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A passion for learning

1992 Evelyn Flynn and Martha Scale lights of life

SCHS offers a passion for learning and public education

By Heather Conn

From a hospice library, initially funded from volunteers’ own pockets, to workshops, presentations, inspirational training, and stimulating in-service meetings, volunteers and staff at Sunshine Coast Hospice Society (SCHS) have always reflected a passion for learning and public education.

The hospice marks its official origins from a key educational session — its first-ever volunteer training in 1987, held over four weeks. At that time, Martha Scales, executive director of Home Support Services, and her husband Bob Scales, a minister, Maybeth Hoagland, and Dr. Al Swan trained 10 volunteers, which included Rosemary Hoare, Mary Macdonald, and Peggy Cotgrave, a nurse. Heather Blackwood (then Myhill-Jones), also a nurse, taught a small portion of the training.

Peggy Cotgrave


This initial training helped launch a rich environment of ongoing learning for hospice volunteers, which has lasted three decades. It spans grief work for children and adults to compassionate listening techniques and the latest approaches in palliative care. For thirty years, Hoare and Blackwood met weekly as friends. They discussed concerns, helped determine hospice priorities, and identified the areas in which they needed more expertise.

Hoare, interviewed in 2014 at age 93, remembered how they, as hospice volunteers, companioned a man with AIDS in the early days of hospice, when the public still knew little about this stigma-ridden syndrome.

 “When we had our first AIDS person, which nobody knew anything about, including us, I was asked to do something about this man who was very depressed and came over from Vancouver,” she said. “I went to Peggy [Cotgrave] and thought she would know. We wore gloves and we practically wore masks [when visiting him]. We just welcomed him as a person. Peggy got a new car and I think he was enchanted by that. We were just friendly towards him. He became so relaxed and happy afterwards because he explained things [about AIDS] and Peggy had books [about dying].”

 Hoare added: “We learn from the people we are with what they want. It’s not what we want, it’s what they want. It’s a lovely thing.”



Steering committee created in 1985

Before the volunteer training and before any hospice presence existed on the Lower Sunshine Coast, a huge learning curve began in 1985. That’s when the BC Registered Nurses Association held a public forum on the dying and their needs in a board room at St. Mary’s Hospital (now Sechelt Hospital) in Sechelt.

 “Our goal was to tell the community we hoped we could get a volunteer training program going and that we would have a volunteer hospice program,” says Blackwood, then the local rep for the nurses’ association. “There was a really big response, a lot of community support.”

Volunteer Gathering

After hearing what local people wanted and needed for their dying loved ones, a group of concerned health-care professionals formed the Sunshine Coast Hospice Steering Committee in 1985. This included the Scales, Blackwood, Dr. Al Swan, Maybeth Hoagland, and Wendy Hunt, head of nursing at St. Mary’s. With no office or budget, they held their first monthly meeting in Hunt’s apartment.

“This was being at the beginning of something that was very important,” says Blackwood. “We met monthly and looked, in chunks, at how can we do this? This was all new for everybody. We had no one on the steering committee that had any experience in this field [palliative care]. So, all of us were really wanting to learn. I was doing course work on it. I felt there was so much we needed to learn.”

It would take two years before the group felt they had learned enough to offer a comprehensive volunteer training program. On their own time and dime, steering committee members learned about hospice, palliative care, and pain control. They took courses, attended workshops, and accompanied doctors on hospital rounds. They visited the palliative program in Powell River and received helpful training materials from the Lions Gate Hospital hospice program. They attended meetings of the B.C. Hospice/Palliative Care Association, formed in 1986.

Volunteer training program a key component

Since 1987, annual hospice volunteer training (and in recent years, bi-annual training) has become a key component of hospice care, ensuring there are enough new volunteers to respond to the community’s needs and that they are apprised of the latest hospice approaches.

