Suzanne Willett outside Community Living HuntsvilleThink about a time when you were included. How did that make you feel? Now, think about a time when you were excluded. How did that make you feel?
 
Suzanne Willett, executive director for Community Living Huntsville and president-elect for the Rotary Club of North Muskoka, led club members in a discussion on inclusion for Community Living Month in May.

"Each experience of being included and excluded has a lasting effect on how you think and feel," said Willett. "And these experiences can affect all stages of your life, and how you might feel in different situations."

Community Living Huntsville, a not-for-profit registered charity, supports roughly 300 children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families in North Muskoka to live the lives they choose, as active and valued members of an inclusive community. The organization employs roughly 80 staff members, such as developmental service workers, employment specialists, family support workers and resource teachers.

"Advocates of the Community Living movement believe people with disabilities, including those with developmental disabilities, are citizens, too," said Willett. "They believe that, with the right community services and support, people with developmental disabilities could live and participate in their own communities, just like everyone else."

But she noted there were people in Huntsville who did not feel the same sense of belonging in their community that others did, despite it being essential to the human experience.

Willett said many people felt isolated well before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, despite strides in advocacy and action over decades. And the pandemic has deepened that isolation.

"The pandemic has been so difficult," she said. "In my opinion, it has put us back 10 or 20 years in terms of the work we have done."

The pandemic has since prompted a broader community conversation about isolation and inclusion.

Willett added, too, that there was a difference between inclusion and belonging, and while efforts toward inclusion were vital, the ultimate goal was a sense of belonging.

"Inclusion is being invited to the dance," she said. "Belonging is being invited to dance."

She asked club members to remember there were people with vulnerabilities in the community who will continue to experience isolation long after the pandemic ends. And she encouraged everyone to lead by example in promoting inclusion and increasing a sense of belonging for people with developmental disabilities.

"For over 60 years, we (Community Living Huntsville) have worked toward making Huntsville a place where everyone's voice is heard, their decisions are respected, and their contributions are valued," said Willett. "But we're not done yet. We're far from it. And we can't do it alone."