I certainly would not have dared to spend a week of our summer vacation in a small cabin at Teslin Lake.
The couple who ran the group home had a cabin at Teslin Lake and so I decided that we needed to enjoy the summer by the lake.
In the ‘70s nobody was wearing seatbelts Ã so off we went, with enough groceries for a week and the kids in the vehicle. The cabin came with a Teslin freighter canoe, fishing rods and life vests Ã well, we were set.
When Jimmy managed to paddle a canoe across the bay, he had just “borrowed” from a neighbour’s cottage, Donald helped me return it.
When the motor on the Teslin freighter did not start, it was Donald who helped get it going, and when we finally managed to get out on the lake, it was Donald who caught a big lake trout.
I never forget how happy and proud he was.
I did not see Donald again for many years. But one day when I was shopping, there he was in the parking lot.
“Renate,” he said and gave me a hug. His coat was dirty, his hair needed washing and some of his teeth were missing, but he still had the same warm smile.
I was sad to see him that way.
I told him that I would bring him a picture of his 12th birthday, and I did.
I met him many times after this. He never asked me for money, but sometimes I bought for him and his friends some groceries while I was shopping for my own family.
And I called the ambulance one day when, after he crossed Third Avenue blindly, he collapsed with a seizure in front of Super Value.
In retrospect, I asked myself, why I did not take him to my home. I hesitated because Donald was now an alcoholic and a very sick man. To bring him and possibly his drinking partners to our house would have been very difficult. So I did nothing.
Donald had grown up in the care of the government during his childhood and teenage years. Why, after so many years in government care, did he end up on the streets of Whitehorse?
Donald, with his need for constant emergency care, had now become a ward of the health-care system.
Donald passed away just two days before Christmas.
Under the heading “Christmas loses sparkle at the Salvation Army”, we not only read about Donald, but also about the situation of homeless people in Whitehorse.
Something needs to change.
Thirty-two years ago Donald was a happy child.
He had just turned 12.