Stand By Me! For the Belonging Journey

Thanksgiving is in the air in Canada.  And 'belonging' was in the air at the launch of the Vancouver Foundation's Vital Signs report.  I was pleased with the reaction to my speech.  Folks understand that belonging has to be taken from the realm of rhetoric and converted to practical action.

I received a number of requests for copies of my speech.  I've pasted it at the end of this post.  It's eight minutes long so you may want to skip it.  On the other hand, to enhance your reading pleasure click on this inspirational rendition of Stand By Me offered by musicians from around the world.  (Thanks Denis Rowley of Equal Futures in Scotland.)  It lasts as long as the speech!  Perfect for a Thanksgiving long weekend!

A few years ago I wrote an article on the same topic – about the challenges of moving from sentiment to action in dealing with isolation and loneliness, Sentimental Journey – We've Had 25 years of Friendship Talk and People are still Lonely.  You can access it at or PLAN Institute.

Here's the speech. 

The Belonging Journey– From Sentiment to Action

After 4 decades of community organizing I have learned to pay attention to what has heart and meaning in people’s lives.

Unless and until people feel they belong, life will not have meaning and they will not care where or how they live; how others are treated; whether they abuse themselves; what they do to our environment; who they harm to get their way.  They will get sick more often and not heal as quickly. And they will not fulfill their obligation to contribute to society.

Belonging isn’t an easy concept to grasp.  As Vital Signs states it is not concrete like a mountain or a program or a grant.

Then it hits you it may be the missing link.  At least that’s what happened as a result of my meeting Rick, shortly after we started PLAN. He wouldn’t talk to me, look me in the eye.  In fact he walked out of the room on me.

He had finely tuned antennae and didn’t trust social workers like me.  As I got to know him I understood why.  He had a file nearly 6 inches thick chronicling everything that was supposedly wrong with him.  In his career as a client of the disability services system he had been labeled uncooperative, lazy, uncommunicative, aggressive, retarded, unreliable and incapable of working. These words would destroy anyone’s self esteem.

Rick believed he was worthless.  He was profoundly lonely.  His spirit had fled.

To awaken someone’s imagination; to ignite their dreams is not easy.  It takes a special person – someone who sees beyond their condition to their gifts; someone who listens; someone who is resourceful, well connected and infused with the spirit of abundance.

We found her – a gifted young woman named Anna. Who we hired to create a social network with and for Rick.

She sat for many hours in silence waiting to hear Rick’s thoughts.  She didn’t offer suggestions or solutions.  She believed in him.

One day she came to our office ecstatic., ‘I’ve got it.  I’ve got it. It’s horses.’  It turned out Rick loved everything about horses.  He wanted to ride them, to groom them; he even wanted to own his own horse.  More than anything he wanted to be a cowboy riding the range.

So Anna introduced Rick to a friend of hers who owned a horse in Southlands.

There Rick met ‘Big Bob’.  It was instantly clear he had a special connection to horses.

 ‘Big Bob’s’ owner invited him to visit the stables anytime – with or without her.  Rick, who had a lot of time on his hands, took up the offer.

Soon, the owner of the stables noticed Rick’s manner with horses, noticed how he enjoyed mucking out the stalls, and rubbing down the horses more than anyone he had ever seen.  He offered Rick a job. 

Rick still works there today – 12 years later – still paying taxes. In fact, when the vet comes, she insists that Rick be there.  She knows the horses are always calmest in Rick’s gentle, quiet presence. 

His Personal Network is one of PLAN’s largest – over 20 people, 8 of whom can be counted as close and dear friends. 

You can imagine the peace of mind this gives Rick’s dad.  That’s what PLAN is all about helping parents answer the question: Who will be there for our sons and daughters with disabilities when we die?

Here’s the lesson I learned.

At first I thought the answer to that question was technical:  wills, estates, trusts, government benefits and disability services.  Then I realized it doesn’t matter how well our wills are written or how much money we set aside in a trust – if there aren’t people in our son or daughters life who care about them the way we do. Who love them and are loved in return – they will be in BIG trouble when we died.  They risk being lost in what can be an impersonal service delivery system subject to the ups and downs of government funding.

We’ve learned three things over our 21 year history at PLAN.

One – One the biggest handicaps experienced by people with disabilities isn’t their disability – it’s  their social isolation and loneliness.

Two, they are not the only ones.  The yearning to belong is universal.  The vitality and richness of life for all of us, is to love and to be loved – regardless of age, infirmity, condition, situation or vulnerability. 

Three, when people belong, the soul returns, life takes on meaning, people start making a contribution and the fabric of our society is strengthened.

PLAN’s effective hands – on approach has been adapted by others worried about an epidemic of loneliness in our society.  Vickie Cammack, another co-founder of PLAN, created TYZE – an on line resource to reduce isolation for the elderly, family caregivers, people with chronic illness, who are homeless, have cancer, or are newcomers to our country.  Tyze is being implemented in Canada, the US, the UK and soon parts of Europe. We intend for millions to benefit from what we have learned about belonging.

Vital Signs validates an emerging understanding that isolation underpins our most pervasive environmental and social challenges. 

It is telling the story that's seldom told.  It is filling in the blank pages of Belonging, which is as much a part of our history as politics or economics.  

Everything goes better with belonging.  Our wounded earth and wounded people need more than technical solutions.

We will reduce homelessness and vulnerability when people's lives have meaning and they feel they belong.  A climate of trust will help us deal with declining civic engagement and the multiple conflicting perspectives on our environment.  We will reduce the costs of care when people are surrounded by friends and family.  Vital Signs gets to the heart of this matter – our connections to each other. 

Here’s a suggestion:  Since nearly 70% of Metro Vancouver declares belonging as critical to our quality of life let’s establish a Belonging Laboratory to explore how we can preserve and strengthen the sources of belonging in Metro Vancouver.  Let’s build on what we’ve got!

On the screen behind me are some resources to accompany you on your journey.    

(1)      Appartenance-Belonging is our bi-lingual slow website exploring all aspects of belonging.  

(2)      Contact me about our Better Together coalition here in Metro Vancouver.

(3)      Speak to PLAN’s hospitality artists and network creators who are here tonight or contact us at 604-439-9566. ( )  

Let me finish with one more chapter in Rick’s story.  For the past 8 summers Rick and members of his personal network accompany him Kamloops to join the Cariboo cattle drive.  Rick has fulfilled his grandest dream. He has become a cowboy riding the range. 

The great French mystic Simone Weill wrote: Intelligence is enlightened by love. 

So is Metro Vancouver. 

Thanks to the Vancouver Foundation and Vital Signs I can imagine a movement beginning tonight. 

A post – Olympic and Paralympic movement.

One that reduces the number of people who die of a broken heart.  One that proudly erects signs at our Metro limits: Welcome to Metro Vancouver – a region where Everyone Belongs.

October, 2010 – Al Etmanski






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