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SCHS celebrates all of its volunteers: “Hospice is not one person, but the whole group”

By Heather Conn

Original rhyming poems pay tribute to exceptional volunteers. Notices of volunteer awards fill pages. Pasted-in letters and hand-written cards express heartfelt thanks and gratitude from countless community members.

Media clippings and colour photos of smiling faces fill a thick stack of scrapbooks at Hospice House in Davis Bay, lovingly assembled and maintained by hospice volunteers over decades. These potpourris of the past document the achievements and contributions of hundreds of volunteers in the 30-year history of Sunshine Coast Hospice Society (SCHS).
But this archival record is not just about public recognition or stand-out individuals. Instead, it readily conveys that all hospice volunteers on the Lower Sunshine Coast, whether involved for six months or six years, provide a valuable, selfless service of loving kindness to community members who are palliative and their families who are grieving.

They’re the quiet ones who spend hours, weeks, and sometimes months in bedside vigils and grief support, excelling at sharing quality time with hospice companions. Whether it’s holding a hand, making tea or doing therapeutic massage, they provide emotional support when friend or family members are unavailable.

Group shot of Hospice people

Community members express gratitude for hospice

Ever since hospice volunteers began making community visits on the Lower Sunshine Coast in 1987, families, and those who are palliative, have expressed appreciation, says Heather Blackwood, a co-founder of hospice in this region and a long-time hospice volunteer “People would write thank-you notes and tell you directly but they would also tell their doctor,” she says of Hospice’s early days. “Some doctors, the younger ones coming in, had a better understanding then [of the importance of hospice]. A lot of them did a one or two-year practice residency. They had been given more bereavement [training] and the need of hospice and palliative care in their training. [But] a lot of the older doctors had never had that and they hadn’t had continuing education.”

Current SCHS board chair Denis Fafard says hospice volunteers, then and now, play an important role in helping to normalize a death for frightened and confused family members. He says: “When people are dying, things can happen for the first time. People don’t know. [They ask]: ‘Is this normal? Is this usual?’ They’re trying to navigate their way. [It’s helpful] just to know that there’s somebody there who can say, ‘This is what happens. That’s fine.’ They can concentrate on what they need to do, to be present and loving for the one they care about.”

Jack Smith, then-SCHS president, said in May 2005, “They [hospice companions] may say something like, ‘You’ve given me an ear where I didn’t have it before. I can now say things about my last days where I couldn’t say it to my family, because it’s too emotional for them.’”

“Hospice volunteers have to be exceptional”

After Hospice began on the Lower Sunshine Coast, nurses at both Shorncliffe and St. Mary’s (now Sechelt Hospital) were grateful to have hospice volunteers sit with those at the end of their life because nurses weren’t available, said Blackwood.

“I really believed in a program of volunteers,” she said. “Volunteers have the time. Doctors and nurses and people are so busy they don’t have time to sit down with people and help them through their grief and pending loss.”

Jean Rice, who started as a volunteer in 2001 and later became a board member, says, “[Hospice] volunteers have to be exceptional people because it’s not like well, on Tuesday, I’m going to the thrift store for four hours or wherever it might be.

“I can remember getting up so many mornings thinking: I’m going to do this, this, and this today. All of a sudden, you get a phone call and you’re now doing something totally different. You have to be prepared to just drop anything for whatever the request is. All of a sudden, you’ve got somebody dying in the hospital or hospice room and you’ve got to start phoning around for volunteers . . . The volunteers are exceptional because they have to be prepared to drop everything and maybe sit with a dying person or go and see a family member. Certainly not regular hours.”

Blackwood says, “I remember being called in a number of times [to Shorncliffe]. I’d be there from 11 [pm] to 7 [am] till the nursing staff came on.”

When they’re not sitting attentively with people, hospice volunteers also donate their time and expertise in multiple ways. They provide free professional services and consultations, organize and facilitate events, take photographs, make phone calls, and assist with many fundraising and other hospice activities.

Sunshine Coast Hospice’s 75 volunteers gave 4,648 service hours during the non-profit organization’s 2016-17 fiscal year. During that time, Hospice’s 14-member board, all volunteers, provided 2,692 hours, all unpaid.

Hospice: “It’s all about love”

“We who worked in hospice, it was part of our lives — we lived it, we cared for people,” hospice co-founder Rosemary Hoare said when interviewed in 2014 at age 93. “It’s all about love. We saw the need. That’s how hospice grew. And the volunteers, they are wonderful. In my day, they were very caring. They wanted life to be better for people.”

Hoare and Blackwood, then a part-time nurse, began in 1987 as SCHS’s first volunteer coordinators, scrambling to match Hospice’s first 10 trained volunteers with those who were dying and to fill requests for all-night vigils. With no funding, phone or office, they first used their personal phones to find referrals and help build awareness about hospice services on the Lower Sunshine Coast.

The hardest thing the first number of years was getting referrals,” says Blackwood. “Again, we also had a small number of volunteers. It was ebb and flow. All of a sudden, you didn’t have enough volunteers or you didn’t have enough people working and doing things.”

