Freedom is an unlikely word to spring to mind to describe Michener Centre.
After all, the former institution, originally called the Home for Mental Defectives, was where developmentally disabled children and youth were housed in 1923.
But the quiet, park-like setting of Michener, with its paved streets and sidewalks, gave David Lough the safety to be himself when he was admitted there in the 1980s.
“David enjoyed Michener because it gave him opportunity to walk on his own. That was very critical for David. He had a routine. Get up, eat, and then simply go for his walk. Come back, eat and go back out. It was a pretty good life, actually,” said his younger brother Bill Lough, 58, who chuckled at David’s enviable pace of life during his 25 years at Michener.
David was born with Fragile X syndrome and functioned at the level of a three-and-a-half-year-old. He was a loner, which meant he just wanted to watch activities from a distance.
“He loved watching trucks, buses, traffic … wave at truck drivers, and then walk back when he got bored.
“David was very aware of everything around him. He reminds me of one of those brooding eagles. The guys that sit up top and watch the world go by.”
Musical recordings, the kind that ended with a big round of applause and cheering, brought out David’s playfulness.
“He never listened to the whole thing. He would listen to the very end when the singer had the big crescendo and then he would take a deep bow and say ‘Thank you very much.’ David liked the accolades very much,” his brother said with a laugh.
David Lough died in 2009 when he was 57.
“I do not believe David would have had any better life outside Michener. I defend Michener for that. He had any opportunity put in front of him that he wanted and he was safe. He was happy. He led a good life,” said Lough, Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre president and outspoken critic of the Redford government’s plans to close down all residences at Michener this year except for its group homes.
David went to live at Michener Centre in 1984 when he was about 30 and his explosive fits were becoming unmanageable.
“When you have a 12-year-old kid at home you can handle them. When you have a 220-pound individual at home in a white rage, that’s a different matter.
“David lived in a rage for the first six to eight years of his life. My mother could not go out of the house because if someone different came in he would blow up. So she was confined in an apartment at that time, in Montreal.”
Lough said their mother, who is 95, has never regretted taking David to Michener.
In most cases, parents did not abandon their loved ones at Michener. It was a place they knew their child was well cared for and the Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre members have continued to take their responsibility for children very seriously, he said.
The society created the very first group home in Red Deer located outside Michener. It established Camp L.G. Barnes at Gull Lake to accommodate people with developmental disabilities. And the members fundraised to build the Michener Curling Rink.
Robert Faulder, 50, of Calgary, said Michener provided excellent service for his brother Donald, known as Donny to staff.
Donald Faulder, born in 1965, suffered severe brain damage from a high fever when he was an infant. He was also physically disabled and lived at Michener for 41 years until his death in 2012.
Their father, George Faulder, former president of the Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre, always said Michener was a “win, win, win” for his family.
“(Donald) got the best care for someone in his situation. And it was a win for my parents because they knew their son was being looked after. And it was a win for his siblings — there’s five of us. It was a miracle and it was a relief to have a place like Michener that would look after their son and take that worry off of them,” Robert Faulder said.
Bill Kitch, 56, of Vancouver, said when his sister Carol Kitch, 54, left Michener about 15 years ago and moved into a group home in Red Deer, her life changed for the better.
“She just seemed to flourish, getting out of that institutional lifestyle and into somewhere she had a little more freedom,” Kitch said.
His sister, who functions at the level of a five-year-old and was born without physical disabilities, went to live at Michener when she was about 10.
He said his family would regularly take her home to Edmonton for holidays and when they brought her back, she would always cry and cry.
Initially he believed Michener was a safe place for her but he also had his doubts, partly because Carol underwent involuntary sterilization while living at Michener.
“It makes me wonder was she crying because she was going back to a bad situation or was she crying because she didn’t feel like she was going home.”
Now Carol looks forward to returning to her group home after time away, he said.
“The biggest difference is the group home feels like her home whereas Michener never felt like her home,” Kitch said.
Coming Thursday: Examining government reports related to Michener over the years.