When Kevin Edward Burke was born in November 1954, doctors were not optimistic about his chances for survival.
“They told (his mother) to bring him home and make him comfortable, because he wasn’t going to live,” said his sister Gladys Burke.
Born with blue baby syndrome, it was later discovered he carried an extra chromosome resulting in Down syndrome.
Last month, Kevin died at the age of 59. According to Gladys, his presence in the family was essential to its special sense of camaraderie, and she credits a local St. John’s organization for enriching his later years.
“I feel that we’re all here for a reason,” she told The Telegram. “Some of us find it. Some of us don’t. I think Kevin’s main reason for being put on this Earth is because of the love and joy of life that he (shared) every day of his life.”
Kevin, the seventh of eight children born to Michael and Helen Burke of Mount Arlington Heights in Placentia Bay, proved to be a strong personality from the get go. Gladys remembers him being a sweet little boy who was loved all the more for defying medical odds.
“I didn’t know there was anything wrong with my brother, if you want to call ‘something wrong’ having an extra chromosome. We just saw him as one of us.”
Kevin was a bit of a performer at heart. He enjoyed strumming guitars and playing the harmonica, and he loved dancing with women and letting loose for lip syncs. According to Gladys, Kevin was friends with everyone in Long Harbour during the years he lived in the community.
“He was everyone’s friend, and the whole community took care of him, so he was always safe.”
He could perform push ups with one hand and loved bowling and wrestling. Although Kevin did not learn to read, he could spend hours looking at magazines. When he spoke, the words amounted to a language all of its own, but his family understood him.
“My name was ‘Das,’” explained Gladys. “Everybody had a name, all the sisters and brothers.”
At social gatherings, Kevin was quick to shake the hands of strangers and friends alike.
“He had an unbelievable capability to love people and to care about people regardless of who they were,” said Gladys Burke.
Extra help from Vera Perlin
As his mother aged, it became too hard for Kevin to continue living with her. In the early 1990s, he moved in with Gladys and split time between her family’s home and that of his sister Mollie’s, which was located on the same St. John’s street.
Not long after moving to St. John’s, he became a client of the Vera Perlin Society, a charitable organization serving people with development disabilities. It offers career development opportunities and helps clients become a part of the community.
“We are so grateful for them,” said Gladys, noting over $1,000 was raised for the organization in Kevin’s name following his death. “What would we have done? None of us were in a position to be able to take care of him. I was a full-time teacher, I had three children of my own, I hired someone to take care of my children while I was at work. I couldn’t do anything. Everybody had their own lives.”
Although he did not train for a career of any sort, Kevin took a bus to the Perlin Centre everyday for outings, parties, sports and other activities. He made crafts, helped with farming and made friends.
Kevin lived in Torbay with Pauline and Will Mouland for several years and was later cared for by Paul and Beverly McFadyen of St. John’s up until his death.
“Without these people, Kevin would have died a long time ago,” said Gladys. “They loved him like he was a brother.”
Kevin developed dementia a year and half ago and his health started to deteriorate (on average, people with Down syndrome live until 55). He had otherwise been healthy throughout his life, despite the fact Kevin loved smoking cigarettes.
All seven of his siblings were home last November to celebrate what would be Kevin’s final birthday.
“When I look at the love Kevin has brought to our lives — we are seven siblings. We don’t fight. We don’t argue. We accept each other as we are,” said Gladys. “It’s amazing. No conflict in our family whatsoever. We think that’s why — because he showed us another wa.y ... Everyone you meet who has someone in the family with Down syndrome, they’ll tell you the same thing.”