Master Seaman Bill Dennis of Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt describes Honour House in New Westminster as a lifesaver in what turned out to be an almost eight-month storm of uncertainty, tears and fear for his wife Alana as she endured intensive treatment for leukemia at Vancouver General Hospital.
When Honour House opened in June 2011, Dennis was the first guest at the facility, a home-away-from home for Canadian Forces personnel, veterans, first-responders (ambulance paramedics, firefighters and police) and their families while receiving medical care and treatment in the Metro Vancouver area. Unfortunately, Alana lost her battle against the disease in June, two-weeks short of her 40th birthday, but Dennis says those gruelling eight months would have been that much worse had it not been for Honour House, its volunteers and the families he met there.
This Remembrance Day marks the two-year anniversary of the opening ceremony held at Honour House, though the facility didn't officially open to guests until June 2011. In the interim, the Honour House Society worked with the New Chelsea Society to house those who needed accommodation during medical treatments in Metro Vancouver.
After returning from deployment in Hawaii in March, 2011, Dennis walked in the door of his private married quarters in Esquimalt to find his wife unconscious and covered in blood on their couch. Alana's doctors struggled to find the cause of her illness and for a short time she appeared to be getting healthier, but then a week before Dennis was set to be deployed to sea for seven months, his wife was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia considered deadly in adults.
Alana was rushed to VGH where she was admitted to the bone marrow treatment ward.
Prior to the completion of Honour House, Dennis spent the first month of his wife's treatment staying with friends. When that situation became "too crowded," Dennis moved out to the small military naval radio station in Aldergrove, located near Abbotsford. That meant leaving Aldergrove at 7 a.m. every day for the commute to VGH and returning between 9 and 10 p.m. each night.
"I'd get back and it would take me a couple of hours to unwind," says Dennis. "Then I'd sleep for a couple of hours and start all over again, but her treatment was so intense I wanted to be there to help keep Alana calm."
Dennis says when Honour House opened, his stress level diminished considerably.
"Once I moved into Honour House and didn't have to worry about where I was going to stay, I was able to spend more time with Alana," says Dennis. "It also really helped to talk to other people staying at the house because I realized I wasn't the only person going through something like this. There was always someone to talk to and we helped each other out."
Sitting in the dining room adjacent to the bright open kitchen at Honour House last week, Al De Genova, the driving force behind the project, talks about the roller coaster of a journey he's been on since promising to have the home up and running by Remembrance Day 2010. It's a promise De Genova made in 2008 after hearing about the plight of military members and their families requiring specialized medical treatment and rehabilitation services in Metro Vancouver, but with no place for them or their family members to stay.
When De Genova first met with the Courier to discuss his ambitious project in 2008, he had no land, no building, no plans and little funding. But the Vancouver realtor and former park board commissioner was determined to keep that promise.
As word spread about De Genova's quest he was inundated with offers to help, but despite that outpouring of generosity finding an affordable building or piece of land in the City of Vancouver was out of the question.
De Genova has just finished looking at yet another over-priced location in Vancouver when New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright called to say his staff had found the perfect home for Honour House. Wright was true to his word and in April 2010, the newly formed Honour House Society, with the help of B.C. Housing, took possession of the former Blue Spruce Cottage at 509 St. George St. in New Westminster.
On April 16, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the once-grand mansion. And while it was obvious there was work to be done to restore the heritage home, the potential for what it could one day become was just as apparent. Construction began in May 2010, and the official opening ceremony took place Nov. 10, 2010, the day before Remembrance Day and De Genova's self-imposed deadline. Renovations were completely finished by September 2011. From that date to September 2012, Honour House provided 757 room nights, or 1,042 guest stays, at no cost to those who qualified. Of that number, 45 per cent were firefighter related, 30 per cent military, 21 per cent paramedic and four per cent police.
