Honouring heroes

Home is a haven for first responders and their families who need medical care
December 28, 2012
Written by Len Garis and Karin Mark
When the mother of a Metro Vancouver firefighter needed back surgery in April, no family members could provide the fully accessible facilities required for the week after the operation.

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Honour House, a Vancouver-area hospice, has accommodated more than 750 overnight stays since it opened in September 2011. Photos by Karin Mark

 
A hotel wasn’t an option because of the cost.

Fortunately, the family was put in touch with Honour House, a hospice of sorts for first responders and their families who need a place to stay while relatives undergo medical procedures or during recovery.

Located in the City of New Westminster in British Columbia, Honour House has accommodated more than 750 overnight stays since opening its doors in September 2011, following a three-year fundraising campaign and the complete renovation of a 1936 heritage home.

“The whole idea of Honour House is to honour the heroes who keep us safe,” explained general manager Marg Gordon. “They don’t ask for anything of us, and we finally have an opportunity where we can help.”

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Each of the 10 fully accessible bedrooms at Honour House has its own bathroom, dresser, nightstand, clock radio, seating and reading lamps, and a patchwork quilt donated by the Blue Mountain Quilting Club.
 
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Marg Gordon, the general manager of Honour House, sits in the home’s large living room.  
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Guests at Honour House can relax in several of the comfortable spots on the property – including the sunroom.
 
The concept is similar to that of Ronald McDonald House, which provides temporary housing to out-of-town families of children receiving medical treatment. Although Canadian veterans can get help reintegrating back into the community and workforce, little to no support was previously available for military or first responder personnel, and their families, who needed to be away from home for medical purposes.

“When you go through something as traumatic as that, you need the support of family, but it’s not always convenient to stay in someone else’s home,” said the firefighter’s father. “Honour House was like being in your own home. It’s a very comfortable setting and a warm environment.”

John Hatch, deputy fire chief in New Westminster and one of the project’s supporters, said it can be difficult enough to have to relocate for medical treatment without having to worry about hotel bills.

“The bottom line is we can support people and their families at a difficult time, and provide them a comfortable place to be among friends and other people in our profession,” Hatch said.

Much effort has been made to provide a home-like, healing environment where guests feel like they are staying with family rather than strangers, Gordon said.

“No one wants to be alone and lonely at a time like that,” she said. “It’s a comfort to be here, a home away from home.”

The building has served many purposes, from hosting weddings to providing supportive housing, since its construction as a private home by an Irish sweepstakes winner in 1936. It had fallen into disrepair before the $4.8-million reconstruction that increased the building’s size to 870 square metres from 545 square metres (5,865 square feet to 9,400 square feet).

The project added a third storey, an elevator and a sunroom while retaining original features such as the fireplace and oak floors – along with the home’s official heritage status.

Set on a quiet residential street among mature trees and well-maintained gardens, Honour House still has the appearance of a grand heritage home.

Low-key signage, a flagpole, children’s play equipment and small parking lot off the back lane are among the few signs of its purpose today.

The fully modern interior is decorated tastefully yet comfortably, with added personal touches such as paintings and framed poetry contributed by local artists, and military and first responder memorabilia.
 
Guests can relax and mingle in front of a fire in the spacious living room, or seek out solitude or privacy with visiting family in the bright sunroom, cozy sitting room, or a bench in the garden. Evenings often find people cozied up in front of the flatscreen 3D TV in the downstairs media room, which is equipped with a bar fridge and microwave for popcorn. In the morning, the large modern kitchen – featuring two stoves, ample counter space and private cupboards – bustles with families getting ready for their appointments.

Each room is fully accessible and has its own bathroom, dresser, nightstand, clock radio, seating and reading lamps, along with a patchwork quilt donated by the Blue Mountain Quilting Club. (Guests also receive quilts from the Quilts of Valour Quilting Club to comfort them through medical and hospital visits.)
“It was just a godsend,” said the firefighter’s mother. “We were very lucky to be able to stay there. It’s such a comfortable facility. I could come downstairs, and I’d actually fall asleep on the chesterfield. The quilts were lovely and cozy. I never dreamed it would be like that.”

Guests generally clean up after themselves, change their sheets, do their own laundry and keep their rooms tidy between the biweekly visits from the volunteer housekeepers.

“Our guests treat it like their own home,” Gordon said. “It’s interesting to see how everybody shares. It seems each day I come into the kitchen and someone’s baking for everyone.”

Gordon meets all the guests and is often inspired by their stories. One woman, a former firefighter and paramedic, was a triple amputee who had come to Vancouver for a prosthetic fitting. Now a Wal-Mart greeter, she told Gordon about the time she had leapt out of her wheelchair to resuscitate a man who collapsed as he entered the store.

“She saved his life,” Gordon marveled. “That’s the type of person we’re helping.”

The project has received abundant support from the city, community, Fire Chief Tim Armstrong and the fire service in New Westminster, along with a number of corporate sponsors throughout B.C.

But like other non-profit societies, Honour House continues to look for a source of sustainable funding. Its current focus is selling annual $20 memberships to military and first responder personnel across Canada.

“It’s an amazing journey that has brought us this far. Almost everybody grabs on to the idea once they hear what we do,” Gordon said. She noted that plans are in the works for a similar project in Edmonton. “Eventually, our dream is that Honour House will be the lighthouse for other places like this across Canada.”

Staying at Honour House
Current and former members of Canadian military and first responder (ambulance, fire and police) agencies and their families may stay at Honour House for up to 30 days at no charge if they are visiting the Metro Vancouver region for medical treatment for themselves or a relative. Guests must be referred by their service organization.

Supporting Honour House
Those who wish to support the Honour House Society are invited to make a donation or purchase an annual membership for $20. For information, contact Marg Gordon at 778-397-4399 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
To learn more, visit www.honourhouse.ca.


Len Garis is the Fire Chief for the City of Surrey, B.C., and an adjunct professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of the Fraser Valley and a member of the Institute of Canadian Urban Research Studies (ICURS), Simon Fraser University. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Karin Mark is a former newspaper reporter who writes for publications and corporate clients in Metro Vancouver, B.C.


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