There is one thing I don’t like about going Beyond HELLO on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Too often, I am also saying goodbye. Residents living in in the Downtown Eastside are eight times more likely to die young than the general population. In fact, those who live to be 40 years old qualify for seniors discounts on the DTES streets.
Today, while at work, I was notified that another friend passed away. Although all the people I have met on the streets have had a positive impact on my life, there are a certain few who have touched my heart in a way I will never forget. Irvin, Sandra, Ron and Cindy have become family to me. In 2012 we said goodbye to Irvin after he was attacked in Port Coquitlam and passed away from injuries and health complications. Last year we said an emotional goodbye to Sandra, the first homeless person who we reconnected with family. And today, I have learned of Ron Wilson’s passing. I am so grateful to Kim from Native Health who took time to reach out to me.
Ron was a Canadian Champion. A world class boxer, he travelled the world competing as a light-heavy weight. In 1972 he ranked first worldwide. By age 23, he had completed 78 international fights. In this video below, you can see his fight with Chris Finnegan – one of the few matches that Ron lost. Forty years later, this loss still got to him. Perhaps it symbolized more – a life on a path to perfection with an unexpected twist.
Married with kids, Ron had a life desired by many. His addiction to alcohol tore his family apart and Ron chose to spend his days peacefully passing time on a bench at Pigeon Square. The shame he felt kept him from re-connecting though he did find the courage to call his son and daughter in law this year at Mother’s Day.
Ron is the first homeless person who met my children. In fact, it was my son Jaden who found Ron. Walking down Hastings Street, I asked Jaden (when he was 9) to look for someone to invite for lunch. There was something about Ron’s gentle nature and sparkling eyes – something about the way he spoke with kindness, and something about the way he smiled. In a neighbourhood where many are defensive or on guard, Ron was a peaceful, gentle soul who saw the beauty of Vancouver. When Jaden approached and asked if he would like to go for lunch, he politely accepted and an instant bond was formed. For years my boys have enjoyed visiting with Ron. My boys have written about Ron for their school projects and tried to shift the perception of homelessness amongst children. To my children, Ron was a pro-athlete, and a reminder that every person has a story worth hearing.
I will miss my visits with Ron on his park bench. To me, Ron was much more than a friend. He was a part of our family.