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Leadership at Sunshine Coast Hospice

“Unsung heroes and a force of love and support” 

By Heather Conn

Enthusiastic volunteers, week after week, for decades, have put in long hours to help Sunshine Coast Hospice Society (SCHS) raise money and care for the dying in their community. Volunteer coordinators created new training modules and drew on intuitive wisdom to match volunteers and grieving family members. While struggling with short- and long-term strategic goals, fundraising challenges, and sometimes conflicting visions, Hospice board members forged meaningful, supportive partnerships with local individuals and organizations.

As community needs for care of the dying have increased and evolved since local hospice began in 1987, so, too, has SCHS’s responsive leadership. Since the start of hospice care on the Sunshine Coast, countless hard-working individuals, on their own and with community members, have served as strong advocates for improved hospice palliative care, bereavement support, and pain management.

These people have worked closely with the physicians, nurses, and administrators within Vancouver Coastal Health not only to create facilities but to ensure that those experiencing the end of their lives have the medical, psychological, social, and spiritual support they need.

Over three decades, SCHS’s leadership has predominantly reflected nurturing core values, from compassion, respect, grace, and confidentiality to bold risk-taking, mentorship, and innovation. An overall willingness to listen, learn, and educate others has remained a dominant factor. So, too, has humility, as many stellar volunteers have come and gone, initiated programs, and devoted themselves to improve hospice services with little or no concern for personal recognition.

“I don’t think we felt we were ground breakers,” says Heather Blackwood, a founding hospice volunteer, former board member, and long-time volunteer coordinator, of Hospice’s start on the Sunshine Coast in the late 1980s. “We were in the infancy of building our support network here on the Sunshine Coast in all areas. We felt we were facilitators and that it [hospice] would become a life of its own.”

Blackwood acknowledges that during the first five years of Sunshine Coast Hospice, she and others in leadership roles were willing to make mistakes and ask for advice from Victoria Hospice, Lions Gate Hospice, and the hospice coordinator in Powell River.

“Nobody knew what we were really doing but the intention carried us,” she says. “I think [it works] when you have anything new and you feel that you’re not in isolation and you’ve got an overall vision . . . [It’s] knowing that you don’t have to be perfect. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to look back and see there’s a better way of doing this. You can say to yourself, ‘We’re doing the best we can with what we have’ and then keep evaluating. That’s what boards did. New people came in. They might not have any idea of what hospice was about but they knew how to organize organizations.”

Rosemary Hoare: “a light beam who didn’t suffer fools”

Blackwood attributes much of the early success of Sunshine Coast Hospice to the leadership of her dear friend Rosemary Hoare, who died on Aug. 2, 2016 at age 95. Hoare and Blackwood were the first hospice volunteer coordinators on the Coast, and Hoare remained active with Hospice for about 25 years, starting at age 65.

“She [Hoare] was the best listener,” Blackwood says. “She heard what people were saying, she reflected it back. I think her loving care and compassion were such that people weren’t so ruffled by her. But she didn’t suffer fools. She was very clear.      

I think she was sort of a light beam, a force that gave so much love and support to all the volunteers and tried to run the waves. When some new board people came in and she just felt they had the wrong vision, she told them and it didn’t go well. [But] she did it in a loving way. [She’d say], ‘This is not what hospice is about. You need to take the training program. You’re trying to change things about something you know nothing about.’ So, she was a leader.”

During shifting hospice priorities and brief periods of clashing personalities and visions, Blackwood says that Hoare was able to maintain a positive, stable influence while supported by many dedicated individuals who each were significant parts of hospice services, large and small.

“At times, there were periods of disconnect,” says Blackwood. “I think the thread that bound it all together and eventually made it work was the skills that people like Rosemary Hoare had. Rosemary didn’t give up in 25 years. When other people took leaves of absences, she didn’t. She was there, right through it.

“If you have a continuum of a strong foundation, even in one person, it can ride the waves of difficulty. There were times when people thought it was going to fall apart and those were tough times. Again, Rosemary honoured everyone, even the people on the board and the volunteers when they were having difficulty with what was going on. She listened and tried to put forth a case because she was at the board meetings.

“I think when you sit and look back and are celebrating a 30-year process, there are so many individuals who came in with such great intentions and commitment. That’s what made it work.”

A free-standing hospice: “new energy and new experiences”

One instrumental time in hospice leadership on the Sunshine Coast was the attempt to create a free-standing hospice with at least four to six beds. After St. Mary’s (now Sechelt) Hospital closed its palliative care beds around 1998, a Hospice Steering Committee was formed. Members included Cam and Loreen Reid of the Sechelt Rotary Club, Maureen and John Clayton, Dr. Bruce Ford, Tony Pike, and Dean Butler.

