Monday, June 14, 2010

Remembrances grow for Justin, a boy too soon gone

Friends, family and co-workers have left teddy bears and other memorial objects at a bus stop on Douglas Street where Justin Wendland, 15, was attacked and killed by a stranger. Deddeda Stemler photograph. BELOW: Justin smiles while camping at Lake Cowichan last year.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 14, 2010


It is a bus stop, so people have time to spare.

Some wander over to a nearby tree to read the notes attached to a pile of tributes.

There are candles and balloons, flowers and a toy lamb, teddy bears and a stuffed dog, the sentimental debris of a painful grief.

You lean in to read the notes, not wanting to disturb what has been left. The messages are written in cheery script by schoolgirls and in blocky lettering by schoolboys. They are addressed to a friend and a classmate and a coworker and a brother and a son as though he might be able to stroll past to read them.

Already, the evening rains have caused the writing to fade.

The poignancy of one note is heartbreaking, a common grammatical error making the emotion all the more human.

“I love you. I’ll love you forever. Your my little boy. I’ll miss you forever. I never wanted to live without you. You were such a good boy, always listening to me. You always took care of me. I love you so much. I want my little boy back. Love forever and always, Mom.”

Justin Wendland, 15, was at the bus stop in the 2600-block Douglas Street eleven days ago. A popular boy, he’d been visiting with friends after school. It was about 8 p.m., the sky still light an hour before the gloaming.

Witnesses say a passing man plunged a knife into the youth’s chest.

The paramedics tried to save the boy in the leafy shade of a tree under which a makeshift shrine now rests.

Fifteen minutes after what the family was told was an unprovoked attack, a 39-year-old man turned himself in at police headquarters a few blocks south. He is now charged with murder. He has been described as a man with drug addiction and possibly mental-health issues, agitated that day by the theft of his backpack. He was known to police.

A youth waits to catch a ride home. Violence arrives before the bus, and a mother is left to pen a note to a boy she’ll never again hug.

On a brilliant Saturday afternoon, students gathered in the auditorium at Victoria High School. A young woman sang a song of her own composition and a young man performed a rap. A slide show portrayed a boy with a beaming smile.

Afterwards, mourners gathered on the school lawn to release balloons into the sky in memory of a boy whose nickname was Pudgy.

“A lot of people got up and shared,” said family friend Tracey Spence-Thorpe. “We laughed and we cried. And then we ate. There was so much food in there I think some of it had been distributed downtown to some of the shelters.”

She and other parents are urging their children to write the premier about the loss of their friend and about the threat of random violence on downtown streets.

“We’re not having a celebration of life for Justin yesterday,” she said, “and forget about him today,” said

Ms. Spence-Thorpe has ordered 2,000 rubber wrist bracelets. These will be sold for $5 each. Another parent is selling T-shirts featuring a photographic portrait of the boy with his birth and death dates. These cost $15. As well, a trust fund has been set up in the Wendland name at Coast Capital Savings Credit Union.

Friends are raising money for Raj, a single mother who has brought up the boy and sisters, Courtney, 16, and Kayla, 21, on her salary as a dispatcher for Totem Towing.

In the nightmare of losing her son, she faced the prospect of a funeral which she could not afford. Her employer has agreed to cover the cost.

The boy’s tragic death is all the more upsetting for its seeming inevitability. The deinstitutionalization of mental patients a quarter-century ago has moved deeply troubled people onto the streets. Anyone who spends time in downtown Victoria has an anecdote about an unpredictable encounter, or a perilous confrontation.

Even as the crime rate goes down, the sense of menace on the streets does not lessen. The littered boulevard campgrounds of the homeless and the drug addicts and the mentally ill evoke scenes from Dante’s circles of hell — the predictable result of cutbacks to programs.

Ms. Spence-Thorpe remembers Justin working on his resume at her house. He was applying for a part-time job he would get at the McDonald’s on Pandora Street, on the same block as the Our Place drop-in and residence. She feared for Pudgy on that street.

He got the job to cover the cost of his muay thai lessons, a martial art whose demanding workouts were fast removing the last vestige of baby fat from his physique.

A Facebook page in his honour has 1,640 members. Every day, his mother scans the page, seeking solace in reminiscences by friends of a boy too soon gone.

A generation ago, a boy disappeared from a playground. Michael Dunahee is remembered to this day. Thirteen years ago, Reena Virk, just 14, was murdered by classmates. She, too, is remembered. Now, another young person is dead, his loss keenly felt by all.

The shrine at the tree started with two bouquets attached by green painter’s tape. It now spills along the sidewalk.

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