GREAT NORTHERN PENINSULA, NL – Michael Dingwell may be from Corner Brook, but a big piece of his heart is on the Great Northern Peninsula.
When he decided to undertake his “Rainbow Struggle Tribute Walk” for autism awareness, he knew exactly where he wanted to go.
Dingwell, 65, headed north from Deer Lake up through the mountains of Gros Morne, past the coast of the Strait of Belle Isle, across the country and onwards to St. Anthony.
Dingwell has roots in the Great Northern Peninsula, as his great grandmother is from Bellburns. He says he has a great love and respect for the people of the region.
He commenced his journey on Monday, Jan. 29 and was set to conclude the walk, after 430 kilometres, in St. Anthony on Friday, Feb 2.
He named the walk the Rainbow Struggle. The rainbow signifies hope, while the struggle refers both to the mountains in the Bonne Bay area and the shared experience of people working with individuals with autism.
Dingwell knows this first hand. His son Elliot, 26, was diagnosed with autism. He says having a child with autism is a gift. And, ever since that diagnosis, he has been an advocate for people with the condition and works to make a meaningful impact on their lives by holding vigils and bike rides, amongst other events.
This time Dingwell wanted to combine some of his skills to promote awareness.
“Having an artistic slant and being athletic, I wanted to marry those two things, with my knowledge and training about autism, into one thing,” he said.
“So this is just one more act of me trying to put my words, my thoughts and beliefs into actions. And sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in, even if you have to stand alone.”
On this walk, Dingwell’s goal was to engage people, start a conversation and share insights and experiences.
Dingwell wanted to further autism awareness along his path and take steps to enhance the quality of life of these individuals and their families.
His journey included stops at schools in Cow Head and St. Anthony, where he spoke to elementary students about autism and the importance of altruism.
The trek itself saw some adverse weather conditions and Dingwell, in fact, lost four toenails along the way.
But he commended the people who plow the roads for doing a “tremendous job.”
And, he said, in the 430 kilometres he walked, litter was minimal. He saw one Pepsi can along the side of the road.
During the walk, Dingwell wanted to pay tribute to 10 different men and groups of people for each of the 10 days he was on the road – people he says made iconic contributions to the Great Northern Peninsula and influenced him personally.
The names he “shouted out” were: Wallace House, Mattie Mitchell, Trevor Bennett, Rex Dingwell, Dave Collins, Craig Pye, Rev. Francis Buckle and his son, Elliot.
And he wanted to pay tribute to his uncles and the inshore fishermen who have struggled in the region, as well as the fathers like him who live with autistic children.
He says the tributes were done in a spiritual sense and, along the way, he told people he met about these individuals who inspired him.
Along his journey, he says he experienced the warmth and generosity of the Great Northern Peninsula’s residents firsthand, thanking the people who invited him into their homes.
“The people on the Great Northern Peninsula take hospitality to a whole new level,” he said. “It’s human kindness and it’s altruism. It’s a lack of selfishness.”
He adds that families who have loved ones with autism require that kind of community support.
“And communities need to realize how much people with autism bring to the picture,” said Dingwell. “And as active, visible members of their community.”