Celebrating a centurty plus of meeting Valley healthcare needs

·8 min read

Pembroke -- When 2020 dawned, plans were already well underway to celebrate a century of meeting health care needs in the Upper Ottawa Valley by Carefor Health and Community Services and its predecessor, the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON).

A public awareness campaign had been launched, a commemorative newspaper was prepared and printed, and there were plans to celebrate staff, residents, volunteers and sponsors with events and activities to take place from March to October that year.

And then came COVID.

“We had to revise our plans – drastically,” said Glenna MacKenzie,” a member of Carefor’s Pembroke-Renfrew Regional Council and initially vice-chair and later chairperson of the anniversary committee.

Fast forward to May 6, 2022, when what is now 102 years of service were celebrated at a volunteer appreciation luncheon held at the Germania Hall in Pembroke.

“Two years later, and here we are,” said Ms. MacKenzie. “Finally we get to acknowledge and celebrate our volunteers who are so essential to our organization, and, no less important, our faithful sponsors who donated toward our anniversary plans.”

Steve Perry, CEO for Carefor Health and Community Services, noted that two years ago, essentially overnight, “we all went our separate ways without being able to say ‘goodbye’ or ‘see you soon’.”

“We were all experiencing a high degree of anxiety given the uncertainty of what we were all faced with,” he said. “And that is what makes an event like this so meaningful. For me, in some ways, it feels like we have been running a two-year ultra marathon, and yet in other ways if feels like time has stood still with one day blending into the next.”

He outlined the dramatic impact of COVID on the organization. Services which were deemed non-essential by the province were suspended.

“Given the state of our current health system we can debate the meaning of non essential,” he said. “This, of course, meant that the vast majority of our volunteers were impacted because you play a critical role in delivering many of those programs.”

Other programs were subject to significant restrictions in terms of access to services and new operating procedures. Access to and the use of personal protective equipment due to global supply chain issues was a huge stressor.

“I am pleased to say we navigated better than many other agencies,” he said.

Hundreds of staff who worked in our traditional office settings shifted to a remote working environment literally overnight. In the early weeks and months of the pandemic there were approximately 500 employees off work due to various pandemic-related reasons – about one-third of the staff.

“While much of our focus over the past two years has been on managing through the pandemic and keeping our clients, staff and volunteers safe, I am very proud of the fact that we also became even more resilient and innovative as we adapted to the new realities we were faced with,” he said. “We became adept at delivering services virtually, relying on new technology. We recognized that our traditional workplace settings will be a much different experience going forward. We advanced several strategic initiatives that have led to a modernization of many of our systems, processes and tools. And we have been able to have a major impact on the ongoing health system transformation that I am sure many of you are familiar with. For example, Carefor plays an important leadership role in five Ontario Health Teams across Eastern Ontario that have continued to evolve despite the pandemic, and we are also contributing at the provincial level through our participation at several important committees and tables. And, of course, we have celebrated incredible organizational milestones – with our 100th anniversary of operating in Renfrew County, and 2022 marking 125 years as an organization supporting all of Eastern Ontario.”

He added that, while those early days of the pandemic were very challenging, in some respects, returning to the new normal will be almost as challenging, addressing individual concerns and learning to come together again as groups and teams in terms of how we communicate and interact, retaining what we have learned, adapting to hybrid working environments and so forth.

Volunteers Are the Backbone of Many Programs

Janna Wood, Community Support Services Supervisor at Carefor, noted that volunteers are the backbone of many Carefor programs.

“As we move forward in our ‘new normal,’ we will be working actively to retain existing volunteers while recruiting additional resources for several of our new and existing programs,” she said. “The pandemic….identified the need to rapidly respond to immediate community needs such as food accessibility. We rapidly partnered with the St. Joseph’s Food Bank in Pembroke and began to facilitate deliveries of pre-assembled food hampers to those who had no means to get to the food bank themselves. In order to stabilize our frozen meals program, we switched to a local provider, Griffith Farms based out of Golden Lake. Previously our meals came on a truck from Toronto. There were disruptions in their supply chain due to the pandemic. With shipments coming from a COVID hot spot, we made the change from a health and safety perspective, as well as striving for a better quality product.”

