Like many parents, Hayden Desser was in the dark about what it means to have a child with special needs – until he became a father. It’s a journey that the Toronto-based singer-songwriter admits “can often feel solitary.” He and his wife, Christie Greyerbiehl, feel lucky to have found a community of resources and support at their daughter's school on Beverley Street, and want to help families like theirs.
Last year, Hayden invited an impressive lineup of artists to join him onstage for one magical night of music. The Dream Serenade featured intimate performances by big name acts, like Feist, Sarah Harmer, members of The National and the Barenaked Ladies. The atmosphere in Massey Hall was electric, as if all the songs had taken on added meaning. Seeing musicians come together to help children was incredibly moving. I think I had goosebumps the entire night!
But the magic actually began days before the show, when some of the musicians visited Beverley for an impromptu sing-along.
The inaugural concert raised $100,000 in support of the Beverley Street School for children with special needs, like Hayden’s daughter. Though it is part of the Toronto District School Board, Beverley is a unique school, with unique needs.
“The students at Beverley are not typical learners - they do not use textbooks, pens or paper,” says principal, Alana Grossman. Providing a specialized environment and adapted mobility and communication equipment can cost thousands of dollars, which isn’t covered by Ministry grants.
Some of the proceeds from the benefit concert have gone toward creating "night out" and "getaway" packages for parents. We love our kids, but caring for them can be exhausting both mentally and physically. And many families – like mine - lack adequate support. When your child has a disability, you don’t have the luxury of asking the teenager who lives two doors down to come over and babysit. Because your child tends to need specialized care, you often wind up staying home.
You rarely get a break.
A doctor once told Hayden and his wife to stay healthy because “our daughter needed us to live long lives.” That advice resonated with the musician, who realized the importance of respite and self-care.
Over time his daughter has warmed to Daddy’s songs. She used to motion for him to stop playing. A year on, she has a greater attention span and a better understanding of his music. “Although a lot of my songs are quite slow and sombre,” jokes Hayden, “she's found a way to dance to them.”
Which is quite a fitting metaphor for raising a child with a disability, I think.
This year's Dream Serenade takes place at Massey Hall on October 17, 2015. Performers include Joel Plaskett, the Bahamas, Kevin Hearn & Thin Buckle, Choir! Choir! Choir!, The Weather Station, TUNS and of course, Hayden.