Gerald McCormack, a resident at Bonnyville Health Centre, can often be found in the garden watering the flower beds and tending to the plants.
“I used to farm, and I like the smell and feel of fresh dirt like after I summer fallowed the field,” he says.
Gerald is one of many residents who enjoy the centre’s outdoor garden space, which has been planted by staff from Strathcona Resources, an energy company with operations in the area, for the past 15 years. They provide the resources and volunteer their time to create areas of peace and tranquility for patients and residents.
“Around 15 years ago, Don Skarsen contacted us,” says Wendy Campbell, recreation therapist at Bonnyville Health Centre. “His mom, Laura, was a resident here, and he wanted to find a way to volunteer with the company he worked for, which is now Strathcona Resources.”
Strathcona Resources asked if it could provide flowers and a volunteer garden crew. It sent seven to 10 volunteers to spring clean the outside of the building, including the windows, and then plant the garden.
“The actual driver behind us becoming volunteers at Bonnyville long-term care were my visits with my mother in 2008,” says Don. “She told me that the gardening was being done by an elderly gentleman who was volunteering his time and was getting too old to continue.
“I was so inspired hearing that one individual would donate so much of his own time that I decided we could surely find enough interested people to take over the gardening duties.”
The gardening program continues each year, with many of the Strathcona Resources volunteers returning to get the space ready for everyone to enjoy through the summer and fall months.
“There’s really nothing like giving back to your community when you can,” says Nikki Sinclair, administrative assistant with Strathcona Resources.
The volunteers feel it’s even better when they get to see an immediate impact, be physically involved and be outdoors, and the residents seem to enjoy the day as much — or more — than the volunteers, says Nikki.
“They come out and direct, join in or just take in the transformation. We know how valuable an outdoor visiting space is for their quality of life, and it is so heartwarming to watch the change in just three to four hours of hard work.”
With easy access, residents like Gerald can go to the garden when they want to enjoy the plants or sit and listen to the birds.
“We always tell families and residents that any time they want, they can pick vegetables or berries and eat them,” says Wendy.
While the garden has been a beloved space at the site for many years, it also became a lifeline during the pandemic for residents wanting to spend time with their loved ones.
“During the early part of COVID-19, we could only do garden visitation, and it was booked solid,” says Wendy. “Usually, the visitations would start at eight o’clock in the morning, and the garden was packed all day long. We could have a maximum of about 10 different groups, and we were booking them around the clock.”
Thankfully, since there is external access to the garden, the Strathcona Resources staff were still able to volunteer their time without entering the hospital. The garden was closed to residents during the gardening time to keep them safe.
Don says that over the years many Strathcona Resources staff have helped, but a small core group of people were always willing to lead the efforts.
“The continuous interest since I and others have retired and the employer has changed three times is enormously rewarding. What started as an answer to my mother's concern for the garden has grown into a tradition for the workers at Strathcona Resources at Tucker Thermal Project,” says Don.
“I still think of the elderly gentleman that took care of the garden for the years before us and hope he would be happy with what he started.”
Since the beginning, Strathcona Resources has contributed supplies and tools to the garden work. Each year they provide bedding plants, and the volunteers bring their own yard tools and pressure washers with them.
“For the last three years, we have also been able to leverage the company’s giving and volunteer program to provide a monetary donation to the Bonnyville Health Centre,” says Nikki.
This funding is designated for recreation programs, which is greatly appreciated by staff at the site.
“We do a lot of group programs with the residents, and the garden plays a huge part in their summer recreation,” says Wendy.
“The garden is a real connection to nature, and the residents reminisce about the flowers or check on how many tomatoes are growing.”
That’s what Gerald likes to do. He was on hand to assist the volunteers with this year’s planting.
“By being in the garden to work the dirt, I get that smell, and it reminds me of the farm. It is also nice to see and make something grow.”