Six years ago, nine nurses and two doctors put their resources together to offer primary medical care to the most vulnerable citizens of the Comox Valley.
Today the Comox Bay Care Society Care-A-Van has evolved into a community-wide effort of citizens helping citizens.
The volunteer base includes nurses, doctors, optometrists, dentists and counsellors who travel in a completely custom designed vehicle, courtesy Sunwest RV, providing an invaluable service to those who can’t afford to take the orthodox route.
There are also the “behind-the-scenes” volunteers, who do the washing, sorting and folding of the clothes and other duties.
In all, the society has grown to a small army of 41 volunteers, as well as corporate partners like Sunwest and Living Room Pharmacy, which provides all the pharmaceutical needs for the Care-A-Van.
The concept of a mobile health unit for the disadvantaged was Helen Boyd’s brainchild.
“There was a need that I saw in my role as a nurse and a mental health and addictions counsellor, that many people were falling between the cracks and were not getting the support services they need to get out of the grasp of homelessness,” she said. “So what I conceptualized was the idea of this Care-A-Van – a mobile health clinic that could go directly to the people in need of services. The goal was to remove some of the barriers these people face in accessing health care. They may not have a telephone to make an appointment. They may not have transportation to get to an appointment. They may not even have a health card. All these things we take for granted is not even a possibility for them. So by us going to them and building relationships with them, people are getting the basics they need.”
The Care-A-Van first hit the streets of the Comox Valley in 2009, offering two programs – primary health care and clothing.
In six years it has evolved to include an optometry program, a dental program, a denture program, a tobacco cessation program and a counselling program.
The eighth program, which starts this week, is an audiology program, addressing the needs of those with hearing impairment.
Monika Turfloth is one of the nine nurses originally “recruited” by Boyd. She said the evolution of the Care-A-Van has been amazing.
“We started off doing really simple things… a lot of health teaching, diabetic care, cardiac teaching, and now we have the dental program, the eye program, the smoking cessation program… we have just been able to provide a more holistic service.”
She credited Lauren Hay, her partner in the van on the day of the interview, for getting her involved in the society, who in turn passed the glory.
“It all started with Helen,” said Hay, another one of the original 11. “She is very charismatic when it comes to recruiting. “I had no idea what to expect when I got involved. I just kind of came along for the ride. It is very gratifying, to help the community.”
Boyd said the expansion of programs was a case of identifying gaps, then seeking the appropriate help.
“For instance, I made a presentation to a service group saying if I had a dream for the Care-A-Van it would be to provide dental service, and lo and behold, there was a dentist at that meeting who offered his skills,” said Boyd, adding that the dental program is the most used of all the Care-A-Van’s services.
When asked if there was a specific event in her life that triggered the project, Boyd became emotional.
She then recounted her first meeting with Dave.
“I first met Dave while collecting data for the first homelessness count done in the Comox Valley. I would see him at the soup kitchen; he was disheveled and refused to talk to me despite my numerous attempts to engage him in conversation. I knew he slept outdoors on the cold cement year round. With the Cold Weather Outreach team, we would leave hard-boiled eggs and a hot drink for him on the cold winter nights but he would remain silent while nestled up in his sleeping bag like a butterfly in a cocoon.
“In many ways, he led me to think there must be a way to help him. His issues did not meet the criteria of any of the social agencies. He was a typical example of someone falling between the cracks. He had nothing but the clothes on his back, not even a backpack.”
It was that encounter that got Boyd’s mind racing, drawing up plans of what could be done, what she could do, to alleviate the pain suffered by so many, right here in the Comox Valley.
“At the time, I was working in the public system, and I really felt there was a need to address this very quickly,” she said. “To me, it is an issue of social justice. There was a real moral (duty) to act on it, and not to wait.”
Her clients are grateful for Boyd’s proactive stance.
“These people are life savers,” said one woman waiting for treatment at the St. George’s United Church stop. “My ex got me evicted from my home and these people supplied me with socks, shirts, jeans, medical… they are just so informative, they’re sweet. They are such a benefit to this community. It blows me away, what they do for people. They are saving lives every day.”
“I was broke and I was cold and they came along and took care of me,” said Gordo. “I don’t know where I’d be without them. I’ve got dry socks on with no holes in them, thanks to these people. And there’s no appointment necessary.”
As for what is next on her wish list, Boyd said what’s really needed are “bricks and mortar” – housing to get her clients off the streets.
“We provide excellent services, but we certainly need housing – that’s the key element we need to support our homeless,” she said.
That need in the Valley is greater than a lot of people realize. Last month, Boyd updated the statistics on clientele. In the first six years the Care-A-Van has provided service to 1,054 unique individuals.
“Those are all either homeless or at-risk of being homeless,” she said. “That number is just far too high.”
For more information on the Care-A-Van, go to www.comoxbaycare.org