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Voices of the Voiceless: Man with spina bifida just wants ‘a little respect’

Twenty-seven-year-old Michael Mifflin was born with spina bifida, a condition that has left him paralyzed below the waist.

Disrespect is nothing new for Michael Mifflin, who was born with spina bifida.

In high school in Winnipeg, he was shoved into lockers and had his canes stolen and hidden by other students.

As an adult, he navigates public transit with canes and a wheelchair, an effort sometimes greeted with impatient eye-rolling and complaints from comfortably-seated transit users.

Mifflin’s birth defect left several spinal vertebrae deformed, consequently exposing and damaging parts of the spinal cord. This resulted in limited brain signals to muscles and body organs below the damaged area.

Mifflin is paralyzed below the waist, a condition that does not improve with age.

 “With age, it gets you,” he says. “It’s catching up to me. Most doctors are surprised to hear that I’m 27 and I’m still around. Doctors said that I shouldn’t have made the age of 2 because of my disability.”

Frequent bullying in high school prompted Mifflin to drop out before graduation. He is currently taking the remaining classes required to obtain the high school diploma that he was denied by a misinformed student body.

Mifflin says even those who intend to help are ignorant to what physically disabled people truly need. He says those who wish to assist him when his wheelchair is stuck, or when he is trying to fit his wheelchair into the locks on a bus, do not understand that people with disabilities require a degree of independence.

 “Many people just assume that I need the help when I don’t,” Mifflin explains. “All I want is a little respect. If you see I’m having trouble, it’s OK to help, but ask first.”

Cory Funk, former respite worker and Summer Program Director for Camps With Meaning, affirms Mifflin’s desire for independence. In an interview, Funk describes working with a man with cerebral palsy.

Mifflin’s girlfriend, Emily Wiebe, says the most important aspect of accommodating people with disabilities is accepting them.

 “Respecting [the person’s] autonomy is huge,” Funk says.

“A lot of people with disabilities, their goal is to be as independent as possible. When interacting with someone with a physical disability, whether in a working environment or on the streets, it’s important to understand that they’re pursuing that independence.”

The pursuit of independence is evident with Mifflin, who asks little of others (besides respect), and is highly active in the local power wheelchair hockey scene.

His team, The Red Bulls, is currently 18-0 in the Manitoba Power Wheelchair Hockey Association. Mifflin plays power forward and has been a significant part of the team’s success over the last eight seasons.

He has also taken part in wheelchair basketball and sledge hockey.

These modified sports provide a sense of independence for participants, and illustrate that physically disabled people are capable of doing things for themselves.

Mifflin claims that attitude changes are the main force in achieving respect for disabled people.

“Attitudes are truly the biggest disability of all. People need to change attitudes towards people like myself if disabled people stand a chance to be properly integrated into society.”

Though there is legislation and other structures in place to help the physically disabled in Winnipeg, Mifflin’s girlfriend, Emily Wiebe, says the most important aspect of accommodation is the acceptance of others.

“You can modify a building to be accessible all you want, but if you have a negative attitude toward the disabled, then it isn’t really all that helpful,” Wiebe says.

“The biggest barrier is not an inaccessible building—it is an inaccessible attitude.”

Michael Wiebe is a student at Canadian Mennonite University and the brother of Emily Wiebe, the girlfriend of Michael Mifflin. Michael Wiebe wrote this article as part of his work in the course Journalism—Principles and Practices. “Voices of the Voiceless” is a class project that aims to chronicle the humanity of often-ignored people on the margins of our community.

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Voices of the Voiceless: Confessions of a gay Mennonite


By Laura Tait

(Writer’s note: Identifying details in this article have been changed because the subject is not publicly open about his sexual orientation.)

In addition to being smart, funny, politically conservative, and an entrepreneur, Jude is also same-sex oriented, a secret he has kept from his parents and most of his community.

Now living in Winnipeg, this 25-year-old Mennonite man from Winkler, Man., has a shy and humble nature, evident in his composure as he sits in a coffee shop for an interview.

