Reprinted from Tracks Beside the Water, Volume II
Some history of the William A. George Extended Care Unit
In the fall of 1981 a group of concerned women met one morning in the public library to consider what they could do to bring an extended care facility to Sioux Lookout. All were aware through family or friends of the heartbreak caused when an older person who could no longer manage to live alone, needed care, and had no alternative but to leave town for Pinecrest in Kenora – 150 miles away – or similar facilities at even greater distances.
The Chamber of Commerce had been pressing for extended care in Sioux Lookout for some time, but no progress was apparent and the women wanted to find some way to hasten action in this matter.
At the suggestion of Gertie (Cole) Smith, the group called itself NHAG (Nursing Home Action Group), and their intention was indeed to “nag” until Sioux Lookout’s senior citizens could stay in their own town when they needed long term care.
NHAG’s first project was a letter blitz, and it was very successful. The Honourable Leo Bernier got a veritable flood of letters asking for extended care here, and these letters provided him with real ammunition in his efforts to work for such facilities in northern communities. Soon Sioux Lookout was told that extended care here was indeed possible. The greater part of the funding would come from the Ontario government, but one-sixth had to be raised by the town. That meant a fundraising goal of $620,000 – an awesome figure in a town of some 3000 population with no major industry.
NHAG did not feel equal to spearheading such a drive for funds. Their next step in May 1982 was to write a letter to the Royal Canadian Legion Branch, asking if that energetic and public-spirited organization would undertake the fundraising. The Legion agreed and a committee known as SLECO (Sioux Lookout Extended Care Organization) was set up. Original members were Ross Irwin (Chairman), Bill George (Vice Chairman), Marnie Hoey (Treasurer), Rachel George (Secretary), John F. Carroll, Leonard Carroll Sr., Bob Butterfield, and Ed Switzer (Directors).
The first large donation came from two of Sioux’s pioneers. Mr. and Mrs. J. E. Cole presented a cheque for $1000 to SLECO in August 1982.
In October Ross Irwin resigned as chairman and was succeeded by Bill George. At that time the fundraising campaign was begun. The Legion donated the use of the small upstairs room which was once a kitchen, served briefly as the CBLS studio, and was now transformed into a tiny crowded office. From these premises Bill and Rachel worked for four years, planning and directing the canvass of the town, writing to businesses and foundations for assistance, keeping careful records of donations and pledges, planning raffles and other fundraising events, and doing a thousand and one jobs to keep SLECO moving.
Added to the committee when the campaign swung into full gear were Jack McKenzie, in charge of canvassing local businesses, Margaret Atwood representing the Design Committee, Peggy Sanders representing NHAG, Lydia Carlbom canvassing the teachers, Ella Williams representing Pelican Rebekah Lodge No. 206 (and also acting as an area captain), Barbara Banks representing Home Care (later replaced by Dela Wilkins), and Dianna Ayotte representing Home Support.
Many organizations worked hard under team captains to canvass areas of the town. Canvassers were encouraged to phone ahead and make appointments for their visits. Pledges were to run over a three-year period, and a number of businesses such as the CNR, the Hudson Mill, Dryden Board of Education, the General Hospital and the Town of Sioux Lookout agreed to do payroll deductions from employees who requested it.
As well as the funds raised or pledged by the canvass, money came in through a variety of ways. There were a number of raffles of donated articles – a crocheted tablecloth and hand-painted plates were two of many such items. When the Pickle Lake Legion branch disbanded, its assets of almost $3000 were donated to SLECO. Nordic Nomads Ski Club took pledges for efforts in the Sibley Ski Run. Peter Mushquash, Leata Hancharuk, Bruce Legros, Jackie Carlbom and Audrey Spencer raised money when they took part in the Manitoba Marathon. Organizations and businesses did their share.
One very important way in which money came to SLECO was through memorial donations. Many families felt that instead of flowers, gifts to SLECO would be a welcome expression of sympathy. Such gifts were promptly acknowledged to both the donor and the bereaved family by Rachel.
Mrs. Glen Jackson, a long-time Sioux Lookout resident, bequeathed most of her estate to SLECO. This generous gift made the thermometer sign recording the progress of the campaign take an enormous leap.
At the annual Blueberry Festival SLECO undertook to organize the Trade Fair. This was a huge job, but Bill and Rachel, with help from other community members, set it up, rented the booths, looked after security, and generally made the Trade Fair a great success – and also made tidy sums of money each year to swell the SLECO bank accounts. As these grew interest also helped to increase the totals.
Meanwhile, plans for an extended care wing to be added to the existing General Hospital were sometimes progressing, and sometimes meeting with frustrating delays and roadblocks.
A major delay was the proposed amalgamation of the Sioux Lookout General and Zone Hospitals. A survey was done in northern communities to see if they were in favor of amalgamation. The survey took some months to complete and tabulate, and during this time plans for extended care were more or less put on hold. This was discouraging for SLECO, but Bill and Rachel and others of the committee never lost heart and fundraising continued. When the Native people were less than enthusiastic about amalgamation, letters were sent to government, urging them to proceed with the proposed extended care wing to be added to the General Hospital. Extensive renovations to that building were also part of the package, necessary to accommodate the extra services required.
In October 1984 the Honourable Leo Bernier announced the Eldcap program, and things briefly looked more hopeful, but in November planning was at a standstill again. In March 1985 Iris Czinkota, Chairman of the Hospital Board, reported on a new idea – a free-standing facility to be built on a site west of Curtis Street and Hannah Crescent where eventually a complete new hospital could be constructed. In April a public meeting in the Legion Hall was hosted by the Hospital Board to present this concept to a number of citizens who felt more than a little frustrated. “We were promised bricks and mortar in 1983. Now we see more delays! When do we get Extended Care?”
In October 1985 a role study for the free-standing facility was being done by a consulting firm, and a 28 bed facility was recommended. That November Bill George had a meeting with Rene Fontaine, Minister of Northern Affairs in the new Ontario government, and was told Sioux Lookout was “still on the list” for Extended Care.
Meantime, fundraising had never stopped. The 1985 Blueberry Festival raised $4500 and rented 52 booths. The three-year pledges made for the campaign were being completed.
Bill continued to serve on the Planning and Design Committee for the new facility. The site was cleared and, at last, in 1986, the financial goal was reached. SLECO had succeeded in its stupendous task, and Sioux Lookout (citizens) had proved again that they could rise to a challenge when there was a clear and vital need.
There is no doubt that a great part of the success of the SLECO campaign was due to the support of the Legion, and especially to the unstinting efforts of Bill and Rachel George. For (more than) three years, with no thought of reward or recognition, these two volunteers gave uncounted hours of their time to SLECO. Their devotion is beyond praise.