Nimble new community centre takes first steps on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula

·7 min read
Massage therapist Shealene Bailey is the first permanent health practitioner at the new GNP Community Place in Port au Choix. (Cherie Wheeler/CBC - image credit)
Massage therapist Shealene Bailey is the first permanent health practitioner at the new GNP Community Place in Port au Choix. (Cherie Wheeler/CBC - image credit)
Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

The arrival of some new health care services to an area of Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula is giving renewed hope to patients like Wanda Genge of Deadman's Cove.

Genge loves to dance, but she hasn't been able to go to work, let alone dance, since fibromyalgia combined with an injury last summer have severely limited her ability to move without pain.

But something's happened in just the past month or so that may put a spring back in her step. People in the Port au Choix area, about 100 kilometres south of where Genge lives, have made a way to provide for some of their own health-care needs through a new social enterprise.

The GNP (for Great Northern Peninsula) Community Place opened in the community in April, with a visiting physiotherapist, a visiting foot care clinician, and now a permanently located massage therapist.

But the hands-on services are just the start of the journey to health and wellness these folks have initiated. There are plans for a community kitchen and fitness centre.

Joan Cranston, who refers to herself as the project's community broker, got the ball rolling on the not-for-profit. She patterned it after a successful model she's used in Norris Point for the Julia Ann Walsh Heritage Centre, a building many still call the old cottage hospital.

But Cranston, who's been a physiotherapist on this coast for most of her career, gives all the credit for the GNP Community Place to the people of the Northern Peninsula.

"It's not my idea. It's all the people that I've treated for the last 35 years. All the people who drive three or four hours from everywhere on the Northern Peninsula to see me in Norris Point. And we just thought, if we could have a place closer to home, so they wouldn't have to drive, then it would make it so much easier," explained Cranston.

Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

Patient Wanda Genge agrees, after having made too many car trips to count to Norris Point and Corner Brook for various therapies before GNP Community Place opened.

"By the time I get back home, everything is undone and my body's hurting again," said Genge. "It was very discouraging for me."

Submitted by Wanda Genge
Submitted by Wanda Genge

What's inside that counts

The exterior of the brownish-green building near the Port au Choix waterfront isn't much to spark joy, but what's happening inside is pure optimism in the face of negativity about the decline of rural Newfoundland. There's also a steely determination that there are brighter days ahead yet for what was once a bustling rural town.

Lizeta Gould, Port au Choix's town manager, didn't want her town to miss the chance to be home to the social enterprise, convincing municipal council of the merits of the project and the wisdom in offering a two-year interest-free loan to secure a vacant building that many still call "Theodore Farrell's store."

"It's open. People are using it. There's a lot of interest in it," said Gould, who is now the chair of the volunteer board of directors of GNP Community Place.

Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

Build it and they will come

The hope is that a facility with properly equipped treatment rooms and eventually accommodations for visiting practitioners will mean more health professionals will offer services in Port au Choix.

The call to home has already lured back a young woman from the area who just graduated as a massage therapist. Instead of following the path of many of her classmates, Shealene Bailey decided to return to the coast from where she came.

Bailey is from Castor River, another small community north of Port au Choix. She's set up as the GNP Community Centre's first permanent practitioner, and she and her partner have bought land in the area to build a house.

"I see the health-care services that we have, which are super-limited," said Bailey. "And, from seeing my family and friends have to travel so far for these resources, I kind of felt like, 'I'm from the area. Why not come home to the place I love the most in the world and give back to it any way that I can?'"

Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

Jeffery Gould is happy to see the new services available, just a stone's throw from his house in Port au Choix. For most of the last decade since a stroke at the age of 50, the only way for Gould to get physiotherapy was to have his wife drive him an hour and a half away to Cranston's clinic in Norris Point.

Now he's within walking distance, and the therapy helps him get there on his own two feet.

"It makes it easier to walk and get around," said Gould, who insists that physiotherapy continues to make a difference in keeping his joints mobile and his muscles strong.

Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

Proof positive

The GNP Community Place intends to demonstrate its worth in more than just anecdotes filled with compliments and conjecture. This social enterprise will be backing up its outcomes with hard data through a partnership with the GNP Research Collective, made up of community people and academics at Western Regional School of Nursing and Grenfell Campus, Memorial University.

Dawn Pittman, a nurse educator at the Western Regional School of Nursing, counts as both. She's a PhD student who grew up in Rocky Harbour. She's as passionate about rural life as anyone in Port au Choix. And she'll be documenting what good comes of GNP Community Place.

"This is not about just talking about problems. This is about really working together to create solutions," said Pittman.

"It's definitely a win-win, because communities, they want programs, they want to be resilient. They want definitely to grow and to thrive. And as academics, we're really interested in finding out new information and understanding how to make improvements."

Submitted by Dawn Pittman
Submitted by Dawn Pittman

Building back

Rachel Atkins is another believer in the good this project can bring, not just to people's muscles and joints, but to the very fibre of a town in a decline.

Atkins grew up here and has spent her working life over the past 25 years in bigger cities and corporate offices as a strategist and project manager.

During the pandemic, she came home to her cottage in Port au Choix and has lent her expertise to fundraising and more as a member of the board of directors of GNP Community Place.

"The way to make a small town sustainable is to attract young families," said Atkins. "And I think if we put all that on the government, that's wrong. We also have a responsibility to step up and make that happen. The government has a huge role to play. The government is not responsible for creating sustainable communities, I believe."

Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

Joan Cranston is quick to say that government help will be needed, and she's already lobbying various levels of government as well as charitable foundations.

"The community has already invested over $90,000 in this project. I think it's time for some other partners to come and match that and help this grow at a much faster rate, so that we don't have to do it by bake sales and soup and sandwich," said Cranston.

Cherie Wheeler/CBC
Cherie Wheeler/CBC

You have to be fleet-footed to choreograph a revival in a town where some feel abandoned by a provincial government nine hours away in St. John's, but people like the GNP Community Place organizers and patients like Genge and Gould hope to join in the dance to make it a reality.

"We're growing hope here," said Cranston. "We're building community resilience."

Wanda Genge said the optimism is contagious, and she'll do what she can to get herself and her region back on their feet.

"Dancing is my thing. And, even if I get to dance in my living room without pain, I have Joanie [Cranston] to thank for that," said Genge.

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