Family has always been important for Jude, who works with his parents in the family business. However, there is a tension he holds with his family that he believes can never be reconciled.

“My parents are the only people I’ve ever wanted to please, but they’re also people that can never totally accept me for who I am,” Jude says.

Jude finds himself stuck between not relating completely to his community in Winkler, and not relating with modern “gay culture.” This dichotomy has put a strain on Jude as he tries to navigate these dual lives—being “out” in his personal life, and “in” in his family and professional life.

Much of the motivation for hiding his sexual orientation comes from the stigma against same-sex orientation he sensed while growing up in Winkler.

He has no intention of ever telling his school or church friends from Winkler about his sexual orientation because he believes he would not be received kindly.

“In Mennonite families, shaming is a big business,” Jude says. “Some places have drive-by shootings, Winkler has drive-by shamings. Saying nothing about it means less shaming than acknowledging what people might suspect.”

Jude feels it’s the prospect of being shamed that colours much of his family’s prejudice against same-sex oriented people. The thought of their own son being one of these people would cause them anxiety: what would people at church think? For Jude, trying to tell his family something they don’t want to know isn’t worth the tears, hurt, and denial.

“Your parents say they’ll love you no matter what, but the thought of them knowing something like this makes me wonder, do they really?” Jude says.

Another aspect framing his family’s prejudice against same-sex oriented people is stereotypical, flamboyant “gay culture,” which Jude has no interested in being associated with.

Jude laments how LGBT Pride parades, that used to be respectable political protests, have turned into flashy displays of scantily clad folks dancing atop floats.

For Jude, maintaining a bit of humour is important. From when his mother asks him about any women in his life, to dealing with people associated with the kind of “gay culture” he wants to avoid, his mantra remains: “If you don’t laugh, you cry.”

While many same-sex oriented people often feel isolated from the church and their faith, this does not describe Jude’s experience. He finds comfort in a church congregation in Winnipeg that he feels is more accepting of his orientation.

He believes stigma against same-sex oriented persons is a product of a history informed by human beings, and not one of God.

Laura Tait is a student at Canadian Mennonite University. She wrote this article as part of her work in the course Journalism—Principles and Practices. “Voices of the Voiceless” is a class project that aims to chronicle the humanity of often-ignored people on the margins of our community.


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Voices of the Voiceless: Homeless teen encounters judgment and ridicule

Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne advocates with the poor so that their voices are heard. 



By Carter Brooks

At first glance, Shane Claiborne and Arika Fraser have little in common.

Claiborne, 37, is from Tennessee, is a popular author, and is in demand as a speaker in Christian circles.

Fraser, 15, lives in inner-city Winnipeg and sleeps under parked cars on nights when there is no better option.

What they have in common is poverty.

Claiborne’s experience with service to the poor is famously recounted in his book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. He spent 10 weeks living in the slums of Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He made his own clothing and carried no possessions with him during that time.

He has since become a Christian activist, a leading figure in the New Monasticism movement, and a founding member of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In a telephone interview, Claiborne said he re-learned the concept of true love from Mother Teresa, how she based all of her decisions on love, and love alone.

Proverbs 31:8 instructs us: “Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.” Those living in the poorest areas of Calcutta can easily be classified as voiceless, but Claiborne challenges us to know someone at a deeper level before we write them off.

“We think it is our job to stand up in their place, rather than standing with them and helping them project their own voice,” he says.

“They are struggling, they have wants and desires too, but more importantly, they have needs. Shelter, clothing, food, and water—that is what it comes down to.”

According to Statistics Canada, about one in 10 Canadians live in poverty. Statistics show that 882,000 Canadians used food banks monthly in 2012. Thirty-eight percent of those helped were children.

Fraser can occasionally be found at Agape Table, a soup kitchen in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She believes it is important for the voices of inner-city youth to be heard.

She and her older brother, Jordin, have lived in the hardscrabble neighbourhood of Winnipeg’s North End for the past three years. Through intensely hot summers and chilling winters, Fraser and her brother overnighted in bus shelters, dumpsters, under trees, and occasionally, under parked cars.

