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September 01, 2000

From the Chair

By Michael S. Greco

This issue of Human Rights focuses on "human rights heroes." For me, a hero is someone who demonstrates courage, nobility, and strength of character; someone who leads by example, serves as a role model, and inspires us to become better than we are. You will be inspired by the individuals highlighted in this issue, many of whom do not consider what they do as being heroic in any sense.

Each of us has known a hero in the context of human rights: one who has shown us how to help ensure that we respect the inherent dignity of every human being, regardless of nationality, race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual preference. I met such a person in the fall of 1967, in a classroom at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire where I taught English prior to embarking on my law career. Patrick Lydon, an Exeter senior, was a student in my class. In the ensuing thirty-three years our roles have reversed, for Patrick-by his life's work caring for young people with disabilities-has become the teacher and I and all who are fortunate to know him, his pupils.

Following the ABA Annual Meeting in London this past July, I traveled to the Camphill Community at Ballytobin, a 14-acre farm in County Kilkenny, Ireland, to visit Patrick, who had just celebrated his 50th birthday, his wife Gladys, and their four children. Patrick has lived in Ireland since the late 1970s, when he and Gladys, who had grown up in Scotland, helped to found the Camphill Community, "a therapeutic farm for children with multiple disabilities and disturbances. Many of the children are autistic or psychotic and most have been deprived of a healthy family life. In the wholesome setting of a small farm, the children live in large family-centered houses, and are taught with a mixture of classroom work, art, individual therapies, and craft." The farm serves as the primary source of food for the community and as therapeutic activity for residents no longer in school.

Ballytobin today is a community of about ninety individuals: four families, including infants and teenagers; approximately thirty-four children and adults with disabilities; and the balance, volunteer "co-workers." During my short visit, I interacted with many of the young people and observed the warmth, caring, and patient but firm treatment they received from Patrick, Gladys, and the many volunteers, most of them young women and men in their early twenties from places throughout Europe. The young residents have enormous talents, including art and music, which are central to life at Ballytobin; they live full, active, and happy lives, and long to be treated like everyone else. If they were not being cared for at Ballytobin, they would most likely be warehoused in secured institutions, where their lives would be vastly different.

The path that led Patrick from Exeter in 1968 to Ballytobin in 1979 included the political and personal turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, fueled by events such as the assassination of Robert Kennedy, days before Patrick's Exeter graduation; the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Vietnam War, to which Patrick was morally opposed; the draft; and his years studying at Yale. While in my English class, Patrick read Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karazamov, which he later acknowledged had a profound and permanent effect on his life, moral values, and the choices he'd made. In a letter to me more than two decades after reading that novel, Patrick said, "I recall very clearly the fire that this book set alight in my soul. Its passionate moral debate gave brilliant and complex expression to what was an incoherent trial in my heart then; its characters and images gave focus and definition to the conflicts and yearnings I felt within."

In his letter, Patrick spoke indirectly of the reasons underlying his decision to forgo the many opportunities in the business world available to him and his Exeter and Yale friends: "Living in a community, trying to make one's relationship to others a help to their own development, whether they are disabled or not, is all to do with recognizing what is unique and extraordinarily human in them and being willing to foster that essence without being blinded by one's own sense of oneself."

For almost thirty years, Patrick Lydon has dedicated himself to helping young people with disabilities, his own children, and all of us understand that each human life has inherent worth, and that every individual is deserving of the chance to develop their abilities and live a dignified life.

In Patrick's own words:
This sense of our responsibility for our fellow humans is central to living with and caring for people who are mentally disabled, who will not be able to become independent, self-directing people. In order to expand their own sense of themselves, we have to broaden our capacity for life to include their potential, to give expression and feeling to their experience. Somehow the idea of serving, of becoming a servant to the needs and development of another, of being able to enhance more than one's own sense of self, becomes a key to finding one's own way forward. And then we realize that the children who we thought needed our care, were dependent on us, have taught us to care, taught us our need to become caring. . . . And my life in the Camphill Community with its magic idealism, with these consummate human beings who are called "handicapped" . . . I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude that my life led me this way.

I have a vivid memory of Patrick as a young man in that Exeter English class long ago. He was blessed with idealism, keen intelligence, an inquisitive, searching mind, a warm sense of humor, and an exuberance for life. Patrick has used those gifts in the service of young people with disabilities, giving their lives fulfillment and meaning. After we said our goodbyes in Ballytobin, I returned to Boston and reflected on what Patrick had chosen to do with his life. I felt a deep sense of admiration and respect for this extraordinary individual. For the profound difference he has made in the lives of scores of young people with disabilities over the past thirty years, and for providing a moral compass to the rest of us, Patrick Lydon is a hero.

For more information about Camphill Community at Ballytobin, Callan, County Kilkenny, Ireland, or to contribute to the effort, use this e-mail address: [email protected] .