Below is an article that appeared in the March 22, 2012 edition of the Daily Gleaner.
March 24, 2012
By Lori Gallagher
Tara Brinston is proving that one person truly can make a difference – both big and small – in the lives of others.
One way she’s doing this is as the director of programs for the New Brunswick Association for Community Living.
‘I’m responsible for all of NBACL’s programs that support persons with intellectual disabilities and their families.
My role is really program evaluation, review, doing some analysis and development, and working with our director of social policy.’ She’s been with the organization since 2007.
‘I started as an independent facilitator for the provincial disability support program, on a very short contract.
‘That contract got extended and I moved into a position of family sup¬gree at St. Thomas University and after graduation decided to get some hands-on experience before continuing her education.
‘I worked for a short time at a residential facility for men with intellectual disabilities and mental illness.’ That was her first time working with people with intellectual disabilities.
‘By doing so, I learned I wanted to have a broader impact and that led me into the work at NBACL and being able to touch more of the issues around supporting people with intellectual disabilities.’ Brinston’s work with the association has turned out to be a good fit, port, which I was in for a long time, doing direct work with families who have sons or daughters with intellectual disabilities,’ says Brinston.
‘I really got my feet wet doing a lot of the family support work for the association. I was the manager of family support and, in November, I moved up into the director position.’ It’s a new position that was created because NBACL is growing.
‘We’ve tripled in size since I started. It’s really great that we had the potential to expand and support more persons around the province who have intellectual disabilities.’ The experience she’s gained has helped a lot in her current role supervising the managers of the different NBACL programs.
‘I’ve always been interested in human rights and humanitarian work. In high school I volunteered with UNICEF and I was involved with the 30-Hour Famine in university, and doing little bits and pieces of international development and human rights work.’ She did a psychology de¬thanks in large part to the people she works with.
‘I’m inspired by the people I support with intellectual disabilities that are advocating that their own voices be heard, that are breaking down the barriers that society has built up and they’ve advocating for their own rights.’ Equally inspiring are the families.
‘The families that have been doing this long before I even existed and have really stepped up the disability movement and have been at the front, advocating for the rights of their children and families that have been doing that so long and really are so exhausted from continuing to fight for the rights of their children and they just keep going.’ Working with individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families is incredibly rewarding.
It also helps put any problems she might have into perspective.
Brinston’s hard work and passion hasn’t gone unnoticed. In February, she was recognized for her contributions to the disability movement and was named a global ambassador by the Atlantic Council for International Cooperation and the Canadian International Development Agency through their Active-8! campaign.
‘They select eight Atlantic global ambassadors, two from each prov¬ince. The eight are selected due to their work in international development and social justice issues.
‘Mine was because of my work with NBACL and also a bit of volunteer work that I do with (the Fredericton chapter of) CISV, an international peace organization.’ Not only did the ambassadors make videos of themselves, they went out into the community and around their province to inspire people to make a pledge for actions of change.
‘We were asked to push people to make a commitment to do something different for the month of February or engage in something they might not already be aware of,’ she says.
The person who collected the most pledges was the winner – it ended up being a tie between Brinston and Kandace Hagen from PEI. Each inspired more than 1,600 people to pledge actions of change.
‘It was amazing to think in one month 1,600 people have committed to do something good for the world,’ says Brinston. ‘It was an incredible opportunity to have the chance to highlight my work in the intellectual disability field to a broader audience as well.’ Though she’s a passionate advocate for the rights of persons with intellectual disabilities and of human rights in general, she tends to stay behind the scenes. This experience got her outside that comfort zone.
‘Being thrust into a YouTube video and a website talking about myself and really pushing me out into the community to ask people to make a change, I’m a bit more of an introvert and it really pushed me out there,’ she says. ‘It was a really neat challenge for me to beat the street and ask strangers to do something good for the world.’ It gave her the chance to spread the word in a bigger way than she is typically able to, plus she got to meet the seven other ambassadors and share stories.
