VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Sarah de Vries
Poet, artist, drug addict, fallen
angel of Downtown
By Dene Moore
In between the highs and hellish lows of drug addiction, Sarah de Vries wrote of the "broken down angels" of Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside.
"A child lost with no place, a human being in disguise," she wrote in one of the many journals, blank papers and restaurant napkins she filled with her poems, drawings and stark documentation of daily life in the hard-luck neighbourhood.
She described the area's drug-addicted sex-trade workers, a group that included herself, as special people who had lost their way:
She was somebody fighting for life,
Trying to survive,
A lonely lost child who died,
In the night, all alone, scared,
Gasping for air.
By the time she wrote the poem, de Vries knew well the struggle to survive in the Downtown Eastside.
Born to a troubled mother on May 12, 1969, she was adopted at the age of 11 months by Jan and Pat de Vries. She was their fourth and youngest child, joining Maggie, eight, Peter, six, and Mark, three.
De Vries grew up in the tony, and back then, overwhelmingly white neighbourhood of West Point Grey in Vancouver, a precocious child of black, native and Mexican ancestry who loved to swim and draw.
A stubborn streak was evident from the start.
For about a year as a toddler, de Vries had to wear corrective leg braces, which included a rigid metal bar between her feet. As obtrusive and painful as they were, the braces didn't hold de Vries back, her mother recalls.
"My husband had built a big, wooden slide (on the porch) and she would go right up it," said Pat de Vries.
"She would just brace her knees in the steps below her but what took her up was the strength in her arms. She just pulled herself up that slide and went right down. Nothing stopped Sarah."
She was adventurous and loved drama, her mother says.
Perhaps too much.
De Vries excelled in gymnastics and took up horseback riding lessons. She sketched constantly with whatever she had at hand.
"She loved to write stories, she loved to draw," recalls Maggie de Vries, the older sister who published many of de Vries's poems and journal entries in her award-winning book Missing Sarah.
"She drew all the time, with coloured pencils or crayons or whatever she had at the time. Both as a little girl and as an adult."
In one of her journals, Sarah de Vries described her art as her "very own sanctuary from the storm."
"To others it was just a drawing, but to me it was my laugh, smile, thoughts, feelings, ideas, pain (lots of pain)," she wrote.
She called the journal "the most understanding friend" that was always there waiting patiently for her.
As a child, de Vries was a brown face in a wealthy, white crowd. She was picked on at school _ tormented even _ to an extent her family didn't realize.
Sarah de Vries
"I don't think we had a clue as to how far it went and how deeply Sarah felt the impact," Maggie de Vries says.
In her early teens, a troubled young friend introduced de Vries to Vancouver's rough-and-tumble downtown, then centred around Davie Street in the west end.
By 14, she was running away regularly to the bright lights and excitement of downtown.
There, she saw something she rarely, if ever, saw among the posh homes of West Point Grey.
"What she saw in (downtown) Vancouver were people like herself, who were native, who were in difficulty," says her mother.
And it was exciting.
"She loved excitement and drama," Pat de Vries says. "And also the need, I think, of the people she saw there."
The people at home loved her, de Vries says, but they did not need her in the desperate way her friends did downtown.
Initially, it was not the drugs but this need to belong that drew de Vries, and by the time she was 18, she was entrenched in that drug-fuelled underworld.
A stunning, dark-skinned beauty, de Vries stood out even in the turmoil of downtown.
Many of the police, health workers and volunteers that work in the neighbourhood remember her scooting around on roller blades.
''She always came across as extremely bright, very good looking and always looked after herself," said one of the service workers who wished to remain anonymous.
Despite her increasingly desperate drug addiction, de Vries took vitamins and tried to eat properly.
"That's pretty hard to do, when you're an addict, to religiously take your vitamins and are concerned about your health to that degree," the worker told The Canadian Press. "Not too many people would fit into that category."
De Vries liked to cook, once preparing a roast beef at a dinner party for friends that someone had traded for drugs.
In Missing Sarah, Maggie de Vries describes her sister's efforts to eke out a garden in the yard of the ramshackle house where she lived and her pride in offering a bean right off the vine.
De Vries also describes a family Christmas when her sister showed up with armfuls of gifts _ "many of them stolen, I suspect.
"It was so important for Sarah to give us those gifts, to shower us with them, to be in a position to give," she wrote.
Pat de Vries says she takes much solace in stories she has been told about her daughter by her daughter's friends downtown.
"She enjoyed life and even when it was its most difficult, she would find something to enjoy in it," she says.
Wayne Leng first saw de Vries standing on a street corner one Sunday afternoon in 1994. He became a regular customer and then a friend.
"You need to look past the fact of what her life was on the Downtown Eastside," says Leng, who preserved de Vries's journals and now maintains an extensive website on the missing women case.
She liked to go for drives and she liked movies, he says.
"One of the movies we went to, the last one we went to together, was Titanic and that was quite a movie for her," Leng says.
De Vries still harboured dreams of true love and a regular life and the epic romance had her tied to her seat.
"She only went to the bathroom once to fix up during that entire movie, and as you know, that was a very long movie," Leng says. "She was really engrossed in it."
But if de Vries dreamed of white picket fences, her addiction got the better of her.
She was mother to Jeanie, now 16, and Ben, 10, both born addicted to drugs. Ben was also born with other health issues due to his mother's lifestyle.
"I think she thought with Jeanie that she would change her life around and that she and (the father) would have a life together, a white picket fence and the baby and all," Pat de Vries says.
"But she left the hospital to go and get drugs and she turned her over to me, custody, guardianship, from the very beginning."
Ben, too, has been raised from Day One by his grandmother. Both children are doing well although they struggle to understand what happened to their mother.
In one of her journals, de Vries wrote of the prison she had built for herself out of events that could never be forgiven or forgotten.
"With every failure, letdown and misfortune, the wall gets higher and inside gets darker, emptier, colder," she wrote.
Sarah De Vries was last seen working on a street corner in the Downtown Eastside.
She leaves behind her words, which give de Vries and her friends the dignity in death that may have eluded them in life.
"If she were some square john's little girl, shit would hit the goddamn fan," she wrote of the growing list of friends and acquaintances who had gone missing.
"Front page news for weeks, people protesting in the streets.... While the happy hooker just starts to decay, like she didn't matter, expendable, dishonourable.
``It's a shame that society is that unfeeling. She was some woman's little girl, gone astray, lost from the right path."
Police say Sarah Jean de Vries was last seen April 12, 1998. She was 28 years old.
© 2006 The Canadian Press
Updated: January 01, 2007