Currently, Sunshine Coast Hospice Society has 75 trained volunteers who receive 33 hours of orientation and training. But back in 1988, 12 people received 20 hours of training to become a hospice volunteer. Afterwards, they practised compassionate listening with each other. They were each asked to introduce their new knowledge to three local groups or organizations. Lions Gate Hospital nurses trained the volunteers in therapeutic touch.

The following year, Heather Blackwood, Rosemary Hoare, and other volunteers took courses in grief support. In response to requests from the community, they began to offer bereavement care, including specialized help for children dealing with the death of a loved one. 

 “Every single training program that was done learned from the previous one and evolved differently,” says Blackwood.

She remembers the first-ever volunteer training course. “We segmented it. We got a nurse from the hospital to come and talk about what it was like in the hospital if you came into the hospital to do a vigil and support someone all night, where you could get the tea. We had a hospital tour as part of the course. That was from the hospital end, then we had the home care nurse — it was Maybeth Hoagland at the time — she spoke about dying at home.”

Blackwood adds, “It was such a learning curve. Every training program was exciting for that. Now the volunteers could say what they needed, what they didn’t get enough of in the course.”

Today, SCHS offers hospice volunteers monthly in-service meetings featuring presentations by local experts and lively group discussions on a myriad of topics from companioning people with dementia to advanced care planning and relaxation techniques.

Volunteers face fears and learn not to judge

In the early days of training, as volunteers faced fears about death and companioning strangers, Blackwood says Sunshine Coast Hospice reinforced the core requirements for a hospice volunteer: loving compassion and active listening.

“We kept telling our folks this is what they were there for: supporting. Anybody could learn to do that effectively when trained. In those days, people still had some of those old messages like ‘Just get over it. Time will heal you’ and things like that. We had a lot of re-learning even for volunteers.”

Hoare explained how she dealt with new volunteers’ jitters about visiting someone who was dying. “Some people were very alarmed about going to see a client. I would go first and try to get to know the person and see what their interests were. Were they good at jam making or what did they do?

“I would say to them [volunteers], ‘Would it be more comfortable for you if I went with you?’ ‘Oh yes. I’m frightened and I don’t know what to say. We’ll probably just sit there and look at each other.’ ‘I will take you there and I will engage this woman and know her interests.’ I told the volunteer all this and then I said, ‘I will leave you. Is that good for you?’ She [a volunteer] said, ‘Yes.’ So, that’s what I used to do.”

Hoare added: “I remember so clearly one volunteer who’s now living in Germany whom I still hear from. She is very sensitive, a wonderful volunteer, very compassionate, warm, and caring. I went with her [to see a hospice companion]. She was so grateful. It is a scary thing. They’re talking about deep things in their life. . .You think, Oh, I don’t know what to do.”

The earliest volunteer training program was “very challenging” for people to go through, Blackwood said. It often required a change in outlook. Hospice volunteers had to learn about the essential need for confidentiality and a non-judgmental attitude towards the people they were companioning.

Hoare explained: “It was hard for volunteers at the beginning. They wanted to go home and talk to their husband or family and say, ‘You know, I heard the most amazing thing.’ They were judgmental. I remember one hospice person. She was so cross with her person she was with. ‘She’s spending her money so stupidly. She’s not looking after her money, thinking about the future.’ I said, ‘Well, who are you to judge her? We are there to listen. We’re not there to judge.’ It was hard to learn that. We all have judgments. That isn’t our role. Our role is just to be. There’s a dear little book [included in past hospice volunteer trainings] called Being There. That’s what it’s all about.”

Lower Mainland hospice visits promote learning

Personal and professional development have remained cornerstones of volunteer training and staff experience at SCHS ever since. Throughout the years, Sunshine Coast hospice staff and board members have attended hospice-related meetings on the Lower Mainland, where they learn from discussions with coordinators from other hospices, such as the 10-bed facility in Langley.

In 2010, Jean Rice, a hospice volunteer coordinator and board member, went to the first hospice conference held on Vancouver Island. There, she met the hospice coordinator from Chilliwack, who went through her volunteer training manual with Jean. “This was very valuable,” said Rice.