She adds: We found matching [a volunteer with a hospice companion] an art form all on its own,” says Blackwood. “You have to get the right person for the right person.”

Despite an age difference of roughly 30 years, Hoare and Blackwood became best friends, providing comfort and support not only to people in end-of-life care, but to each other. They took courses on bereavement support, bolstered timid new volunteers, bought hospice-related books with their own money, and shared their deepest doubts, fears and concerns.

Hoare remained active in hospice for at least 25 years, beginning at age 65, and never received payment for her work. She did not step down from her role as Sechelt volunteer coordinator until age 90. She died at age 95 on Aug. 2, 2016.

“I loved Rosemary,” says Blackwood. “What a treasure she was to hospice. Certainly an amazing treasure to me in my life.”

Hoare “the absolute most amazing woman”

In 1992, Hospice had 25 active volunteers who received training in St. Mary’s Hospital board room. Today, there are three times as many hospice volunteers to respond to the needs of the region’s aging and ever-growing population.

In 1998, Hoare was nominated for the BC Senior Award and was one of only about 10 others to receive an honorary certificate at Brock House in Vancouver. Sunshine Coast Hospice, which then had 52 volunteers, hosted an open house at a private home in Roberts Creek to celebrate Hoare’s achievements.

That year, Hoare said of the people she worked with: “All the volunteers are incredible. I am blown away.”

The feeling was mutual. Hospice volunteer Jenna Tuffs said of Hoare in 1998: “I find her the absolute most amazing woman I’ve ever met. Rosemary is the most perfect combination of total warmth, lightness and love, and very clear, focused intellect. Rosemary’s determination to make it possible for people here on the Coast to be able to die in dignity, to relieve the dying person from avoidable, unmanaged physical and emotional pain has resulted in vast improvements for the conditions of dying people here on the Sunshine Coast.”

The Sechelt Express publicly acknowledged Hoare’s importance to hospice in its Nov. 5, 1998 edition: “Her indestructible zest for life and her determination to live each moment as fully and as joyfully as possible is infectious. She has unconditional love and acceptance for everyone in any moment.”

Fellow hospice volunteer Carol Green wrote a tribute poem to Hoare in June 1998, including the words: “We liken you to a gardener/who treats each volunteer like a little seed/encouraging us to become a flower in blossom/not a wild and wanton weed.”

Hoare funds Kirkland Centre in Davis Bay

Hoare accepted a Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal on behalf of 50+ Sunshine Coast hospice volunteers in 2003. Eight years later, she received BC Cancer Agency’s Community Care Award, selected from over 21 nominees across the province.

Rosemary is one of our living saints of St. Hilda’s [Church],” said Rev. Clarence Li, Hoare’s nominator for the award, in 2011.

That same year, Hoare generously agreed to pay rent for Kirkland Centre in Davis Bay, enabling SCHS to have a permanent home for the first time. The Society’s offices and meeting space officially opened on March 31, 2011. Previously, meetings and functions were held at the Sechelt Seniors’ Centre, private rooms, and hospital hospice rooms.

We are grateful to finally have these facilities all under one roof,” the Society announced. “After twenty-four years, Rosemary [Hoare] continues to be our inspiration. Without her initiative in 1987, Hospice would not exist here on the Sunshine Coast.”

Compassion and respect key hospice values
Rice said of Hoare: “Rosemary always had a way of putting everything in perspective. She always made you feel like you were doing a good job.

Blackwood said of Hoare: “She did a lot of things in a very quiet way.”
Hoare’s husband Eric also contributed in his own way. Sunshine Coast Hospice made him an honorary volunteer for devotedly lighting and tending the fire for many years for SCHS’s public ritual Lighting the Memories.

Hoare’s emphasis on confidentiality and humble service, which has become integral to all local hospice volunteers, is an integral part of SCHS’s commitment to the community. In its policy manual and volunteer training materials, the Society identifies four core values shared with all its clients, families, staff, volunteers and donors: compassion, integrity, respect, and service.

Each year, during their training session, SCHS encourages all new hospice volunteers to listen deeply, stay attuned to the hospice companion or family member they are with, and ask inwardly: What will really serve this person right now?

As Martin Flynn, a then-hospice volunteer told volunteers in 2001: “Listen, listen and listen” and “Do not be afraid of silence.”

Growth of hospice “a thing of beauty”

The average age of Sunshine Coast Hospice’s first trained volunteers was about 65, says Blackwood. Most of the current 75 hospice volunteers and almost all of the board members are retirees. 

From the outset, all volunteers committed to attend monthly support meetings at Sechelt Elementary School where they debriefed, shared, and learned.

“That went really well,” says Blackwood. “We had a very strong first group that were really bonded to each other because it was something brand new.  They were interested people that were very compassionate. People felt that we were on this huge learning curve. I remember it as an exciting time too. It was an evolutionary process. People were nervous about whether they could do that kind of work, whether they would be good enough or whatever. [But] we had many from that first class [who] stayed on for 20 years.

“When I look back on it, I think of it as a thing of beauty.”