“When the hospice beds closed at St. Mary’s, a group of us suddenly said, ‘Well, that can’t happen,’” says Maureen Clayton. “The community was quite in an uproar about it and felt very disappointed. They had furnished these rooms. There was this feeling that they had worked hard to get it [a hospice space] recognized and make it operational.” 

The initial plan was that Rotary would build the free-standing hospice, the Claytons would donate the land in Sechelt, and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority would pay for operating costs. The steering committee members toured the province from Vancouver Island to Nelson, interviewing other hospices and those trying to create a free-standing hospice in their community.

On the Sunshine Coast, the steering committee co-hosted, with Sechelt Rotary Club, a presentation in February 1999 that featured Donalda Fortier, executive director of Hospice House in Prince George. About 70 people from the local community attended, enthusiastic that their dream of a dedicated hospice facility could become a reality for the new millennium.

Maureen Clayton says she told Blackwood and Hoare, “‘We [the steering committee] can help you with new energy and new experiences.’ We had all of this momentum going. And we thought, well we can continue to do this. We were quite excited. But the missing component was the operational dollars.’

The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority was unwilling to cover the cost of round-the-clock medical care at a Sunshine Coast hospice facility. A four- to six-bed Hospice House would cost $450,000 a year or $245 per bed per day.

Not everyone at hospice supported the plan for a self-standing hospice. Hoare confided during a 2014 interview, at age 93, that she had mixed feelings about it. “There are those who are suffering from cancer who deny they have cancer,” she said. “They say, ‘I’m going to beat this.’ It’s usually men. If they go into a hospice, what is a standing hospice? It is a place where you’re going to die. If they’re not going to die, why would they go into hospice? It’s sort of signing their death warrant if they go in.”

While the current SCHS board understands the challenges of having a free-standing hospice in a small community, the Society continues its commitment to increasing the number of dedicated hospice beds on the Sunshine Coast. Discussions with VCH are ongoing regarding this issue.

Sunshine Coast Hospice Society is born in 1999

The existing group of hospice volunteers who provided vigils and bereavement support no longer had a phone or administrative support in the late 1990s because they were not receiving funding anymore from Home Support Services. Yet Hospice prevailed, continuing from the home of Diane Giles, the new volunteer coordinator.

Some people felt that the two hospice-related groups, which liaised but essentially operated separately, reflected a conflict of values: a sole focus on fundraising versus providing grassroots palliative care. “It was a confusing time,” Blackwood says.

But a mindset of cohesiveness, unity, and practicality prevailed when these two groups formally amalgamated on Sept. 30, 1999. Sunshine Coast Hospice was incorporated as a non-profit charity, under the Society Act, as the Sunshine Coast Hospice Society. Now, the group could accept donations as a legally recognized entity.

“The Society Act has a whole list of things you have to do when you become a society: how many meetings you have to have, the accountability for the funding and all of that,” Blackwood says. “When we [volunteers] jumped in [in 1985], we didn’t have any of that vision. We knew that would happen eventually but we just wanted to get folks [medical] support.”

Two hospice beds open, close, and reopen in new location

Although local individuals and businesses generously provided funds towards a free-standing hospice, the steering committee ended up with substantial monies but no new facility for them, Clayton says.

Instead, the Sunshine Coast Hospice Society put the donated money towards the opening of two hospice beds at the Garden Inn in Gibsons on Oct. 3, 2001, Clayton says. The Society fundraised to furnish the rooms, buy lifts, and pay the monthly room rental rate. It partnered with Coast Garibaldi Health and the Community Health Council, while Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCH) provided the health care.

Even though VCH ordered these same hospice beds closed in late March 2005, the will of SCHS members and the community was strong to keep such a vital service available. Within six months, on Sept. 16, the Hospice Society officially opened two new hospice beds and a sitting lounge/counselling room for friends and family at Shorncliffe nursing home in Sechelt.

The Hospice Society covered the room renovations, which cost about $75,000 to $80,000. It agreed to rent the rooms from VCH and ask hospice clients using a room to pay a portion of the rent, if they could afford it. The typical length of stay was two to three weeks. About 70 hospice volunteers were available to provide bedside care, vigils, and bereavement support.