“It doesn’t bother us, really,” Fraser says. “I’ve learned how to tune out the noise and shivering.”

“My momma died when I was born, and [my] brother is all I have left,” she added. “We live on the streets, but no one seems to care.”

Fraser says she and her brother encounter judgment and ridicule every day.

She has deep scars running across her forearms.

“Yes I used to cut. [It was the] only way I [could] deal with things sometimes.”

When informed of Shane Claiborne and his work, Fraser says she appreciates having someone out there advocating with the poor.

“I’m really happy that someone is actually doing what we do and getting to speak out for us. This makes me happy. I want out, and want to talk, but [people] don’t like to listen.”

When she isn’t begging for money or searching for leftover food in the streets, Fraser can be found once a week visiting her mother’s tombstone.

“I do it to stay connected. I’m a person too, I have feelings. I miss momma.”

Claiborne believes we are called to do what God did through Jesus, by standing with people like Fraser.

As Mother Teresa often said, “Calcuttas are everywhere, we just need to have eyes to see.”

Shane Claiborne will speak at Canadian Mennonite University’s (CMU) annual Peace It Together conference October 18-20, 2013. For details, visit

Carter Brooks is a student at CMU. He wrote this article as part of his work in the course Journalism—Principles and Practices. “Voices of the Voiceless” is a class project that aims to chronicle the humanity of often-ignored people on the margins of our community.

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Voices of the Voiceless: Learning to live with FASD


By Krystofer Penner

Maia was 4 years old when she was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). She remembers being confused and upset.

“My mom did what to me? What happened?”

In many ways, the anger the Winnipegger feels toward her mother hasn’t dissipated after more than 30 years.

Up to 80 per cent of children with FASD will not be raised by their biological parents, according to statistics from the Province of Manitoba. They end up in the child welfare system.

Maia was adopted when she was 1 year old, and her adoptive parents decided not to send her back to the adoption organization when she was diagnosed.

FASD is a physical disability that alters the brain of a fetus when a mother drinks alcohol while pregnant. It results in mental, cognitive, and behavioral disabilities.

Maia, for example, has difficulties with multiplication tables and counting money. A handful of change can stump her, and she even has trouble with bills.

“I can only understand multiples of 10,” she explains. “So if I have a five, 10 and 20 dollar bill, I won’t know what to do with the five.”

Like many people with FASD, sensory perception is important to Maia. She has a self-proclaimed obsession with down pillows and blankets, because she loves the way they feel. She often plays with things, such as jingling a pocket full of change, which people may see as rude.

“I need things to fiddle with, otherwise I’d go crazy.”

Academics were difficult for Maia, and she was bullied in school. Boys on her street would chase her, throw things at her, laugh, and call her names. One teenage boy used to pull down her pants and spank her every day.

Another, who also had FASD, raped her. She stopped going outside because she was afraid, and didn’t even know how to explain these things to her parents.

“It was really awful,” she says.

Forming and keeping healthy relationships is also difficult for Maia, a trait common to many people with FASD, according to the Government of Manitoba’s Healthy Child Manitoba website.

People with FASD can be compulsive and friends may feel they are being smothered. Maia says people often think she is stalking them, when in reality she simply does not recognize boundaries.

This often results in friends telling her she can only call on certain days or at certain times. Maia finds this offensive, but understands that people need space.

“It’s just difficult because I don’t have a lot of friends,” she says.

Maia copes with life through art. She writes stories about an alien crew of misfits that travels through the galaxy.

She also enjoys playing the bagpipes.

“I really like the drones and the feeling of the bag under my arm,” she says.

Still, she has difficulty reading music and mustering the required coordination to play the bagpipes, and is considering quitting.

“You try and try to get to the next level, but you can’t.”

A favourite activity is her work with the Manitoba Visions and Voices program, which lets Maia speak in schools about her disability. She doesn’t want other children to suffer the challenges of FASD because their mother didn’t know, or care.

