Love pushes away the storms of life
revealing a ‘Rainbow of Joy’

By Dave Jolivet
Anchor Editor
davejolivet@anchornews.org

FALL RIVER, Mass. — It’s a brain disorder that can occur before, during or after birth. Among other things, cerebral palsy can affect movement, speech, reflexes and mobility. It’s a condition that is often misunderstood by those who know little or nothing about it.

Seventy-five-year-old Collette Fortin of Fall River, a longtime member of Holy Name Parish there, has cerebral palsy, and Collette Fortin is one of the most intelligent, faith-filled, optimistic persons one could ever encounter. And perhaps her most endearing quality is the joy she exudes — a joy of life, of people, and most significantly, her joy in the Lord.

It’s a joy she cannot keep to herself, so much so, that she recently had a book printed, “Rainbow of Joy,” that shares her remarkable life journey thus far. With the help of colleague Janine Ouellette Sullivan and illustrated by Kaitlin Sullivan, Fortin’s journey is chronicled in a fashion that can be enjoyed and absorbed by young and old — with the beauty of a rainbow providing the story’s foundation.

Fortin will have a book-signing at Swansea Mall in Swansea on May 23 from 5-7 p.m., near the Unwined Bistro across from Ruby Tuesday restaurant.

As was mentioned earlier in this article, cerebral palsy is an often misunderstood disorder, and quite frankly, makes others uncomfortable because of the motion, mobility and speech issues. But unlike other brain disorders, the person’s cognitive functions are limitless.

“When I was born, my mother experienced a three-day labor,” Fortin told The Anchor in a recent interview. Knowing there was a problem, her parents took her almost immediately to doctors in Boston. “My parents were so full of love for me right from the moment I was born,” Fortin added. “And after speaking with the doctors in Boston, my father was so grateful that I wasn’t mentally challenged. He said, ‘We will educate her,’ and my mother and father filled me with confidence, joy, love and hope.

“I am so blessed. God has been spoiling me all my life.”

Fortin said that besides her parents, she has surrounded herself with wonderful people through the years. But after meeting with her, one can’t help but wonder if those in her life were drawn to her by her cheerful, radiant personality.

When it was time for young Collette to begin school, her father sought out the Holy Union Sisters, at the time on Highland Avenue in Fall River. After one consultation with the Sisters, they were excited to be part of Collette’s educational process.

“They assigned me a speech therapist, Sister Adrienne Marie, SUSC,” said Fortin. “She was a remarkable woman who worked hard with me and helped me so much with my speech.”

Sister Adrienne Marie and the Holy Union Sisters had Fortin under their tutelage at Sacred Hearts Academy from pre-primary through 12th grade, with Sister Adrienne Marie providing speech therapy for 13 years.

When Fortin graduated from high school she was accepted at Salve Regina College in Newport, R.I. “That was a very difficult time in my life,” she told The Anchor. “I had never been away from home before and I didn’t know anyone there. I came very close to quitting.

“My father said to me, ‘Do you want to spend the rest of your life in a rocking chair? I will support you no matter what you choose, but you can do this.’ My father never graduated from high school, so he really wanted me to stay in college. But I knew he would support me no matter what. I stayed.” 

When Fortin graduated from Salve in 1964, she was featured in a story in The Anchor by Pat McGowan.

“The greatest day of my father’s life was the day I graduated from Salve Regina College,” said Fortin. “He said he didn’t graduate from high school so we were going to have a great celebration.”

With a degree in sociology, but no jobs in that field in the area, Fortin got a job at the Fall River Public Library, where she stayed for six years.

Following the library stint, Fortin took a job at an area middle school, hoping to work in the library there. “The principal there made me a substitute teacher,” said Fortin. “I knew the students there would have a hard time understanding me, and also many were out of control in the classroom. Even the regular teachers couldn’t handle them.

“Many of them made fun of the way I walked and talked.” Even looking back on that time during The Anchor interview, she said it hurt, but she linked that with Christ on the cross. “Jesus said to the Father, ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.’ I felt the same way about those students.”

When the superintendent of schools learned what was going on, he transferred Fortin to B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River. “I loved it there,” she recalled. “The people there were very nice and I became in charge of the circulation desk. Imagine me being in charge of the circulation desk!”

