by Karen Elgersma –
West Coast Reach Association (REACH!) is a registered charity that celebrates inclusion and diversity of ages, cultures and abilities through the performing arts. The idea for this unique model that combines trained performers with people of diverse abilities and backgrounds is the brainchild of Anne-Marie and Peter Brimacombe, who ran a non-profit arts program in Trinidad and Tobago for six years before coming back to the Peninsula to be closer to family. Peter and Anne-Marie, what was your vision for REACH!?
To practice and share some simple ideals we hold dear:
• each of us is unique and has something special to give to others
• we each have something to learn from every person around us
• we are better together when we’re different.
Music and the performing arts provide wonderful opportunities in rehearsals to learn and practice these principles together. The joy and positive energy that result then inspire hearts of those who experience our performances first-hand. A lot of those in our audiences are dancing, singing along, beaming and wiping tears from their eyes, all at the same time. There’s a love and unity here that truly touches others.
REACH! truly “reaches” many diverse communities. Tell us about all the choirs you have led over the past three years and how you have taken this choral experience online?
Our programs help those considered vulnerable to develop confidence and friendships with others in the community through rehearsing and performing together. One of our performing groups celebrates ability – in spite of disability – recognizing we are all differently-abled. Another helps new Canadians (new immigrants and refugees) to make friends through music with established Canadians. The other, held at the Our Place street shelter, brings together members of the street community with those in the greater community through song.
Since isolation measures have been put in place, our sessions and rehearsals have gone virtual. Many participants have said these are the highlight of their week. In the sessions members are heard saying “I miss you”, “I love you” and “I can’t wait until we’re back together.” There is a warmth and enthusiasm in these sessions that you can’t imagine unless you experience them first hand.
I have participated in a few REACH! rehearsals and it was one of the most joyful experiences I have ever had. I also felt my heart open as I sang alongside people of every ability, race and background. How does REACH! celebrate inclusion and diversity and connect people and inspire harmony and love?
We respect and value every person and don’t just tolerate differences … we celebrate them. Joy and friendship grow from love and unity that are modelled by our leaders, mentors and participants. This is not unity through uniformity. It is unity in diversity. It’s been said that Canada’s diversity is its greatest resource. This is truly exemplified in REACH! programs and performances.
Some of our members with disability are non-verbal and we’ve been asked, “how can they sing in a choir?” Our answer is “we’re not just a choir, we’re like a performing family, and those who can’t sing with their voices sing with their hearts.” And some of our members who can’t communicate well with words, literally knock you over with the joy and enthusiasm they radiate. That’s just as (or even more) important
in our group.
That being said … it’s pretty amazing that with no auditions and everyone welcome, the group performances achieve a high standard. We are fortunate to have some really strong performers, insightful instructors and young performing mentors involved (who are graduates of UVic School of Music and Canadian College of Performing Arts).
During a Global Pandemic how has REACH! helped people deal with isolation, anxiety, and fear?
In addition to our group rehearsals going online, we have established a weekly virtual singalong for the public, and singing has been scientifically proven to be a great source of relief from stress and anxiety. We are also offering a monthly virtual presentation with guest presenters focusing on HOPE. These sessions are really helping people who are isolated to feel connected to others, and uplifted. Some have described the sessions as their “lifeline.”
This year our annual show – “We Are One” in early December – will be virtual as well. It is timed to commemorate Human Solidarity Day and the International Day for Persons With Disabilities. Being virtual, anyone with a tablet or computer will be able to savour the event and its positive energy from home.
This past spring the death of George Floyd sparked a powerful and passionate movement. How has REACH! responded to the Black Lives Matter Movement?
Most of the songs we sing and perform advocate for justice, respect and appreciation of differences. And our participants are from so many different races and cultures, including those of African heritage. Now that we are virtual we also have members participating from the Caribbean. It makes our Zoom screen really beautiful, seeing so many different colours and shades. But ultimately we are striving for a level of personal connection with each other that while appreciating differences, bypasses skin colour and goes straight to the heart. We are striving to experience each other for who we truly are on the inside, as well as on the outside.
As a visible minority, a multi-cultural couple, and leaders in the community – what wisdom do you want to share with our community to inspire us to be more open hearted and inclusive?
We both believe we were all created by a greater force or power, in a spirit of love – and that we were each created to be different for good reason. When we acknowledge that, it opens doors for appreciation and understanding of others that are gifts to our hearts. The many sayings about those who give freely, get back in spades is so true. REACH! is an act of love and almost completely volunteer driven. We and the other volunteers often say no matter how much we give, we continually get more back, especially in gratitude and joy. We’re not a religious organization but the experience can be heavenly. We can’t imagine anything more rewarding or satisfying, and we hope everybody can experience this in their lives.
If you could organize an event that had the whole Peninsula sing together as a community, what song would you have us all sing?
There are so many great songs, and we sing many of them with Reach! Let’s say for now “What a Wonderful World,” made popular by Louis Armstrong. And that’s not to sugar coat things because we know a lot of people in the world are really hurting right now. But we believe the world was meant to be, and has the potential to be, truly wonderful.
How can people get involved in REACH?
You can “reach” out to us by emailing: email@example.com and we’ll be sure to reach back. And our website is:
Currently all our virtual sessions are free (or by voluntary donation).
Photo by Janis Jean Photography.