VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Missing on the Mean Streets - Part 1
Privilege, despair and death
Sarah deVries had a lot going for her: an artistic talent, good looks and a good home in West Point Grey. But she was also attracted to the life on the edge--like a number of Vancouver women who are lost, feared dead.
"Will they remember me when I'm gone, or would their lives just carry on?"
--Sarah deVries, from her journals.
LINDSAY KINES -VANCOUVER SUN
Wednesday, March 3, 1999
She was always writing, always drawing. Even as a child, Sarah deVries had a pen or pencil in her hand, filling notebooks with words and pictures.
"She couldn't stop drawing," her sister Maggie deVries says. "She wanted materials for her art, and if she didn't have any, then she'd just be drawing on a napkin. If she had paints, she'd be painting.
Before she went missing, Sarah deVries had begun work on an alphabet book for her daughter Jeanie.
"She also wrote and couldn't stop writing--no matter what was happening in her life," Maggie says. "She wrote books and books full.
"Unfortunately, a lot of them are gone. I don't know
where they are."
"What's happened to Sarah, it just sort of floats," Maggie says, "I can't explain it well."
They grew up together in West Point Grey, Sarah the youngest of four and the adopted daughter of University of B.C. professor and a head nurse at Vancouver General Hospital.
A pretty little girl with curly black hair, Sarah deVries had a good sense of humor and an infectious laugh.
"She had a real zest for life," her mother Pat deVries remembers. "She loved fun; she loved excitement. I guess that's what got her into trouble."
Her birth mother had been a skydiver and when Pat deVries learned of that fact many years later, she exclaimed: " 'Oh Sarah, no wonder.' "
Early on, she displayed the same strong will that would define her character in later years.
"I can remember her very clearly, sitting on the couch holding a book upside down," Pat says. "And, I mean, woe betide you if you suggested she wasn't reading. She was four or five at the time, and everybody else in the house could, and it irked her that she was the youngest and in some senses the least powerful persons, I guess."
She attended Queen Mary elementary school on Vancouver's west side. She took up horseback riding. "She was gorgeous on a horse," Pat recalls. "Straight back. She was a very alive person."
Nobody can really say what went wrong, or when. "You can't pin it down," Maggie says.
Sarah was nine when her parents split. She remained with her mother, "She was the youngest in the family...and the others had a little more of our more stable years," Pat says. "So in that, in the process of the emotional turmoil that both of us were in, and older kids were in, I guess her needs were neglected."
She was also a black girl in a white family in West Point Grey. "She met up with prejudice," Pat says.
By the time she was 12 or 13, Sarah began running away to the Downtown Eastside. "She went down there looking for some sort of connection and went with a girl who was trouble," Pat says.
She would return home for periods of time, occasionally in police custody. But she was already experimenting with drugs.
"I remember feeling helpless," Maggie says. "I remember the first time Mom called me and told me Sarah had run away, and how frightening it was. She was my baby sister; she's eight years younger than me."
Eventually, she left for good, although she kept in touch on important occasions. "We'd see her at Christmas and around her birthday," Maggie recalls. "And she would always talk to Mom on Mom's birthday. You know, she might not get the day, but she'd get close. She always, always remembered those things and maintained contact."
Only once did she stay away for an extended period, and then, finally, Pat received a call from St. Paul's hospital on Dec. 22, 1990.
"They said, 'We have your daughter here in labour," Maggie recalls. "it was startling."
Pat went to the hospital and stayed with Sarah until she gave birth to a daughter of her own. Jeanie deVries was born addicted to heroin and cocaine, and after a stay at Sunnyhill Hospital, she went home to live with her grandmother.
That same year, Sarah wound up in jail, and for the first time, her family was hopeful.
"She went through withdrawal cold turkey there, which is pretty brutal," Maggie says, "But she was off drugs. So she did high school equivalency courses. She painted. She put on weight. She just seemed really good."
Oddly, jail was the best thing to happen to Sarah in a long time, and her family planned to take her home. Then corrections officials discharged her a day early.
"They just gave her the cab fare," Maggie says. "They never told us she was getting out. So she just took a cab straight downtown."
She returned to life on the street, selling sex to feed a drug habit. And Pat and Jeanie eventually moved to Ontario, where they still live with Pat's sister, children's author Jean Little.
A few years later, Sarah gave birth to a second child, Benjamin, and after much debate, Pat decided to raise him as well.
"She just felt she had to," Maggie says, "She felt that for both of them--here's a relative, an actual blood relative. Where as otherwise, neither of them would ever know anyone that was actually related to them biologically."
It has proved to be a prescient decision.
Sarah deVries disappeared a year ago next month at the age of 28. She was working the corner of Hastings and Princess streets in the early hours of April 14,. A friend was on the opposite corner. She got picked up first, and by the time she circled the block, Sarah had disappeared.
Nobody has seen her since. She has never contacted Maggie or Pat, never called on her birthday, Mother's Day or Christmas.
She missed both her children's birthdays, and left all of her belongings behind.
Pat and Maggie both believe Sarah is dead.
"She was a very generous hearted person, and cared about her friends" Pat says. "She would never have gone off and left us not knowing."
So later this week, Pat will fly to Vancouver to visit Maggie, and they will attend a meeting at First United Church to plan a memorial service for Sarah and the other missing women. The service will be held May 12, which would have been Sarah's 30th birthday.
Maggie has already been in contact with the families of four missing women and hopes more will call her in the coming weeks to join in planning and attending the service. "Not many other people can understand what this is like," Maggie says.
Afterwards they plan to walk to Crab Park where engraved words on a boulder commemorate the people who have lost their lives on the Downtown Eastside. People like Sarah.
"She's gone," Maggie says. "And I need to put a shape to those feelings and be public about them. Planning something like this is something I can do.
"I can't find the person who did it. I can't bring her back. But I can at least do something to show that she mattered."
Letters to the editor: The Vancouver Sun, Thursday, March 4, 1999
SARAH DEVRIES WAS A VERY CARING PERSON
I would like to thank Lindsay Kines for writing the story of Sarah deVries, showing her very human and caring side, and about the other missing women in the Downtown Eastside (Privilege, despair and death, Insight, March 3). Sarah did indeed have many, many friends. I have never met anyone who touched me as deeply.
Sarah, whom I met about 51/2 years ago, was a very dear friend who disappeared about six hours after she left my home, leaving her six journals and belongings in my care. Her journals tell a horrid story about the streets of the Downtown Eastside. About how she felt about the way working women were treated.
I am not able yet to part with her journals or belongings. It is still too painful. I thank Sarah's mom, Pat, and her sister Maggie, for being here for me when I was in despair.
The last words we spoke when Sarah left that April 13, 1998: "Be cool my friend. I'll call you."
And then she disappeared.
These entries from the journals of Sarah de Vries are the properly of the de Vries family and may not be reproduced without prior written permission.
Updated: August 21, 2016