Greg Bechard’s contributions over the past 41 years to Renison University College and Elmira District Community Living were recognized on May 2, as he was one of two community members given the honorary senior fellow designation by the college.As the executive director of EDCL, he’s spent 27 years promoting community inclusion for people with developmental delays in Elmira. But it’s important for him to note he hasn’t done it alone, and the award is equal recognition for the people who keep EDCL ticking along.
Outside of that role, he founded the Elmira Developmental Support Corporation, which is a separate entity from EDCL.
“My first comment to my board president is it takes a lot of people to accomplish what we’ve accomplished, the relationship with Renison,” Bechard said. “To a certain extent the recognition should go towards a lot of people because it takes so many people to make it happen.”
Bechard is connected to Renison and its University of Waterloo campus through a housing project he played a large role in creating in Elmira in 2010. The apartment building is meant for people with intellectual disabilities, but two students in the social development studies program at Renison receive scholarships to live there too. Their tuition is paid and rent is free.
“They’re just neighbours so they create community within the building, they’re friends to the other people that live there,” Bechard said. “By being friends and neighbours they fill in some of the gaps related to social isolation and provide a social safety net.”
Students benefit from the experiential learning and finish school with an impressive résumé to boot. The initiative has been copied in two other communities in the province.
Bechard never planned to work in this field, but after taking a summer job at the Whitby psychiatric hospital in 1972, he discovered a passion for the work.
“When I left school I was looking for work and a friend of mine’s father was the executive director of Brantford Community Living,” Bechard said. “He offered me a job to tide me over. I hadn’t really intended to take the job. Once I got in the work I found I really enjoyed it.”
He originally planned to be a firefighter, which would have been a more financially lucrative path, but he has no regrets. He started in the field back when people were just being returned to their communities from institutions.
“When I got started in residential services as a front line counsellor I was involved in what has evolved,” Bechard said. “Moving from 19 institutions and with the closure of the last institution in Orillia in 2009 has been very rewarding for me. I saw what they were like. I knew even then that we should be able to do better.”
He adds another highlight has been working in new types of supports and services, like the participation house in Brantford when it first opened, which was one of the first participation houses in Ontario. He also worked in Mount Forest and developed all of the services from scratch in North Wellington.
“We developed a program here, it’s another one that’s being replicated, it’s called ‘trying it on for size,’” Bechard said. “We have an apartment that people can come and live in to experiment and begin to understand what it would be like to live alone in their apartment and we provide an assessment and provide information to the family, whether or not it would be a good time to move out and if not what might they need to do to make that a successful transition.”
At 62 years of age this year he has no plans to slow down for another three to five years. He notes the commitment of people in Elmira to support the work both EDCL and EDSC has made it easy for him to stay in the same place for nearly three decades. He says the boards and their members are progressive in their thinking and work hard at fundraising, which allows them to do some of the work they do without government funding.
“I’ve had a very rewarding career, I’ve made a lot of really close friends and I feel that I’ve made a difference,” Bechard said. “You can’t put a value on that.”