Will Webster’s Story by Fadila Chater
Will Webster stutters. He’s stuttered for as long as he can remember. It’s often the first thing he’ll mention when getting to know people. Not because he’s looking for pity. But because he believes everyone deserves to be understood.
Though, it would be a lie to say his stutter never embarrassed him.
“I’m still kind of haunted by experiences of being laughed at and people being impatient with me for not being able to spit it out,” he says. Will sits with his wife Anne at their home in Bedford, Nova Scotia. They eat their lunch, a fresh chef’s salad, together on their patio. Anne, a gentle and soft-spoken woman, apologizes for eating during our interview. I say it’s no bother at all. It was a warm summer day and the pair had been renovating their kitchen all morning. They had missed lunch and were just catching their meal as I knocked on the door.
“Those experiences are very much there, but you know I did have a family that was supportive of me,” Will says.
Will’s father also had a stutter. Though, growing up in the 50s and 60s, the topic rarely came up in conversation. It was expected that Will would move on with his life, like anyone else. And he did. Despite struggles with speech, Will became an experimental psychologist, studying and working in universities in Canada and the United States until settling down 14 years ago in Nova Scotia as the Dean of the Faculty of Health Professions at Dalhousie University. His primary research interest as been focused on the brain mechanisms associated with stuttering.
“Part of my interest in that comes from the fact that I happen to be a person who stutters,” he says.
Will has since retired. But his interest in psychology, and specifically the social determinants of mental and physical health, continues.
“I always found myself, though, whenever I would encounter somebody who was lonely and alone—I had a lot of empathy for them,” he says. “Because I often felt very much alone at times. I think this is where some of my interest in the Happy Community Project comes from.”
When Will retired he joined social groups to keep him occupied and engaged with friends. One such group was a men’s coffee group, which met regularly at a local café to kick up their feet and talk about their interests. One of his friends introduced Will to Barry Braun. At the time, Barry had been mulling over a not-for-profit idea for the community development of Windsor and West Hants. The two hit it off immediately.
“I was really intrigued by the Happy Community Project concept and what it involved,” Will says. “My interest in it reflects my long-standing interest, as an academic psychologist, in community and in the social determinants of health, and mental health. The Happy Community Project deals with loneliness and social isolation and how you can break down some of those barriers.”
Will quickly became Barry’s sounding board; someone who could listen intently to some of the Project’s issues and challenges. Now Will sits as the chair for the Friends of the Happy Community Project, an evolving not-for-profit organization which helps fund the Project.
“I’m happy to be working behind the scenes and leaving it to members of the community to take the lead,” he says.
Will is especially fond of the Project’s focus on grassroots organizing and empowering everyday people to assume co-leadership roles in their community. When people are empowered to work together to come up with specific solutions to issues in their community, whether it’s getting people out of their homes or providing help and company to the socially isolated, everyone’s mental health improves.
“The Happy Community Project contributes to mental health in dealing, first and foremost, with generating feelings of connectedness and belongingness in people in their community so they feel they are part of that community. And in helping to break down social isolation; getting people to come out and interact with one another.”
From a scientific standpoint, being part of a community is a natural part of being human. Our species is inherently social. Will explains to me that the early humans who attempted life alone probably weren’t well equipped for survival and ultimately became victim of natural selection. Though at times human society has seemed to do more harm than good, we nonetheless evolve from those times of conflict by navigating the human condition together. And, through those processes, we become even more equipped to deal with whatever the future has in store for us. But, Will and many others are noticing a change in our social fabric.
“I think that everywhere we’re finding that people’s mental health is deteriorating because they don’t feel they have a connection,” Will says.
In talking to many different people this summer—from Windsor, Halifax and even India—one common theme has been the ever-growing cases of loneliness and depression in communities all over the world. The situation has gotten so dire, that the United Kingdom has recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness to tackle the issue which affects one in five people a day.
“The only way to come to grips with loneliness is to get people to come together,” Will says. “Social media, I believe, contributes to this loneliness. It seems ironic that this is supposed to bring people together, we talk about ‘friends’ in social media, and yet it creates higher and higher barriers. We need to get people interacting more face-to-face and coming to feel that they belong and contribute, and that people know they exist, and people care for them.”
Will believes that the Happy Community Project is a step in the right direction. By drawing people towards a common goal, whether it’s creating a community garden or a weekly farmers’ market, human connections are made. And with human connection comes belonging. And when people feel like they belong, they are happy. And when people are happy the community grows. It’s an endless domino effect that Will sees first happening in Windsor and West Hants.
It was nearing the end of our conversation, though it felt as though we could keep talking till the sun went down. Anne, who had been chiming in with her own knowledge and experiences, turns and tells me something that I still think about to this day. It was something I had never heard before but was so incredibly fitting with the stories I had been telling all summer long. When Will retired, she says, he was given a plaque. On that plaque was an old African proverb he was known for saying to friends and colleagues: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”