Corbrook: Inspired by a young woman’s dream

In 1949, Jean Lauder was a young adult living with cerebral palsy in the Toronto Area.

Although already an active member of the Young Adults Cerebral Palsy Association, options for adults such as Miss Lauder were limited. And Miss Lauder had a dream.

She envisioned “A workshop or centre where the physically handicapped could function as a person, not just as a dependant on relatives and friends, where there would be social contacts and communications, and where there would be rehabilitative and productive work.”

Enter the women’s fraternities Alpha Chi Omega, Alpha Gamma Delta and Alpha Omicron Pi – of the University of Toronto – who had collectively chosen cerebral palsy as the focus of their altruistic efforts.

Inspired by Miss Lauder, a committee of these fraternities met in November 1949 to begin the research, planning and plain hard work necessary to make her dream of greater personal autonomy a reality.

June 30, 1950 marked the official opening of the “Intra-fraternity Recreational and Training Centre.” One-half day, once a week, 28 cerebral palsy “patients” and exactly $99 in the bank.

The rest, as they say is history.

Over the next 60 years, the organization that in 1968 would come to be known as Corbrook continually transformed itself in response to the ever-growing need for its services.

In the beginning, centre activities were mainly therapeutic, social and recreational. Crafts were made and sold to help fund the program. Over time, people with range of diagnoses and varying levels of abilities began to attend the centre. In the early 1960s light packaging and assembly contracts were acquired, which provided training, work and incentive payment opportunities.

A second location, originally named Scarbrook Enterprises, was opened in 1981 to provide employment services and other support to people in the east end of Toronto.

Today, Corbrook provides a wide range of services including Person-Directed Planning, supported community activities, employment supports for individuals and businesses, adult literacy and respite to people across the Greater Toronto Area. Among those who employ a workforce of people with varying levels of abilities, we are also the largest provider of custom packaging and assembly services in the region.

Over the last six decades, Corbrook has helped literally thousands of people enhance their skills, build their self-esteem, become more independent and enjoy a higher quality of life. All thanks to the inspiration of a young woman with a big dream.

An Interview with Gloria LeGrow

Reflections on a life’s effort: A conversation with Honourary Director Gloria LeGrow

Gloria LeGrow spent almost 50 years supporting Corbrook, until her retirement from the Board in 2004 at the age of 80. On the occasion of the organization’s 60th anniversary, she offered her reflections on the impact Corbrook has had on the people it has supported over the past six decades.

I was a member of the women’s fraternity Alpha Chi Omega at the University of Toronto. Sometime before my graduation in 1946, our alumni came with several other fraternities to talk to students about the idea of establishing a charity. The workshop officially started in 1950. I wasn’t active then but I knew about it and had friends who were involved. I volunteered in 1958 and after a few months was invited to be on the Board.
In the 1940s, physically disabled children were well looked after until about age 16 or at most 18. As adults, however, they had virtually no community supports. Families were just left trying to cope. Three of the original fraternities decided to establish the Intra-fraternity Association.* That was the beginning of Corbrook. *Corbrook was originally named the “Intra-fraternity Recreational and Training Centre.”
People with physical disabilities have a lot of options these days they didn’t have then. Our object was to try to make life a little more interesting for those who attended the workshop: give them something to look forward to. I remember one child who was flat out in a kind of support chair. He couldn’t do a lot but he could polish blocks. Just getting him out of the house and occupied… it was amazing what a difference it made to him. Being part of something is important to people, you can’t be isolated.
It took a lot of talking and a lot of planning. Funding was always an issue. We were all volunteers and in addition to the funding we received from United Way, we relied on the generous donations of others for things like our accommodations and materials for the activities. Getting people to the workshop was also a big stumbling block because there was a lot of physical labour required. Nowadays everything’s accessible but in those days nothing was.
We’ve had lots of help over the years. Community organizations and local businesses often donated space for the workshop. Most of the volunteers were fraternity members, and they brought in their sisters, husbands, other relatives and friends. We also had parents and some professional people that retired and came on the Board. Their input was very valuable.
We’ve always called it a workshop but work is a very big word. It means a lot of things. We began with a mainly recreational approach, not concentrating on getting jobs per se. In those days we used to host a well-attended annual open house and sell the products the clients made. It was kind of a spirit-building thing. One thing we became known for was polished wooden blocks – children’s toys. We even sold them in places like Eaton’s.
It sort of grew like top seed. One of our benefactors, Mr. Colebrook – whose wife Grace was on our Board – had a brain injury. Not cerebral palsy but in any case the thing we concentrated on most was the physical disabilities part. Around that time we decided to broaden our outlook in life so to speak and we took cerebral palsy out of the name. Incidentally, Corbrook is named for Mr. Colebrook, and Mr. Corman, the father of one the Friday girls, June Hesse, who donated a large factory for us to use as a permanent home.
There was one group of volunteers including myself, we used to call ourselves the Friday girls. There were four of us in particular – Audrey Baird, June Hess, Audrey Stevenson and me – from one fraternity. We were there every week and then we went out for lunch and it was great fun. It’s so good when you enjoy the people you’re working with and when you all have the same goals and share some of the same challenges.
Why do you think Corbrook has thrived for more than 60 years?We’ve always kept an open mind to do whatever would be most useful to people, changing the focus of our activities over time. These days the emphasis is more on getting a job than when we started out. I also think our staff and volunteers care deeply about the people they support, which makes a huge difference. Mainly though it’s about need. With Corbrook we established an organization the community needed then, and still needs now.
I think we gave a lot of discouraged adults a little pleasure, and made a difference in their lives. We helped people realize some of their goals. And in some ways we’ve changed peoples’ attitudes about the disabled. We’ve shown that everyone can accomplish something if given the chance. 

When I toured [the Trethewey location] this morning I thought “Wow, this is fantastic!” I’m delighted with the amount of contracts they’ve got and the supports and services that are in place. I’ve always believed the work we were doing was very important: helping people find their reason to carry on, whatever that reason might be. After all, life isn’t much if you don’t have a purpose.