When I first met Phil Fiess, he’d just finished a riveting musical performance at the Schlegel Villages Pursuit of Passions event in Kitchener June 22. A tear came to my eye watching him sing a duet with Tiffany VanSomeren, a recreation team member from his home, The Village at University Gates. When he pushed his walker aside to dance with her, the audience in the room that day was astounded to see any signs of his Parkinson’s disease whither before their eyes. He was simply a man dancing with a friend, and the smile on his face told everyone he was proud and beyond content.
I tried my best to capture the moment in this article, but truly, you had to be there.
Phil again stood before a massive audience of people during the second evening of the Schlegel Villages Operational Planning retreat in Niagara Falls at the end of September, this time to offer a speech as a guest of honour during the gala State of the Union dinner. This event is a time for reflection, when the audience hears from the organization’s founder, Ron Schlegel, about his passion and the personal vision that guides his constant quest to enhance communities around him.
Before Ron took the stage, Phil spoke from the heart as a fine dinner was served. He spoke with eloquence as any man with a law degree and a masters in science might, despite the relentless battle for control of his body he had to wage against his disease. He spoke of chasing dreams, and how life can sometimes get in the way of that noble purusit. "But dreams, as it turns out, are impossible to kill," he said, "no matter how deep we bury them." He spoke of the day he sang and danced with Tiffany, the trust they placed in each other to step way beyond their zone of comfort, and the seemingly ceaseless wave of gratitude strangers continually offered in praise of the inspiration they offered in a few short minutes.
He spoke of finding meaning and purpose in life at University Gates, which in the face of a degenerative disease like Parkinson’s, might not be as possible in another environment. In Phil’s words, before an audience of more than 300 guests, Ron Schlegel’s vision came alive. Ron has always understood that in every person, regardless of age or cognitive or physical ability, there lies a certain amount of potential waiting to be realized. The communities he established seek to unlock that potential through the depths of the relationships that bloom in every neighbourhood of each village, just like the one Tiffany and Phil demonstrated so beautifully that day in June.
These connections are the root of happiness, and to hear Phil explain what they mean to him was a powerful highlight of the 2017 Operational Planning retreat.