Jean Rice

For over 30 years, SCHS coordinators have attended palliative care conferences and courses and travelled across B.C. to tour other hospices.

Hospice offers ongoing public education

Sunshine Coast Hospice Society has always made public education a high priority, offering forums and workshops on matters relating to death, dying, bereavement, and advanced care planning. The society has strived to remove stigmas about death and talking about death, and to make people aware of what hospice is and what it does.

“There is a lack of [hospice] awareness,” Mary Anne Darney, then a SCHS board member, told the Coast Reporter in April 2013. “People don’t know what hospice means. They think, ‘you’re sick, you go to the hospital, you die there.'”

In June 1999, Hospice hosted an all-day seminar on grief, death, listening, and communication in Gibsons, featuring registered psychologist Denis Boyd, co-founder of B.C.’s hospice movement.

The following year, Hospice co-sponsored a medicine wheel workshop with Sunshine Coast Home Support Services. About 50 people attended this event, held in the shishalh long house in Sechelt, called Ancient Teachings of the Sacred Hoop on Living, Dying, and Grieving. It included drumming and sacred songs of grief and death.

As part of its public education program, SCHS hosted a panel discussion called “Dying on the Coast” in Sechelt on April 25, 2013. More than 100 people attended this community forum on end-of-life care, held at Sunshine Coast Botanical Gardens’ Sparling Pavilion. The event featured local palliative care authorities, including Gerry Latham, Eddie Berinstein, and Petrina Wing. They told the audience that the Sunshine Coast needed at least four more hospice beds, as well as more residential care beds.

In May 2014, SCHS volunteers and staff attended a Sechelt presentation and workshop by noted U.S. grief counselor and educator Alan Wolfelt. Partial proceeds of the event, presented by Latimer & Company and Devlin Funeral Home, supported SCHS’s grief and bereavement programs. Latimer & Company donated a number of Wolfelt’s books to add to the hospice library.

Alan Wolfelt


The Sunshine Coast Hospice Society drew again on aboriginal teachings in June 2017 when it offered the Sechelt event “Cultural Connections: What can we learn from each other about death and dying?” Eugene Harry, a Squamish Nation wisdom keeper, shared an aboriginal creation story and spoke poignantly of ceremonial practices used in his tradition for those who are dying. Doris Barwich, executive director of the BC Centre for Palliative Care, shared an inspiring story about her grandmother’s death and gave a presentation on compassionate care of the dying.

New books added regularly to hospice library

Volunteers started a hospice library on the Lower Sunshine Coast around 1989, keeping books on death, dying, and grief, which they purchased themselves, on the second floor of St. Mary’s Hospital. That’s where hospice volunteers held their monthly meetings, receiving office and administrative support from Home Support Services. A volunteer served as librarian. Hospice volunteers could take out books at their monthly meetings, a tradition that continues today.

When people in the community requested bereavement support for children in the late 1980s, Blackwood and Hoare took a weekend course in Vancouver on this topic and returned with many related books.

Blackwood says: “That’s around the same time we started the hospice library. We felt that when somebody made a donation, those were the kinds of things that we really needed to get resources going [for]. We bought books for children at the different age groupings. My background was pediatric nursing when I worked in Vancouver. That was an area that I personally found very important. We started buying these books at these workshops. A hospice volunteer was dealing with a family with a child who’d been through that, or [the death of] a grandparent. We could give them age-appropriate books. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf was one of them. A life cycle of a leaf.”

Over the decades, the library moved to various temporary locations until it found its current permanent home at Hospice House, Kirkland Centre in Davis Bay, in March 2011. As hospice progressed through the years, appreciative families provided donations; some of that money went to buy the latest books on bereavement support and palliative care.

Today, the library has 200+ books by dozens of authors, from Alan Wolfelt, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and Dr. Bernie Siegel to Gary Zukav, Stephen Levine, Carolyn Myss, and others.

Note: Any opinions expressed in this content are those of a specific individual. They do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Sunshine Coast Hospice Society (SCHS) or any SCHS volunteers, past, present or future.