The Westcoast Native Health Care Society revealed its plans to expand during an Open House held at Tsawaayuus (Rainbow Gardens) on Sept. 23.
The goal of the Westporte Expansion Project is to add an additional 10 complex care beds to the existing building, and 20 Independent Living units, using a portion of the adjacent greenspace/playground area.
The plan had drawn opposition from residents of the Westporte Place neighborhood, and the event was organized to give members of the public the opportunity to express their views.
“This is a proud day for us, in terms of the development that is going to be taking place here,” said WNHCS board chair Darlene Watts. “We wanted to ensure that the community is involved in that expansion.”
Chuuchkamalthni Ron Hamilton sang a welcome song to open the agenda.
“This man has been helping us for many years,” Watts said in her introduction. “He has never hesitated for one minute to donate his time to us, and come and help us in any way possible.”
Watts noted that, among many other things, the renowned artist created the Tsawaayuus curtain that formed a backdrop for the board.
Building committee chairman Derek Appleton briefly pointed out the design drawings and idea boards spotted around the room for participants to study.
“Where did all the money come from to buy it?” resident Nancy Imrie asked.
Board member Gerri Thomas explained the approximately $163,000 was taken from accounts put in place for new projects.
Tsawaayuus Project Coordinator Shaunee Casavant said “These (new beds) are critical. There are people waiting in hospital because there are no beds… families that are panicking because their grandmothers and their aunties, they have nowhere to be that is safe. This board of directors is taking the initiative to make that happen for everybody.”
Imrie, who has lived at the facility for five years, told Ha-Shilth-Sa she was concerned both about the financing for the project, as well as the potential loss of the park area.
Appleton said the proposed expansion has been in the works since Tsawaayuus added 10 new assisted living units in 2009.
“The goal is to provide three levels of care – what is called a Campus of Care. That is Independent Living, Assisted Living and Residential Care,” he explained, noting that Tsawaayuus currently has no Independent Living capacity.
Appleton said it is the additional 20 Independent Living units that would encroach on the park area. Depending on the final configuration of suites, they would consume from one-third to one-half of the existing greenspace.
“We would enhance that [remaining] space to be more senior-friendly, and to make a modern (children’s) playground. The current playground is over 25 years old. It’s becoming obsolescent and it is becoming a hazard for the city.”
Appleton noted that Tsawaayuus has long served as a model for partnerships between the First Nations and non-aboriginal communities.
“I always like to remind people how important our First Nations are in our local economy and our social services,” he said.
While Tsawaayuus is open to all community members, Appleton noted there is currently a glaring need for spaces for Nuu-chah-nulth members currently living in remote communities with inadequate health services.
Casavant emphasized that, while the greenspace would shrink as a result of the Independent Living complex, the recreational capacity would actually be improved.
“We want to have [senior-appropriate] exercise equipment and a playground near each other so there is a multi-generational meeting that can take place,” she explained. “Children can be around the elderly and the elderly can enjoy the children.”
Casavant said Tsawaayuus has undertaken a number of initiatives to provide residents with a family/home environment.
“We have two cats that live here, and we have visiting pets – and babies. The visiting babies are a real ‘upper’ for the residents. They really enjoy that.
“We also have an amazing gardener (Rodney Murray) who grows enough produce and vegetables for our residents and tenants for most of the year. He grows enough to put in the freezer and to can.
“We are very proud of that. We have some gardeners that live here who are fanatic about any toxins that go into the soil.”
One of the proposals within the expansion project is the creation of a community garden. Casavant said that is one of the survey questions for Westporte residents.
“Do they approve of the idea of a community garden? What to grow? Who is going to use it, etc.”?
Murray gave Ha-Shilth-Sa a brief tour of the garden complex, which features a wide variety of vegetables: green beans, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes.
“I’ve been running this for three years. We use all of the compost from the kitchen and the lawn and our own organic fertilizer,” he said. “We just finished putting up 400 cups of tomato sauce.”
On the pathway, Murray pointed out a surprise: thriving banana plants, with bunches of bananas nearing maturity.
Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan said the timing of the proposal is fortunate, due to a provincial initiative to create more senior housing in targeted areas, including the Alberni Valley.
“Just in the last week, a [Request for Proposals] has come out from Island Health for 12 additional senior beds for this area,” he said.
Currently, there are 12 “recovery” beds at West Coast General Hospital that are tied up with seniors who could move into more appropriate (and dramatically less expensive) care, the mayor said.
Ruttan said WNHCS would be able to package this RFP into the overall project funding scheme, by piecing together monies from multiple sources.
Ruttan told Ha-Shilth-Sa the city intends to release a new five-acre parcel of land attached to the existing Westporte Place footprint in the spring of 2017.
That is for private market housing, he explained. As part of the site configuration, a new piece of greenspace/parkland would be created, partially compensating for the loss of park space resulting from the Tsawaayuus expansion.
“This is really great news for the community,” Ruttan said. “This is a way for the City of Port Alberni and the WNHCS to work together for the benefit of the entire community.”