New Brunswick advisor also a playwright
Special Needs Advisor, Normand Robichaud, estimates he’s had 40 jobs during his life—from working in the Pizza Delight and Greco franchises founded by his family, to his current job as a worker at a special care home in Richibucto, New Brunswick. He has been involved in special needs issues since 1989, when he first opened a residence for people with developmental disabilities in a large home he had renovated in Shediac. Robichaud has been a volunteer and later worked for the Association for Community Living, has supervised an independent living centre for people with disabilities, and written four plays—two related to special needs.
The special care home where he now works, Manoir O’Leary Art/Café, is a renovated Victorian mansion that was once a country inn and is licensed for eight residents. “It’s an interesting concept,” he says. “It has eight bedrooms for residents, with their own bathrooms and some with fireplaces and whirlpool baths. We are slowly trying to develop the artistic field, and there is a little coffee shop that is a micro-enterprise.” The residents serve coffee, tea, cookies and muffins to the café’s customers, and the proceeds go into an account for the residents’ activities.
Robichaud has been working as a CUPW-UPCE Special Needs Advisor since around 2006. The 20 families in the Special Needs and Moving On projects he contacts all live in New Brunswick except for one in Prince Edward Island.
“It feels good to do something that helps families and individuals,” he says. “You can do small things that make a big difference in a person’s life, so that’s very rewarding.”
Supporting project families
Robichaud sometimes draws on his extensive network of people with disabilities in New Brunswick – developed when he was a regional worker for the ACL – to support the families on the projects as well as find resources for them.
“I sometimes tell them about other families who have gone through similar experiences and what it was that helped them. But sometimes the support you give is just in listening to people who are going through a difficult time.”
Robichaud, a father of five and grandfather of five, is justifiably enthusiastic about his plays. One, called “Pizzaïolos”, is about seven community college students in a competition for a marketing concept for pizza. The characters are based on the seven colours of the rainbow. “One is a student with autism and he played Indigo, the colour of deep thought.” When it was staged in Dieppe, five of the play’s actors and crew were people with disabilities.
Another play, “Diaries from the Asylum”, is the story of Mary Huestis Pengilly's experiences in 1883-84 in New Brunswick’s mental health institution. Based on a secret diary the 62-year-old poet kept while a patient, the play compares the treatment she received with that of Marie Hélène Poirier, who was hospitalized 100 years later. The play was staged in Moncton in 2008 at the Capitol Theatre to a sell-out audience.
“When I read the diary it blew me away,” Robichaud says. “Mary was complaining about the same things you hear people who live in institutions complain about now—personal comfort, restrictions on what they can do, the attitude of some staff.”
Robichaud and his twin brother, Armand, are now working on a play about children looking for treasure (and finding it in various museums in New Brunswick). They hope to get a grant to write, film, animate and computerize the play for the Virtual Museum of Canada.