Janet Klees brings people with disabilities into the community

Janet Klees, executive director of the Durham Association for Family Resources and Support, in her office in front of a painting by Pickering artist Tiffany Dawe.

Janet Klees smiled as she began telling the story of Pickering’s Tiffany Dawe.

Klees, in her late 50s, is the executive director of the Durham Association for Family Resources and Support (DAFRS).

Dawe, in her 40s, has a developmental disability. She is non-verbal, and requires others to  help her make choices. Klees worked as a coordinator with a group of people to find out Dawe’s areas of interest.

An artist in the group realized Dawe enjoyed nature and suggested Dawe might be interested in art. With the help of Klees and her team, Dawe joined the art guild and began to sell paintings and have shows like any other artist.

When the opportunity arose, Dawe volunteered with three other artists through the art guild for a Pickering event.

The following week, an article appeared in the local newspaper, the Ajax-Pickering News-Advertister, from the art guild thanking the four artists for their volunteer work. Klees noted that there was “no mention” of Dawe’s disability.

“What was important was her art, and her offering, her contribution, her volunteering – the same as every other person who was in that picture,” Klees said.

“That was a moment I thought, ‘that’s what we’re aiming for.’ Where, yes, she is a woman with a disability, but in some parts of her life, she’s an artist first.”

Now, Dawe has been an artist for 15 years.

Klees helps people to “see people for who they are rather than what they can’t do, which is often what society sees,” said Diane Huson, Klees’ friend of almost 50 years. The two grew up together in Qualicum Beach, B.C. on Vancouver Island.

“She’s a really energetic, compassionate person, who really strongly believes in what she does. She’s very intelligent, she’s very much a person who can help people see both sides of a dilemma without being judgmental,” said Huson. “I could just go on forever for what she is. She’s a wonderful person.”

Huson said DAFRS helps more than 200 families in the region, mainly those that include adult members who have a “developmental disability,” but also some with “small children.”

Klees became interested in working with adults who have intellectual disabilities while on an exchange trip to Germany when she was 18 after graduating from high school. During the trip, she stayed with a family. Klees went with the mother of that family to her workplace, which was a place where they worked with “the most handicapped people… in the region.”

The experience was a revelation for Klees.

“I realized that in my hometown, a little village on Vancouver Island, by the age of 18 I had never met a person with a disability,” she said.

She later learned all of the handicapped people from her hometown were sent away to institutions in cities.

“I went to find out where they were, and try to see what needed to be done,” Klees said.

She found some people in a centre in a nearby town and did volunteer work for them, setting up camping trips, and generally finding out how to enjoy time with the clients.

Klees wasn’t sure how she would help disabled people, but she wanted to. She wanted to stop the stigma and bring everyone together.

“She’s very invovative, she’s bringing in some very different ways for families to have their adult sons and daughters succeed in life in ways that right now, they’re very isolated and segregated,” Huson said.

Klees worked for the Rougemont Co-operative located in Pickering, a co-operative housing group, and the Deohaeko Support Network, which has no offices and helps families to create a home together, before joining DAFRS more than three years ago.

Klees has written two books, We Come Bearing Gifts and Our Presence has Roots, about her work with the Rougemont Co-operative and the Deohaeko Support Network. She also speaks at conferences, about relationships, community, function of a paid supporter, a worker who is paid to assist the disabled person, and housing.

“She’s know worldwide,” Huson said. “She’s been (a) keynote speaker in Australia and Ireland and… Durham Region is really, really lucky to have somebody like her in their midst.”

Klees has been told her conferences have material for both left and right brain thinkers, using both stories and practical information. “I’m a practitioner,” she said, “I don’t want to leave anything to chance.”

Klees has had many supporters along the way. She says her husband Harry has been a big supporter, as well as her good friend Beatrice Mandel, her children Bram, 25, and Joanna, 22, and various mentors such as Michael Kendrick, Wolf Wolfensberger, and Beth French.

Klees said one of the biggest challenges she faced when she began working with adults who have intellectual disabilities was how most people were not open to it.

Now, she finds it difficult to attract people to DAFRS’ programs because, Klees said, the families see the “shiny buildings” at the other support networks  and don’t consider the alternative where the disabled member can become part of the community.

“She really works hard to help families see better ways through some of those (societal)

barriers,” said Huson, “and take some giant steps forward in inclusion, and what real inclusion means, not just what people think it means.”

Looking to the future as well, Klees hopes one day people will “stop making special places for special people… so everyone can go everywhere.”

In other words, she hopes everyone will be part of the same community, like Dawe was able to join the art community.

Klees emphasized “the importance of clear thinking” when planning to improve one’s community.

She advised to develop specific principles to help make decisions as one works, in order to “help you keep honest.” She said to “design things one person at a time.”

“I think that it completes my life,” Klees said of her work. “I feel like I’m part of a bigger change.”