As I was working at my desk, sifting through the hundreds of emails that had accumulated during the week, I came upon this heartfelt request that caught my attention,
“I am hoping you might be able to help me or hopefully direct me on how to help a young man get his dying wish. If you ever met him you would understand why we all want to do something good for him.
He grew up in the Jane and Finch area. This area is synonymous with drugs, crime, and gang violence. This young man has faced the double stereotype of being from this area and being black. He is also a young documentary maker. He has documented his struggle with cancer, from the beginning. The treatments, the side affects of the treatments, and the fact that he is now terminal and will die soon. He has been able to show that the 'notorious Jane and Finch area' has stood behind him. He is able to show the pride that he has for the people in his area, and be able to prove, he is not just another gang banger.
He has made the decision to embrace his illness, and try and do what he can in the time he has. He is neither bitter nor angry that he is dying. I have never seen anyone that is so truly peaceful. I thank you for letting me tell you about this remarkable, courageous, caring, and unique young man. I can’t imagine what he would have accomplished, had he had more time. I hope you do consider my request.”
The following is an account of the profound impact, that Alwyn Barry and his family has had on my life.
I remember the details of my first visit to see Alwyn and his family vividly. It was a cold December day when I left the office and drove to the Humber Hospital, Finch Station location; a drive that would be my first of many, on the snowy 400 highway. Humber Hospital, located in the Jane and Finch area, has a reputation for being in a “bad part of town”; however, that notion never crossed my mind. I found a parking spot, and purchased a ticket at the frozen portable machine for the maximum time permitted, always expecting, the unexpected.
As I entered the emergency waiting room, my senses were bombarded by the sound of a crying child and the smell of alcohol vapors, reaping from the many hand sanitizer bottles that were affixed to every empty spot on the blank walls. As the elevator arrived on the 6th floor of the Palatable Care Unit, I stepped out of the metal doors and it was at that moment that my memory became cloudy. The nurse introduced me to Michelle Barry for the first time in the hallway of her dying son’s hospital room. Michelle was so grateful that I was visiting her son to hear about his story. Alwyn’s incredible journey, told many times before, truly reflects how special this young man was, and how he touched the lives of so many people.
I was invited to view Alwyn’s documentary in its entirety, in one of the nurse’s rooms. I watched the rough first cut video that Alwyn and his friends had scripted, filmed and produced in the After School Program called Shoot with This. The program is designed for high school students with a passion for film making, and a message to deliver. Students have the opportunity to acquire film making and personal skills, with the added bonus of staying off the streets, and immersing themselves in a positive environment. Alwyn, the strong young man I was watching in the documentary video, was going to be unrecognizable to me, lying in his hospital bed at our first meeting.
W.W.J.D is one of my first memories of my introduction to Alwyn Barry. He had previously been just a character in an email, and a role presented on film in a cruel reality. When I looked at his frail arm, as he reached up to shake my hand, I couldn’t help but notice the frail bones, covered only by a thin layer of skin. Glancing past the protruding IVs, I saw the tattered bracelet that read W.W.J.D. I understood the significance of those initials; having tried to live my own life by the same motto when making decisions: “What Would Jesus Do?” I instantly knew that the young man lying before me was one with God, and that he had eternal life. Alwyn was at peace, and I felt the peace that surrounded his nearly lifeless body.
It became evident to me that neither the e-mail, documentary, nor meeting was chance. This was my path chosen by God, and I could choose to tackle it or to walk away gracefully. As far as I was concerned, it was an easy choice. This family was my new reality.
Alwyn lost his battle with cancer, in December 2008, at the young age of 19. As a testament to his life, and what he meant to so many people, his documentary was completed in its entirety. A group of Alwyn’s friends, some volunteers at the Shoot with This program and social workers, worked tirelessly to account for the final months of Alwyn’s life. The documentary was viewed by a sold out crowd, at the 2008 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.
In the few months that I knew Alwyn, he touched my heart, healed my spirit and inspired me to be a better person. I will continue to tell Alwyn Barry’s story.
Ask yourself, have you made a positive difference in someone’s life?