Volunteers’ self-care always high priority

This tradition of volunteers attending monthly meetings continues today at Hospice House in Davis Bay. Each month, a different speaker gives a presentation to share wisdom on subjects from Alzheimer patient care to compassionate listening.

“The monthly meeting was very important for keeping that cohesiveness and for people to be able to say if they were feeling very challenged,” says Blackwood of Hospice’s first years on the Coast. “Sometimes, you’d feel that the situation was very difficult. There were some families that were going through very challenging times with family dynamics. [But] we weren’t counsellors. We weren’t there to fix anything. We were there to listen and support.”

From its beginnings, Sunshine Coast Hospice has emphasized how important self-care is for volunteers. Blackwood explains: “For some of the volunteers, a death was really challenging and they just needed a break. They would take three months’ leave of absence in the summer, maybe when they had family coming. We really felt care was something we had to talk about a lot with our volunteers. You have to identify if you’re losing sleep. There were some very difficult situations where people felt uncomfortable. We talked about buddy systems and things. We’d call that post-traumatic shock in some cases that people were dealing with, what they found to be very traumatic.”

Hoare admitted, at 93, that she worked too long and hard for too many hours as a hospice volunteer and became ill.

“It was my hospital volunteers who said, ‘You have to go away on holiday. You can’t go on like this.’ I said, ‘You’re right. Absolutely right.’ I was foolish. We all have to have boundaries but I wasn’t wise enough to know that. I was young [in her sixties]. My sister took me to Bali. We had a wonderful holiday that resuscitated me. I learned that you have to have boundaries. You can’t do it all.”

For many years, all SCHS positions were volunteer. Around 2006, SCHS received its first B.C. government grant, which enabled volunteer coordinator Jean Rice to be paid for the first time. This marked a milestone — all previous coordinator positions were either volunteer or paid through the board or by Vancouver Coastal Health through Home Support Services.

All hospice volunteers willing to be there when needed

Sunshine Coast Hospice honoured the legacy of Hoare in 2016, by introducing its Roey Award, named for Hoare’s affectionate nickname. By that time, Hoare was turning 95 and becoming increasingly frail. She died in August that year.

Bernadette Richards, manager of hospice services, announced the inaugural award at the AGM. “We knew we were coming to the end of an era, Roey’s era, and we wanted to remind ourselves to uphold the vision, wholeheartedness, and compassion that Rosemary embraced and shared with all of us all these years,” she told hospice volunteers.

Eric Zasburg, one of Hospice’s first male volunteers who joined in 1991, received the first Roey Award for 25 years of service. It recognizes someone with longevity in the organization, “who shines out, who goes the extra mile, who reaches out when someone is in need, a person who is passionate about hospice, about being present with others, who doesn’t shy away from bearing witness to another’s pain.”

Other SCHS volunteers have achieved recognition. For instance, the Sunshine Coast Volunteer Centre presented Kate Webb with the Celebration of Excellence’s Health and Wellness Award in 2012.

Yet, the Hospice Society constantly reaffirms that all its volunteers play a vital role. When Webb accepted her award, she said: “We all know that hospice is not one person, but the whole group, and without one another we could not function. My past 20 years with hospice were very fulfilling, and I was particularly grateful for the willingness of all the volunteers to be there when they were needed, even though it was not always convenient.”

As part of its 30th anniversary events in 2017, SCHS has compiled a list, by year, of its volunteers over three decades. Anyone whose name is missing is invited to contact SCHS to have it added.

“Hospice is about heart”

At age 93, Hoare had this advice to new hospice volunteers: “The first thing you have to be is true to yourself, be who you really are. We in society today have facades, we put up masks. We try to be better and cleverer and brighter and more tidy than we really are. You have to be who you are so a bond grows between you and the client.

You have to be really interested. If you’re listening to somebody, you don’t want to be planning tomorrow’s dinner or wondering about your child, whether she has or hasn’t got the chickenpox. This is not the time for doing that.

You have to listen with your heart. Hospice is about heart. It’s not anything else. When you listen to your clients (it’s a dreadful word, ‘clients’, but we couldn’t think of anything else), you have to really want to be their friend, in a way. It’s not because a friendship is a very special thing. It is being the best of who you can be for them, and not being judgmental.

“It doesn’t matter if you disapprove or approve of what they’re doing. You’re not in the picture. It isn’t about you, it’s about them. This is a major thing to remember. You leave all judgments behind and you pay attention to what they’re saying and doing.”

Blackwood: “I celebrate every person that volunteered”

Blackwood says that one “gem” in her long involvement with hospice volunteers was seeing people grow into this role, shifting from doubt and fear to confident empowerment. She remembers: “We didn’t have a coordinator. We didn’t have money to hire anybody. [One highlight was] people’s willingness to be challenged in something very difficult that they didn’t know but wanted to make a difference in.

“Most of us, in our core, that’s what we want to do in life: make a difference for others. I think that’s what [hospice] volunteers do. They feel challenged by it [the work of service].”

She adds: “I celebrate in this moment every single person that volunteered, whether they went through a training program or did whatever it was to support. As a community, other people like the doctors, anybody who referred friends and neighbours: every volunteer I celebrate.”