Thelma Cockburn has courage. It takes incredible courage to process your own pain, work through it, identify it in others and build a system which makes a difference in people’s lives. And because she’s at the helm of a program that helps people deal with life’s inner hurts, Thelma must be prepared to speak publicly again and again about her own journey.

This is hard to do in the town where you were born and raised, where you took your education, married your high school beau, worked, celebrated the births of your own children, suffer disappointments and choose to remain and rebuild. Sometimes it’s easier to move and start again.

Thelma has taken the tough route and chosen to stay in Barrie and make a difference in the lives of children and their families from here all across Canada. And all because she chose to step outside of her own life disaster, process it, build on it and move on.

Thelma Cockburn was honoured last Wednesday by the Barrie Chamber of Commerce for her service to youth and children in the Barrie Community. The award is sponsored by Marsden’s Trophies.

Thelma Cockburn helps kids cope. She founded the Rainbows program. Rainbows is a non profit organization dedicated to helping children and families process the inner pain of living with divorce and separation. Rainbows is a program designed to give children (pre-school, school-aged, and teens) the tools to process grief suffered at the loss of their family unit either through marital separation or death. The program is built on the philosophy that each of us experiences losses as we go through life; perhaps the greatest loss for a child is that of a primary parent through family breakup.

Rainbows uses the volunteer team philosophy that trained individuals can provide families with a safety net of love and support with which to discuss their feelings, process them honestly and in a safe place, and rebuild relationships that have lasting effects. When a family breaks up through marital separation, divorce, or death, often children feel isolated with their feelings of loss. They can’t discuss them with the remaining parent because that parent, too, is processing pain and anger and panic. Often a child is isolated in his or her grief, and acting out in school or at home brings only unwanted attention.

Thelma is single handedly responsible for the vision and drive that brought the Rainbows program to Canada (now 1,000 sites strong), and grew it in a phenomenally brief time to marshall the talents of 1,300 volunteers to better the lives of 8,978 children in separated families across the nation.

Thelma uses the “lemons to lemonade” approach with the Rainbows program. Life does hand us lemons. We can stay sour or we can add the sweetness of processed grief, and make lemonade.

Rainbows lets children and families squeeze lemons, add sweetness, and benefit from the experiences. It also teaches its participants how to process feelings so that life’s other “lemons” have a model with which to cope.

Family breakdown is at an all time high in Canada as nearly half of Canadian unions end in separation or divorce. When Thelma’s own 27 year marriage ended, she spiralled into a series of losses that forced her to take time and energy to focus on dealing with her own pain. During this time of crisis, she found herself educationally unqualified to do the job she’d done for years, and was faced with several years of education before her while, at the same time, she was coming to terms with a marital dismantling that was not her decision. While she was still whirling in the vortex of grief, her youngest son took his own life.

This crisis, this breakdown in everything predictable, gave Thelma all the research material she needed to recognize the kinds of loss that more than half of Canadian families experience. She decided to do something with her life’s journey and began slowly, exploring the Rainbows program, initiating it first into the school at which she was teaching. She built carefully a volunteer base, trained carefully her first volunteers, worked diligently to develop literature that was age- and stage-appropriate, often paying for materials herself while she developed fundraising campaigns that would allow this program to grow.

While Barrie became home base for Rainbows in Canada, Thelma nurtured her volunteers and national opportunities whenever and wherever they presented themselves. She developed and maintains a national board of directors, fundraises for purchase of materials for young participants, manages the set-up and committee building of the Rainbows program in communities across the country, and attends to the thousands of administrative details demanded by growth. As of 1999 Rainbows material is also available in French.

She retired from her elementary school teaching career in 1994 and devotes herself full time to Rainbows. Recently, at the insistence of her board of directors, she began drawing a modest salary to help with her own costs.

This incredible woman has taken the basket of lemons that life thrust into her hands, and from this has made goodness. And at the bottom of it all, she’s stayed true to her goal.

Life’s bitter experiences can do one of two things. They can crush us. Or, they move us to build strength enough to move mountains.

Thanks, Thelma.

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