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'Because of you, Ryan had a life'
The collage of photographs on display at the White Rock Community Centre Friday evening showed a smiling boy, a handsome teenager and a beaming new father.
In the mix were five depicting the gruffer-looking version of Ryan Ashe that those who call the Semiahmoo Peninsula home – and White Rock, in particular – knew best.
Ashe was a familiar presence in White Rock for two decades before his death in August.
And while there have been those who, over his years of living on the city’s streets, avoided eye contact or even crossed the street to dodge him, the 100-plus who turned out to bid a final goodbye Friday said Ashe taught them about important things in life; among them, to be kind and to not judge a book by its cover.
“He teach me lots of things,” said Chizue Lister, who got to know Ashe through his regular visits to her Yucca Tree Café for coffee.
“Life is simple, life is wonderful.”
Lister described Ashe as someone who was always smiling, with “a very pure heart.”
“Lots of people think, poor Ryan. He was happy, honest, proud gentleman,” she said.
Ashe’s sister, Orphee Martin, spoke of the brother with whom she once shared a close relationship. Ashe was quite good-looking and popular in his teen years, she said. He held a real estate licence for a time and used to babysit Martin’s young sons, even taking them on work calls with him.
He married and became a dad.
But everything changed after Ashe suffered a severe head injury in a car crash. His young son, Trevor, now 28, was about two years old at the time.
Trevor, who lives in Kamloops, told Peace Arch News that he only knew his father through photos and stories his mom shared with him. After learning his dad was sick – he died of lung cancer Aug. 13 – the junior Ashe said he didn’t know how to react or feel.
“I didn’t know him well. I would’ve liked to have gotten to meet him. I’m really touched with how the community has taken to him and been there for him throughout his life.”
In White Rock, Ashe first called the waterfront area home, before finding various corners of the uptown core to set up camp.
Helen Fathers, a White Rock councillor, told attendees she first met Ashe in 1991, shortly after immigrating to the seaside city from England. It was Christmas morning, and he was sitting on the beach, stoking a fire and wishing all who passed a Merry Christmas, she said.
Ashe’s attitude toward others never changed over the years, Fathers said.
“His family has every reason to be very proud of him,” she said. “He was kind, well-mannered… shared his life with us and asked nothing in return.”
Martin was candid in sharing the difficulties she had in staying close to her brother after he began living on the street. Following a schizophrenia diagnosis, his reality was different, she said – particularly after he started refusing to take medication he’d been prescribed to help manage the condition.
“I looked at the physical,” Martin said, referring to the dirty, disheveled Ashe she would encounter on her regular walks around town. “I was not as good a sister as I could’ve been. I essentially lost the relationship I had with my brother.”
Martin also touched on the challenges of mental illness that her brother’s situation highlighted.
“The real question of the day is what does the future hold? We all wish we could make them take their medication. Many of us would like for them to not have their rights,” she said.
Others who spoke Friday included Paula Spurr, who got to know Ashe through his visits to Buy-Low Foods, where she works as a cashier.
He would routinely come in to buy a single can of Coke, always paying with exact change. After learning that drinking it cold hurt his teeth – the store only sells single cans out of the cooler – staff got in the habit of setting a few cans aside just for him, she said.
He was always polite, and always funny, Spurr said.
Spurr said she was angered by the reaction of one woman who came through her till immediately after Ashe one day, not long after city officials made plans last year to force Ashe from his settlement at Johnston Road and Thrift Avenue.
The woman was well-dressed and in line to buy pricey salad and cheese. After Ashe left, the woman leaned in towards Spurr and said, “‘I’m so glad that they’re moving him. We shouldn’t have to look at that.’”
“All I could think was, ‘you don’t even know him,’” Spurr said.
Martin thanked the crowd – which included Mayor Wayne Baldwin and MLA Gordon Hogg – for their efforts to look beyond her brother’s gruff exterior and mental challenges.
“He may have endured hardship, but his heart was full. It was because of the people of White Rock. He was seen, he had a life. As much as we can all judge it, because of you, he had a life.”