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Keeping Busy At The Wascana Centre

Ask what makes this place home, and easy smiles steal across the faces of the veterans enjoying a soft drink or brew at Happy Hour on one of the veterans’ units at Wascana Rehabilitation Centre (WRC) in Regina.

“What makes it home to me is the people around me,” says Fletcher Peterson. “It’s a wonderful bunch of people.”

One by one the men sharing the table chime in. For new resident Vic Lappa, it’s being able to continue his swim routine: 10 laps every Tuesday. For Vernon Kramer it’s the trips out for meals or entertainment. For 86-year-old Simon Hitcherick, who’s been there four years, it’s that everyone is treated the same. “That’s the way it should be. I don’t care if he was a boot captain or a general—everybody’s the same when he gets here.”

It seems there’s something to occupy every waking moment, if they choose, between therapy sessions and meals, it’s cribbage or bingo, the bell choir or the music program—and especially arts and crafts.

“It’s pretty popular,” says Heather Dash, co-ordinator of the Red Cross Veterans’ Arts and Crafts Program. “Some of the guys are coming in at nine and we don’t close until four, and we have some guys we actually have to kick out.”

The coffee pot is always on, and the door is always open. “We keep it a very social atmosphere,” says Dash, and although there is always a new project on the go, “a lot of times guys come in just for the socializing.” The arts and crafts room basically takes the place of the little hometown coffee shop—a place to chat and be busy.

Aussie Alzomal, who turns 92 in April, goes every day. “I like the instructors,” he says, and enjoys catching up with his friends on the two units while they work through their projects.

If the units are home, the Wascana Centre is like a hometown. It sits in a park-like setting separated from Wascana Lake by the belt of trees bordering Lakeshore Drive, which connects the sweeping grounds of the Saskatchewan Legislature to the 930-hectare Wascana Park, one of the largest urban parks in North America.

WRC, just over 37,000 square metres in size, has a range of inpatient and outpatient programs that keeps the public spaces bustling with patients and visitors coming and going. The Extended Care/Veterans Program, in units tucked away from the hubbub, provides individualized long-term care services to 54 veterans and about 250 other residents who have complex care needs due to disability or disease.

The building’s airy concourse provides a place for residents to attend concerts, entertainment and events, like after the pre-Remembrance Day service featuring a performance by the bell choir of WRC veterans. There is space for exhibits like the World War II uniform display set up by The Royal Canadian Legion to mark the Year of the Veteran in 2005 and room for guests, like the visit from 200 children from the WRC’s school partner who came to honour the vets in 2005. It is also a place of pride for displays, like the regular show and sale of veterans’ arts and crafts projects.

The Red Cross Arts and Crafts Program grew out of a project started in 1946 to restore dignity and develop self-esteem for returning veterans in acute care. The program operates at WRC Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and features group and individual programming designed to make the most of each person’s abilities.

“Each veteran comes with certain histories, past abilities, disabilities,” says Dash.

In designing new projects she takes advantage of any past experience. Many residents have done woodworking as a hobby or for a livelihood, for instance. But she is mindful of new barriers. “These guys are much older than they were when they started doing this as a hobby.” Eyesight, hearing and dexterity may not be what it once was, and “we don’t want them comparing how much they have gone down; we want their self-esteem to stay high and (for them) to stay motivated.”

Although he had never done arts and crafts before coming to WRC six years ago, Alzomal enjoys the projects. A wireless operator who served overseas from 1940 to 1946, Alzomal owned an appliance store in Regina. “Whatever they put me onto I do as well as I can,” he says. “I like making mailboxes; it’s a lot of work.”

Projects are focused on abilities, not disabilities. Even so, sometimes a veteran can’t quite do it all on his own. “If you need help, the instructors will always lend a hand,” says Alzomal, who has eye trouble.

Arts and crafts projects are seasonal—birdhouses in spring, Yule decorations at Christmas—and are also co-ordinated with other programs. For instance, residents make instruments—ukeleles, rain sticks, thumb pianos—then learn to play them in the music therapy program.

The men produce so much that Dash has to organize a sale at WRC every few months. And there are also two Christmas sales, one at WRC and one in the building housing the Saskatchewan offices of Veterans Affairs Canada, which funds the program.

When residents finish projects they have the option of buying their work at half price or selling it, in which case they get half the money from the sale. Sales “boost self-esteem,” says Dash, “especially when everything they’ve made is sold. It’s ‘here I am 90 years old and I can still make something people actually spend good money to purchase.’”

Word has spread through the community, and now the program is beginning to get requests, says Dash. “Our last big project was a wedding cake piñata” requested after a fruitless search in stores. Word began spreading “and now people in the community come to us and request certain things. We ask the guys if they’re willing to do it and if they are, we do the project.”

Although some residents are not physically able to participate, most do. “There are so many things going on,” says Bonnie Nelson, a unit manager, “they can keep involved.” Families come in for the Happy Hour and music programs. “A lot of wives are down there singing, too,” she says.

The Legion has a close relationship with WRC.

“I come Wednesdays for Happy Hour, says Regina Branch volunteer George Orton, “because any other day I don’t see half of them because they’re swimming or doing crafts or something else.” Orton is often accompanied by his wife, Pat, a war bride to whom he’s been married for 62 years, and joined by members of the ladies auxiliary as well as other Legion volunteer visitors.

Southern Saskatchewan Legion branches and ladies auxiliaries have contributed about $600,000 towards care of veterans and medical equipment like electric beds and tub lifts, but visits are important, too, says Orton. Most of WRC veterans are Legion members, and family that lives out of the city can’t get in to visit as often.

The veterans themselves also enjoy being involved in Legion events. Alzomal treasures his memories of being asked to present Legion scholarships to students; Hitcherick talks about how veterans look forward to exchanging news with Legion visitors.

Orton, who’s been visiting Regina’s veterans for nigh on 30 years, was given a Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation Award in 2004 in recognition of his years of volunteer service. He credits a good social life with keeping vets happy and healthier.

“They’re always happy to see us.”


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