“It’s like a life sentence for nothing,” Maia says. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Krystofer Penner is a student at Canadian Mennonite University. He wrote this article as part of his work in the course Journalism—Principles and Practices. “Voices of the Voiceless” is a class project that aims to chronicle the humanity of often-ignored people on the margins of our community.


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Voices of the Voiceless: Church helps single mom escape abuse



By Rebecca Kuhn


Every morning in Jessica Burridge’s house begins with dancing. Accompanied by her children, Dakota, 6, Danika, 4, and Dawson, 3, with music recorded by Justin Bieber, the family begins each day with joy.

However, life hasn’t always been joyful for the 21-year-old single mother.

She grew up in a home where her father was a “booze hound” who abused her mother in front of their six children. Her parents eventually split, leaving Burridge’s mother alone to raise six children.

At 14 years old, Burridge began using drugs. She became addicted to cocaine, and stopped caring about school and taking care of herself.

At 15, she became pregnant.

At 16, she joined the Teen Moms Group at Douglas Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. This group provided mentors to support her, but even so, things got more difficult.

“I was in a bad relationship [and] I still did drugs every now and then,” she says.

Burridge remained in this relationship for four years, even though her boyfriend abused her. Sherri Miller, director of the Teen Mom program, steered her toward 1 Corinthians 13:4-7and told her that when she considered returning to her abusive partner, she should first read the verses about love being patient and kind.

“Those verses are what kept me strong enough to stay away.”

But it was difficult on her own. At one point, Burridge told her mother she couldn’t do it anymore, but no help was forthcoming.

“She would always say, ‘I raised six of you by myself, you only have half of what I had,” Burridge recalls.“I felt like I was useless. I mean, I’m nothing in society, right? I was just scum, and I knew I had to do something better with myself.”

Burridge was accepted into a young mothers’ program to complete high school and perhaps go to post-secondary studies, but when mysterious bumps appeared on her youngest son’s head, her plans changed quickly.

At a hospital emergency room, doctors told her Dawson’s skull was fractured and authorities would take her children on suspicion of abuse.

The next day, two detectives took her to a police station for interrogation. At the station, she got a phone call from her sister, saying Burridge’s children were being removed from her care.

For three months, Burridge lived in her house alone, without her children. She says she considered suicide.

“It was the worst time of my life.It was either I die and I don’t have my kids anyways, or I fight to get them home, and prove to everybody that I am innocent.”

From the first allegations of child abuse, Burridge asked for a lie detector test to prove her innocence, even though her lawyer advised against it. She took the test and passed.

She also completed court-ordered programs and, finally, a judge allowed the return of her children.

In September, Burridge will begin studying an electrical program at a Winnipeg technical school. Her goal: “Become a somebody, and not a nobody.”

Burridge is grateful for support from her mentors at Douglas Mennonite Church, saying it’s like they have adopted her and her children. She refers to one of her mentors as “the Mom I never had.”

Rebecca Kuhn is a student at Canadian Mennonite University. She wrote this article as part of her work in the course Journalism—Principles and Practices. “Voices of the Voiceless” is a class project that aims to chronicle the humanity of often-ignored people on the margins of our community.




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Voices of the Voiceless: MCC volunteer recounts life-long challenges

By Bethany Daman

The accident that came to shape Lisa’s life happened three months after her first birthday. She was run over by a car.

“The front and back wheel went over my head,” Lisa said. “My eyes were pushed out and my ear was almost cut off—it was just hanging by a little bit of skin. I was unconscious for 32 days and the doctors said there was no hope I would make it.”

She beat the odds and went on to a productive life as a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer and Sunday School teacher for 30 years.

But it wasn’t easy. Lisa, who asked that her identity not be disclosed, suffered a life of challenges that resulted from the accident when she was a baby.

She was born in 1951 in southern Manitoba, growing up in a town of only 4,000 people. She started school with everyone her age but, by Grade 8, classes became too difficult for her to continue. Times of dark discouragement came as she grew older and saw her life was different from those around her, particularly in the way she processes her thoughts and relates to others.