She added that client response to the change has been extremely positive.

“Their meals are farm to table, with no added salt and no preservatives,” she said.

Carefor Care Kits is another new program. It was developed by two BScN nursing students who did their virtual community placement with Carefor in the fall of 2020. Tasked with coming up with an idea for a community support program in response to their community research project, Seniors on Lockdown, the team gathered data from several sources including interviews with community seniors.

“The consensus of the data was that people felt alone, afraid, not sure where to turn, and immense feelings of sadness,” she said. “The Carefor Care Kit is a basket of comfort items designed to brighten someone’s day. They consist of a warm blanket, a blanket scarf, puzzle books, a journal, writing paper and stamps, teas, gift cards, a list of our services, and other items to make someone smile.”

Initial funding provided for 50 kits, and an additional grant did 25 more. Funding for another round has been applied for.

Another new initiative is the Telephone Assurance Program.

“Our Call Care System can call you once or multiple times of your choosing, through the day, to make sure you are okay,” she said. “It is a free, no charge, automated system. If there is no answer after three attempts, it can notify us, your neighbour, a friend, family member, or anyone of your choosing to let them know to check on you.”

The system also offers a medication reminder service.

Ms. Wood encouraged future volunteers to come on board.

“No matter what your interests are, we are confident we can find you a meaningful volunteer placement within this wonderful organization,” she said. “There is a place for everyone.”

The Master of Ceremonies for the May 6 celebration was Fred Blackstein, himself a long-time volunteer with Carefor.

“Volunteers are unpaid, not because their contribution is worthless, but because it is priceless,” he said.

Greetings from the City of Pembroke were brought by Mayor Mike LeMay.

He noted that “helping” organizations such as Carefor were among those hurt most by COVID and he commended them for continuing to serve throughout the pandemic.

“The City wants to continue to collaborate with Carefor,” he said. “We are grateful for initiatives including the community gardens. On behalf of the community, I want to thank you for everything you do.”

History Dates Back To 1897

Ottawa was the home of the first branch of Carefor’s predecessor, the Victorian Order of Nurses, Canada's first national community nursing and health care organization. Then called VON Ottawa, the association aimed at providing skilled nurses in sparsely settled districts, attending to the sick and poor in their homes and attending to persons with low incomes at very reasonable charges. So the beginnings of Carefor Health and Community Services can be traced back to early 1897 when two nurses each single-handedly covered a district in Ottawa, using only a horse and buggy as their means of transportation.

Over time, the Ottawa association grew and by 1920 services had extended beyond standard health care visits to include child and social welfare visits. The association entered into a nurse training partnership with the University of Ottawa's School of Nursing. Later, the Ottawa branch would change its name to the VON Ottawa-Carleton branch, reflecting the expansion of geographical areas covered.

In 2005, VON Ottawa-Carleton amalgamated with VON Renfrew County to streamline administrative costs and better serve the Ottawa and Renfrew County communities, thus becoming VON Ottawa-Renfrew County. Proudly, additional services were once again added, including a frozen meal program, volunteer visiting and a transportation service.

In October 2006, VON Ottawa-Renfrew County was rebranded under the name Carefor Health and Community Services. With the change of name Carefor became an independent local charity serving Ottawa and Renfrew County.

In April 2007, Carefor Health and Community Services again joined forces and amalgamated with VON Eastern Counties. Now known under the Carefor banner, the dedication of staff, the many not-for-profit health care services offered, and the charitable work done remains the same as in the past.

Today, Carefor has more than 1,300 staff offering professional services such as nursing and in-home physiotherapy through to personal support services and community support services such as Meals on Wheels and transportation.

Marie Zettler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader

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