‘There are some people who are quite young and quite passionate about social justice and I thought that was neat to see.’ Being part of the Active-8! campaign also let her see the ripple effect in action.
‘You can’t say that one small change didn’t make a difference. All it takes is one person to do something different, and then the next will and the next will.’ Her part in the project involved a lot of public events, engaging youth and speaking at the universities, and social media.
‘It was like a second job. I had a personal goal of reaching 1,000. I reached 1,000 maybe four days before it closed, then to see 1,600 … to think wow, these people have been inspired to do something and that’s because they found some sort of inspiration in what I’m doing. That was sort of humbling and really amazing.’ Though her work is important to her, so are the people she surrounds herself with, including friends, family and her boyfriend.
‘My boyfriend is deployed, he’s in Afghanistan right now. He left the day before Valentine’s Day.’ Capt. Joel Levandier of 2RCR is expected to be away until early October. ‘We’re Skyping twice a day. He’s a great guy, very sweet.’ They’ve been best friends for years, she says, in a close group of friends.
‘We just recently realized that what we were looking for was right under our noses.’ Brinston is understandably excited for Levandier to come home in the fall .
‘We’re going on vacation in May, to Spain and Morocco. That’s kind of keeping me going.’ She describes him as a kind and gentle soul.
‘He’s very generous, very gentle and has more patience than I certainly do. It takes a lot of patience, I think, to be with a strong, passionate woman.
‘When I get all fired up about some sort of injustice that happens, he’s a good balance,’ she says.
‘He has his own passions. He’s into mountaineering and trekking.
He’s very outdoorsy in that sense. It’s nice to have someone who’s equally passionate and driven, just about different things.’ She enjoys outdoor pursuits as well, including rock climbing and hiking. To relax, she likes to go for walks or read.
‘I like to read on the deck with a glass of wine, just get taken away by something else and lose myself in a book.’ Another way she relaxes is travelling.
‘I need that whole block of time away from something to really wind down. I’ve backpacked solo in Central and South America and backpacked with a friend as well. I’ve been to a lot of Latin America, that’s where I tend to go to. This will be the first time – going to Spain – that I’ll be crossing the ocean.’ Solo backpacking seems pretty brave for someone who describes herself as an introvert.
‘My mother doesn’t love it because I’m a petite kind of girl. When I went last fall, I went to Central America and I did Guatemala.
Honduras, Belize and Mexico by myself. I had a fantastic time,’ says Brinston.
‘I think everyone should, if they have the opportunity to do something – it doesn’t have to be such a big action in such a large way of going to backpack South America by yourself – but it really allowed me to know that I’m strong on my own and spend the days doing exactly what I wanted to do and get to know myself better and be lost in a city where I maybe didn’t have a great mastery of the language and really count on myself to have to get around.’ It was a great solo learning experience and a chance to really get to know herself.
‘And to know that I can do it, to know that I’m capable of being that kind of independent person.’ Brinston grew up just outside of Saint John in Willow Grove. Her parents, Mavis and Scott Brinston, still live there.
‘I came here to go to university and I really loved Fredericton. I love the feel of the city. It’s sort of an artsy community, there’s lots of local music and the Green and the water. I find Fredericton to have an artsy-cultural energy to it. I think I’m stuck here now. I don’t see me moving back home.’ She believes it’s important to surround yourself with positive people and to work for something bigger than yourself.
‘At the end of the day, I want to go home knowing that I made a difference. It can be a small difference, but to change someone’s life in a small way is significant. To be working at that every day really is important to me. I find that the motivation to do what I do and to keep going,’ she says.
‘Without being part of something bigger than myself, of being involved in a movement that tries to help make things better, I wouldn’t be satisfied and happy.’ The key is to not get overwhelmed by how much work still needs to be done.
‘If I can help one person to not use the ‘R’ word or help one person see the value where they didn’t see value before, that’s good, that’s a small success – and I think we need to celebrate those small successes.’ Life has taught her that you need to act as if you make a difference, because you can and you do.
‘If you act as if you can have a positive impact, I think you will eventually, in some small or large way.’