“I would see what my [younger] sister was doing, and I felt that I should be doing the same thing. It bothered me immensely.”

Lisa became the poster child in her family as “the girl who had the accident”.

Eventually she moved to Winnipeg and began a cafeteria job. After about five years, she attended Bible school, receiving her Sunday School and Clubs teaching certificate. She returned home, found a job and got married in 1974.

Life’s pain had not ended, however, as she became pregnant in 1977 and labor complications arose. “[My daughter] was all blue when they took her out. Then they said ‘something is wrong, she is not breathing.’ I can still see them pumping air into her as I was on the stretcher. They said [my baby] was a girl, but they had to rush her off.”

The daughter’s esophagus and windpipe were not fully developed, making eating and breathing difficult. Four months after birth, the child continued to vomit when fed, leaving tube feeding as the only option.

After 13 months in the hospital, the family was finally able to go home, where Lisa had to tube feed her daughter.

“It was an awful struggle. I had to feel on her stomach whether the feeding tube had gone down her stomach and not into her lungs. If it had gone into her lungs, this would be the end of it. She would fight it with me so terribly.”

The child became malnourished, leaving her mother discouraged.

“I felt I was doing such a rotten job in trying to look after her. I just felt awful.”

As Lisa faced the daily challenge of feeding her daughter, she found hope in scripture.

“I had her sitting in the high chair and then with every spoon, I quoted, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’”

Finally her daughter began eating solid food, but frequent hospital visits continued.

Also, life in the family home grew difficult and the marriage between Lisa and her husband fell apart.

Despite everything she has faced, Lisa has impacted young lives through three decades as a Sunday School teacher and she has spent numerous hours volunteering at the local MCC Thrift Store. Much of her days are now spent tying blankets that are used in MCC relief kits.

Lisa has proved it is possible to make it through the grimmest circumstances as she faces everything that comes her way with a renewed spirit of strength and trust, knowing she will be protected.

Bethany Daman is a student at Canadian Mennonite University. She wrote this article as part of her work in the course Journalism—Principles and Practices. “Voices of the Voiceless” is a class project that aims to chronicle the humanity of often-ignored people on the margins of our community

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Voices of the Voiceless: Pro athletes ‘adopt’ man with disability

By Julia Sisler

On any given summer day, you will find 22-year-old David Leitch on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers practice field, receiving passes from quarterbacks, joking with coaches or giving interviews to local media. His name is not on the roster but he has a unique place in the heart of the Canadian Football League team.

Leitch was born with spina bifida. It means his spinal cord did not form properly before he was born, and he will always use a wheelchair.

A string of surgeries began at birth, but his battles were more than physical. He doesn’t know who his father is, his mother wrote him off as “useless” because of his disorder, and he suffered extreme physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his grandmother, who was given custody of him.

“I was made to feel like it was my fault for being in a chair,” Leitch says.

He recalls school as a happy place compared to his home life. He remembers only one negative school experience, where he was told by a stranger: “People like you shouldn’t go to school.”

It was during one afternoon of boredom and curiosity in 2009 that his life opened up in a wonderful way.  He visited an open Bombers practice. After meeting a Bomber coach, Richard Harris, Leitch knew the stadium would provide him safe sanctuary.

Leitch’s relationship with the Bombers community grew with his frequent visits to the field. He rode the bus from his home in North Kildonan to the stadium for every practice and game. It was a place where he found love, acceptance, and growth.

With the Bombers on his side, Leitch finds he cares less about society’s perception of him.

“People are pretty good to me. You get the odd guy who might have something negative to say, but generally people are nice.”

He notes relationships with three men in particular: Bombers chaplain Lorne Korol, former quarterback Alex Brink, and wide receiver Aaron Hargreaves, who now plays for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Hargreaves describes how Leitch served as a constant sideline reminder of what life is really about.

“During my time in Winnipeg, having David show up to practice day in and day out, shows true character and dedication on his part.”