It was at this time in her life when Fortin was asked to give a witness talk to a youth retreat at Holy Name Parish in Fall River. “It was during that talk that I started to connect the rainbow with my life,” she said. “Before the retreat I was so very nervous. I didn’t know if the children would be able to understand me, but I worried for nothing because once I was up there, everything went so well. I spoke so clearly and the talk was well-received by the youngsters. No one made fun of me, and they were touched by the talk.”

It was from that talk nearly 30 years ago that the seeds for “Rainbow of Joy,” were planted. “I had people tell me that I should write a book about my life,” Fortin said. “Barbara Gerraughty, a friend from high school, who later reconnected with me, encouraged me to share my faith in God, my joy of life, the love of my parents, and those special people around me, with others.

“She said I look at life in a different way and I should share that,” said Fortin. “God has spoiled me all my life and helped me realize that the focus in life should be on the blessings, not the difficulties.”

“All you have to do is spend a few minutes with Collette to see she is very Spiritual, positive, accepting of what God presents, and has a great respect for life,” Gerraughty told The Anchor. “She is a loyal friend, and is so appreciative of everything people do for her, even the small things like holding a door open. And she has the great ability to laugh with her keen sense of humor.

“I think she’s at her happiest now because this book has been a dream come true for her. Her biggest wish in life was to be able to spread the word how much God has helped her along the way. Her hope is that someone will read the book and turn to God for His help, to trust in Him. This was a labor of love for Collette. It wasn’t always easy, but she kept working hard for it.”

“I met Collette when I became pastor here at Holy Name almost seven years ago,” Father Jay T. Maddock told The Anchor.  “Despite all her struggles, she is a woman filled with great joy and faith in her God. She has a great love for the Holy Eucharist and I know that is such a great source of Spiritual strength for her. She is an example to me of a woman who accepts her cross as Our Lord accepted His and I have no doubt she unites her own sufferings with those of Christ on the cross, for the Spiritual benefit of many. In her own quiet and humble manner she gives strong witness as to how to respond to God’s love for us, no matter what our particular circumstances may be at anytime in our lives.”

“It’s amazing. I received the book from the printer on February 7 this year, the feast of St. Colette,” Fortin smiled.

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“Rainbow of Joy,” is a warm, touching memoir of her loving parents and her rich faith in God. Fortin also goes through each color of the rainbow, pairing each with a particular human attribute.

It’s an easy read, yet filled with such insight, wisdom and love.

“My parents had no education, but they were filled with love,” Fortin warmly recalled. “My father was the one who made me independent, and that’s one of the greatest gifts he could have given me.”

Fortin said that she had a little sister, Charlotte, who died of spinal meningitis at 20 months old. “I was six when she died,” she said. “My parents wanted me to have a sibling, but they still kept the same love and faith. We’re not the boss when it comes to life.”

Although slowed some in the last few years, Fortin still maintains her joie de vivre by reading and going out with friends. “I used to love to shop too, but now I do that online. I am still surrounded by so much love.” Included in her remarkable circle of friends is a neighbor who is a physical therapist, Bob Keene, who provides physical therapy for Fortin, and another neighbor who helps with meals and assisting her to shower.

“When I was able to get around with greater ease, I enjoyed doing volunteer work,” Fortin added. “I volunteered at Saint Anne’s Hospital and at Holy Name School among other places  Also daily Mass was an important part of my life.”

During The Anchor interview Fortin asked a question: “Do you know what the three focuses in my life are?” Her answer was:  “Love, prayer and grace — amazing grace! I hope my life is a witness for the Lord.” 

To obtain a copy of “Rainbow of Joy,” contact  Collette Fortin at collettefortin@aol.com, visit her Facebook page at Collette C. Fortin, or visit her in person at the book-signing at Swansea Mall on May 23 from 5-7 p.m. near Unwined Bistro across from Ruby Tuesday restaurant.

If anyone knows of a publisher that may be interested in “Rainbow of Joy,” to make it accessible to more people, contact Fortin at the above email, or contact davejolivet@anchornews.org.


© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts