NZ Spastic Fellowship Formation & Camps

‘You are no longer alone; the Fellowship is at your service.’

This was the message confidently displayed on the front page of the ‘New Zealand Spastic’ newsletter. This particular edition came out in February 1951, a month after the completion of the very successful conference at Ardmore Teachers Training College. Inspired by the upbeat themes of the conference this dedicated band of spastics and their supporters were determined to build on this foundation. This was the beginnings of a Dominion-wide Spastic Fellowship. The aim of the Fellowship was to assist older Cerebral Palsy’s, through mutual co-operation, in the solution of individual problems. Not only psychological and adjustment problems, but also with the work of rehabilitating to overcome or accept their handicaps.

They immediately adopted the conference’s philosophy of ‘Acceptance is the keynote of adjustment.’ The group started off informally electing no officials. Instead they appointed four representatives to oversee progress in the four main cities throughout NZ. These representatives were Paulette Leaning(Auckland) B.G. Battensby (Wellington) Valerie Thompson (Christchurch) and JW Blackwood. (Dunedin).

Their task was to liaise between individual cases, the CCS and their local community in general. All four were asked to write monthly reports with the hope that these reports will provide valuable material for discussion at future conferences.

From the outset the Spastic Fellowship was never attended to be set up as a segregated community of handicapped people. In fact their objectives were the exact opposite. Their aim was to bring the Cerebral Palsy people of New Zealand into the community and to enable them to live as full and happy lives as possible.

The immediate programme of the four representatives was to find Cerebral Palsy individuals in their district, over school age, who may require special help, advise them on their problems as far as possible, bring them into contact with other CPs and bring their needs to the attention of professionals who may be able to help. The work of the four representatives was to be reviewed at the next conference in a year’s time.

The quartet felt justified in setting themselves up as contacts in their areas as they felt that they were fairly well adjusted to society and life in general therefore they were in a sense ‘specialists’ in the art of living with CP.

The statements put out by the early get togethers of the Spastic Fellowship reads

‘The knowledge and experience gained through the battle against our handicaps is now at the disposal of every CP, who wishes to take advantage of it. We are held together by the same condition and circumstances fighting and winning the same battles, experiencing the same frustrations and overcoming the same fears.’

‘CP must be accepted as a challenge to yourself as a human soul and personality and also by every member of the community to which you belong.’

‘CP cannot be cured but it can be controlled.’

‘We as insiders have many keys to that victory to offer you through our Fellowship and those outsiders who are co-operating with

New Zealand Crippled Children Society was favourably impressed with the Fellowship as they were always behind any endeavour of self help. They were so impressed that they made its faculties available to the Fellowship. The Fellowship was also hoping the Government, via Education Department, will follow its activities with great interest and would offer valuable guidance.

The earliest recording of a more formal structure was in the Cerebral Palsy News which lay claimed to be the official journal of the NZ Spastic Fellowship. This journal replaced the ‘NZ Spastic’ in 1957.

The constitution was published in the 1960 March edition of the Cerebral Palsy News which expanded on the ideas of the informal set up which was to bring people with Cerebral Palsy into the community, to enable them to live as full and happy lives as possible and to give help and information to those who seek it. Membership shall be open to the CP, their families and able bodied friends, interested in promoting the above objectives. But it was pointed out that membership shall entail active participation in the affairs of the local groups. Membership shall involve a declaration of a desire to help CP people where ever possible. Membership needed to have a realisation that CP people had the right to live life as independently as possible and the responsibility to keep an eye on the welfare of each other. That responsibility extended to ensuring that the mistakes in social development evident in past and present generations are not repeated and above all members needed to have a determination to fulfil the responsibilities of citizenship
In the same addition there was a list of branch secretaries. These were Gwen Haresnape (Auckland), Garry Butler (Wanganui), Roland L Helberg (Jr) Masterton), Peter Frood, (Wellington) Mervyn Hammett (Christchurch), Charles Wade (Timaru) and Leslie Telfer (Dunedin)

The greatest legacy of the Fellowship was to improve the social environment of its members. In the June issue (1962) Paulette Leaning expresses her feelings of despondency on how to help the lonely. At each Spastic Fellowship camp she made sure she had a little time with each member who kept confessing their loneliness at home and wanting to unlock the secret of friendship.

The Fellowship’s camp, started in 1957, was a central point in many lonely CP lives. They gathered once a year at Taranaki House in Avondale for a week. The surprisingly numerous branches of the fellowship (there was even a branch in Timuru) did their best to keep the momentum of activities flowing during the year. The actual camp produced a high quality program of activities on an annual basis.

Thanks largely to Paulette’s connections to the art world, the campers days were fill of entertainment, including concerts, outings and talks given by an assortment of people who enthusiastically volunteered their time. These included Mr Gerald Lee who organised concerts which were generally held on the first night, there was often interesting panel discussions involving personalities of the day like TV broadcaster Cherry Raymond, Dr Reid from Auckland University, who spoke about humorous literature and sports stars like Murray Halberg. Joe McManemin, Mr Postles and Mr Graham. Composer Russell Channell befriended the society and gave many concerts and musical appreciation seminars and singer and composer Miss Willow Macky made an occasional appearance. At one of the camps June Opie came along and showed some slides of her trip around NZ.

The camps inspired many CP authors to write to the CP News about their experiences these included Peggy Ellis, Rowan Holmes, Lucy Hyde and Joan Blakey. These articles were sad to read in a way as all these people had obvious intellect and not much opportunity to use it. One of the highlights of the camp was the Fancy Dress Ball held always on the last night. These nights sounded like a great laugh as everyone let their hair down. One year a group of helpers dressed up as the Quins quadruplets which must have been a sight.

Readers will be somewhat bemused by one volunteer’s summary which would not go down to well in today’s world.

He said ‘During the after supper all helpers gathered and discussed events of the day, like proud parents, after the children have gone to bed.’

Surely a typical response in more contemporary times would be ‘Hey spastics like to party too!!’

Peggy Ellis an intelligent and articulate woman was one of the regular campers. She spoke of simple pleasures like when she luxuriated in a bath instead of her usual shower at home and she, like others, spoke of the novelty of television.

Peggy is a great example of how valuable the camps were and she expressed this in her writing. Her articles regularly appeared in each edition of the Cerebral Palsy News. Her writing was perhaps a little naive at times but her potential was there for all to see. Here are a couple of examples.

On a particular work of pianist Russell Channell a friend of the Fellowship ‘This piece would provide an excellent object lesson for some contemporary composers who seem to believe that technical perfection is all-important, while melody is scarcely spared a thought.’

On having the flu ‘Being officially on the sick list enables you to enjoy the delights and privileges of convalescence with a clear conscience.’

On Television viewing she followed the‘ fortunes of varying councils and Parliaments in Viet Nam which seem to form and disband with almost clockwork regularity.’

On Fellowship holiday camp entertainment. It was ‘the sort of old fashion fun that everyone made for himself before wireless and films came along.’

On attending a Samoan Wedding. “….whole Chickens jostled for pride of place with large dishes of chicken Chow Mein, Chop Suey etc.

On Disability ‘I am beginning to think that the greatest compensation in being a spastic lies in the fact that because of our disability we seem to meet all sorts of wonderful people we might otherwise never see.’

How good a writer would she had been if she had the opportunity of a University education!!!

Peggy talked about the Fourth Annual holiday Camp held in March 1961, hosted as usual by Taranaki House Avondale and opened 7th Jan by the Honourable T Bloodworth. The concert again was arranged by Mr G T Lee and Miss June Opie presented slides on NZ. There were new innovations like ‘wheelchair dancing’ and just for fun several of the helpers were decorated according to their role at the camp. Paulette became Dame of the Rusty Teapot, Mr Winton became Diploma of the Thin Topknot and Mrs Tubman (Tubby) Dame of the Bath Tub. Apparently Tubby was in charge of bathing the campers and according to Peggy after she was finished with you. ‘We all felt like Poor Judd in Oklahoma ‘ we never been so clean.’

Jean Blakey spoke of the 10th Anniversary of the NZ Spastic Fellowship marked by a birthday cake cut by Daisy Scott-Davidson, who along with Paulette was the only member of the present group who has attended all the annual functions of the Fellowship.

Jean reported the more serious side of the camps. The reality of the camper’s mundane lives was waiting for them when they returned home and most were desperately seeking a better future. Jean spoke highly of Paulette who tried to put hope in the lives of the campers telling them of such things as the new wing at CCS hostel for short term holidays. She was honest however and spoke of much needed funding for maintenance. It was quoted that to maintain such a project would cost 250 pound a year. The need for a Ryder Cheshire type home was discussed

There were fun times as well in Jeans time with trips to Daisy Cone factory, but apparently only for the walking. The trip to the new Auckland International airport was a major social occasion and another bus trip to Onehunga Wharves. One of the most popular speakers was Murray Halberg who gave inspirational talks on his Olympic feats.

‘It was nice to see that some of the (fancy dress) prize winners were people in wheelchairs,’ said Jean.

Over time people moved on and the spastics camps faded but the spirit of the camps lives on through the Christen Fellowship camps which happen once a year. Co-ordinator of these camps Di Willis says sometimes it feels like a second Cerebral Palsy Society with so many campers with that particular disability. Obviously these events have a deeply spiritual focus but many people with Cerebral Palsy receive a sense of fulfilment through their faith. One such person is Margie Wellers – co-founder of these camps – who wrote a book entitled ‘Awaiting the Healer’ in 1991. In the introduction it’s revealed that her parents received the usual message from the doctors of the time. ‘Put her away,’ they said. ‘Forget you ever had her.’

As an adult Margie is a strong, articulate woman who fought for recognition and she drew strength from her faith to help others.

In the Foreword to ‘Awaiting the Healer’ Jennifer Rees Larcombe wrote.

Margie ‘helped me to realise that life with handicaps can still be fulfilling and rich.’In 2004 Margie co-wrote another book Ken Edgecombe entitled ‘Undaunted Faith’ which contains 48 inspirational stories and meditations.

The Spastic Fellowship and latterly Christen Fellowship camps provided much needed support and companionship for people with Cerebral Palsy in the early days when isolation was rife. The Christian Fellowship camps continue to provide spiritual support every year as well as ongoing support throughout the year.

If any member has photos of the old Spastic Fellowship camps, or know the whereabouts of such photos, we would love to have a loan of them. It would be great to scan them for this chapter.

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