“Although I no longer play in Winnipeg, David still serves as a source of inspiration for me. His constant determination and hard work in life serves as a great example of how to be not only a better football player, but a better person.”

The impact that Leitch has on the Blue Bombers became evident in spring of 2012. He was diagnosed with pneumonia during training camp and doctors said it might be fatal. During this critical time, the Bombers stepped up for Leitch.

Bombers staff members, coaches, and players were at his bedside repeatedly during his three-week hospital stay. Some shed tears at the thought of losing one of their own.

To the relief of his Bombers friends, Leitch pulled through and made a full recovery.

Leitch’s attitude toward life has changed, thanks to the guys in blue and gold. He credits the Bombers with giving him something to live for—for giving him a place and a purpose.

Although you will never find the name “David Leitch” on any program, he has an important position with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Julia Sisler is a student at Canadian Mennonite University. She wrote this article as part of her work in the course Journalism—Principles and Practices. “Voices of the Voiceless” is a class project that aims to chronicle the humanity of often-ignored people on the margins of our community.



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Voices of the Voiceless: Newcomer struck by Canadians’ materialism

VoV - Newcomer struck
Canada is known as a land of plenty but, through the eyes of a newcomer, it’s not necessarily the land of happiness. CMU student Paulin Bossou and his family moved to Winnipeg from Africa two years ago, and he has seen beyond Canada’s relative affluence.


By Bethany Penner


Canada is known as a land of plenty but, through the eyes of a newcomer, it’s not necessarily the land of happiness.

Paulin Bossou and his family moved to Winnipeg from Africa two years ago, and he has seen beyond Canada’s relative affluence and materialism.

“People are not living very well here,” the Canadian Mennonite University student said in an interview. “They have money and infrastructure, but people are not happy here. There is a lack

 of something. Money and the other things that we strive after does not bring happiness.”

Bossou had worked for a home for disadvantaged children, La Casa Grande Benin, in Benin, West Africa, for the past 10 years. He, his wife and their two children felt it was time to try something new and they were drawn to Manitoba by a Mennonite connection. In Benin, he was associated with a Mennonite church, and Bossou was fascinated and curious about Mennonites. He had heard that Canada—Manitoba in particular—had an abundance of Mennonites and this brought the family to Winnipeg.

One big difference between Benin and Canada is how people choose to use their time, Bossou said.

“In Benin, I had enough time to share my time with other people and help other people. But here, this time doesn’t exist. People are rushing and looking for money and they are not living.”

Bossou also expressed concern that many people in Canada appear to live their faith on a shallow level.

“The environment here does not help to make a good Christian. For me, to be a Christian does not mean to just go to church, but is to participate in the life of the community. Here it is an option to go to church or be part of the community. But not for me.”

To him, being a Christian means spending time with people, enjoying life and sharing experiences with others. It also means taking the necessary time to worship God and grow in faith, which means giving God more than one hour on Sunday mornings.

God has had a huge impact on the Bossou family and their immersion in the radically different culture of Canada. Bossou says he has learned the importance of trusting God to the fullest. 

“I discovered that people don’t want to depend on God because they have many opportunities to do things themselves. If you can do something by yourself, you do not expect another person to do it. They try to be rational, instead of using faith.”

As Bossou studies at CMU, his wife studies at St. Boniface University in Winnipeg. The family plans to return to Benin next year, where Bossou will continue being the director of La Casa Grande Benin, a home for children, including those who have lost parents due to AIDS. The ministrybegan in 2000 as a partnership between the Burgos Mennonite Church and Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network.

Bossou said he will return to Africa with many positive experiences in Canada.

“Here is good, but not the place for me. For us, it is a privilege to be here and learn more about this country and share what we have learned with other people. It is a dream or something special to come and live in this country and now we will share it with our friends.”

Bethany Penner is a student at Canadian Mennonite University. She wrote this article as part of her work in the course Journalism—Principles and Practices. “Voices of the Voiceless” is a class project that aims to chronicle the humanity of often-ignored people on the margins of our community.