Hospice gains a headquarters in 2011

 A key component of empowered leadership for SCHS was gaining a new, permanent office at Kirkland Centre in Davis Bay in March 2011. Thanks to a generous donation by Hoare, the Hospice Society was able to sign a lease agreement with the District of Sechelt to occupy the top floor of its building. This provided a lovely new space, referred to as Hospice House, for board meetings, volunteer functions, and bereavement support groups. The Hospice Society remains there today.

 “It’s going to be easier now for people to know what we do and where we are,” then-board president Ali Khan said in 2011.

Jean Rice, then hospice coordinator, said, “It makes a really big difference to not be bouncing around from one place to another. It’s really exciting.”

Previously, the Hospice Society held meetings and functions at the Sechelt Seniors’ Centre, in private rooms, and hospital, hospice or office rooms.

Blackwood said it is important to celebrate this significant development in SCHS’s community presence. “Rosemary [Hoare] had a very strong belief that we needed a place. That’s why when space in Davis Bay came up, she very quietly said, ‘I will pay for the rent and I will facilitate that.’ I think that was another pivotal change in hospice.

The board’s tone “filters down to the volunteers”

Over the years as many new board members came and went, Blackwood acknowledged how important it was for hospice’s grassroots leaders, the volunteer coordinators, to mesh well with board members and vice-versa.           

Blackwood says, “In any organization that I’ve seen on the Sunshine Coast working, when personalities don’t get together along well on the board, if it’s run by a board, and there are big challenges, then it filters down to the volunteers and people are feeling uncomfortable.

“Boards say, ‘This is what volunteers should do and not do.’ [At times] the coordinators and volunteers felt they were hospice, not a board because they were the ones out doing the work. So, you got somebody coming in [to the board] like a retired banker. There were [board] people whose focus was more on the [business] runnings than actually the [hospice] work that was being done.”

Blackwood remembers only one incident when a new hire was problematic and how Hoare’s people skills and thoughtful leadership prevailed. “I think the only ego clashes occurred when we hired a couple of people as the first paid coordinators or ‘executive director,’ one guy called himself. He just didn’t work. Rosemary dealt with him in a beautiful way. He was talking about suing us for firing him. He couldn’t continue. He didn’t have knowledge, he was making mistakes. He actually messed up finances.

“It was before his three-month probation period. We felt very within our rights [saying] this wasn’t working. He said, ‘I’m going to sue you. You have to prove what was wrong with me.’ Rosemary had a meeting with him, I remember. She smoothed his feathers. It wasn’t easy. It was stressful.”

In 2017, the Hospice Society is going strong. The 14-member board has a remarkable array of skills and talents, ranging from law and human resources to small business leadership and medicine. The board members are working hard to create sustainable funding and al.

Volunteer hospice coordinators “unsung heroes”

Blackwood said she considers people who held the position of hospice volunteer coordinator, which remained unpaid for more than a decade, “unsung heroes.” They spent many hours trying to match an available volunteer with a compatible hospice companion or grieving family member, then listened to volunteers’ concerns. She says, “The coordinators knew their volunteers so well. It was such a cohesive, caring group.”

Blackwood adds: “The coordinators would make three or four calls [to volunteers] and you can’t get anybody so you go yourself [to do a bedside vigil]. People like Rosemary [Hoare] and Jean Rice and other coordinators that were volunteers: they put in a tremendous number of hours–like a full-time job. It was just amazing how many hours. We got called directly by the facilities at home at the beginning, even when we were enjoying Home Support because they were only available during the week. So, you’d get a call at 9 o’clock on Saturday night: Could you sit with someone that all of a sudden is very agitated and might not make it through until morning?”

Jean Rice, who became volunteer hospice coordinator around 2004, says she attended monthly board meetings and let members know if the hospice rooms at the Garden Inn needed anything.

 Later treasurer and a board member from roughly 2009 to 2012, she speaks fondly of her fellow volunteers: “When I became coordinator, I worked closely with Kate Webb and Rosemary Hoare. You couldn’t wish for better support, for better working colleagues. Even though I had the title of coordinator, we worked as a team. We talked about everything. They were just phenomenal. I really do miss them. They were amazing.”

 In today’s Internet era, hospice volunteers use an online schedule to select a block of time to companion someone who’s dying. They receive regular email communication and phone calls from the hospice volunteer coordinator. But for about 15 years, the volunteer coordinators had to do everything only by phone, usually from their own home.

We spent hours and hours on the phone, phoning around,” says Jean Rice. “We had help. We had two volunteers who used to phone everybody every month for their hours. But to organize a vigil or get in touch with volunteers or anything, it was all by phone. When you think about it, the hours we spent on the phone as opposed to now, having access to email and [able to] contact a whole group of people all at once by email. . .”

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.