Today, Honour House is beyond what De Genova ever dreamed it could be. The major renovations respect the 9,000-square-foot heritage home's 1937 architecture, while updated features include an elevator, accessible washrooms, showers and some kitchen appliances, as well as 10 fully-accessible sleeping units. Alterations to the exterior included raising the third storey roof to provide additional accommodation.
Meanwhile, the heritage trees and exterior stone wall were enhanced through a landscape plan compatible with the neighbourhood and a small playground and patio area were created off the newly constructed sun room.
During a tour of Honour House Nov. 2, De Genova's pride is obvious-not just for the structure, but also the way the project came together as a labour of love for the hundreds who volunteered time, labour and cash to make this dream a reality. De Genova mentions too many names, groups and associations to include here, but some of the key contributors are B.C. Housing, the Vancouver Regional Construction and B.C. construction associations, Portico interior design, Houle Electric, Walter Francl Architects, the New Westminster Rotary Club, Wesgroup financial, Scott Construction and the City of New Westminster.
New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright told the Courier once the project was approved, his city's council and staff went above and beyond to ensure permits were approved and inspections completed in a timely manner.
"It was the fastest ever done," says Wright. "It helped that the community bought into the project right from the beginning when they saw it was such a positive project."
De Genova says despite everyone's best efforts, the project did run over budget so he's back on the fundraising trail. Though the project is off to a successful start and is so obviously needed, future funding is an ongoing concern, he says. But even that concern isn't stopping De Genova from dreaming even bigger.
"I want to see an Honour House in every province in Canada," says De Genova. "There's such a need."
Standing in the kitchen of Honour House on the morning of Nov. 2, a woman packs up the lunch she'll take with her that day to Children's Hospital.
The woman is married to an RCMP officer from Kelowna. As she talks about her son she breaks down causing a chain reaction that soon has Honour House general manager Marg Gordon, De Genova and this reporter wiping our eyes. The woman asked not to be identified because her 11-year-old son is recovering from anorexia, an eating disorder often fatal in children. The woman has been staying at Honour House since September.
"It's great to have this spot for some respite," says the woman, who spends up to 10 hours a day at the hospital. "I can come back here and rest before I go back to the hospital."
The woman and her husband looked for a place for her to stay in Vancouver closer to the hospital, but couldn't afford the rents. Then another RCMP member told the family about Honour House.
"They are filling such a need," said the woman, who added she was able to bring her son to Honour House for a Halloween party the weekend before where they carved pumpkins together.
"It's been a long haul, but I know he'll come home soon. But in the meanwhile Honour House has been a blessing."
New Westminster Fire Chief Tim Armstrong believes in the objectives of Honour House so strongly, he sits on the society's board of directors.
"It's a great, great project and we've already seen the difference it makes to people's lives," Armstrong said during a phone conversation.
Armstrong cites a recent example of a fire chief from Vancouver Island and his wife who recently had a lengthy stay in Vancouver while their daughter received medical treatment. The couple was staying at a "run down" place on Vancouver's East Side because that was all they could afford. When Armstrong heard about the family, he got a hold of the chief and asked him to meet him out at Honour House - without explaining why.
"When he got there and I showed him around, he said, "How do you make arrangements to stay here?" says Armstrong. "So I told him that as long as there was room, they were welcome. Then he asked me how much it would cost and I told him there was no cost. We moved them in that day - it's that simple."
The man was visibly emotional about the offer and admitted he'd been concerned about being wiped out financially.
"It was nice to relieve some of their burden," says Armstrong, who notes the interior design of the home creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
"You walk in and you can feel the stress melt away. You can only appreciate that when you're faced with these situations, accommodation is the last thing you should have to worry about."
Meanwhile, Dennis says his wife Alana had the opportunity to visit Honour House while receiving treatment at VGH where she was a patient for months before she died.
"Alana didn't want to see any pictures of Honour House, she wanted to see it for herself," says Dennis.
Both Bill and Alana's parents travelled from out of town so the families could spend last Christmas together and all stayed at Honour House. Alana's parent's donated a Christmas tree to Honour House, which was decorated and set up on the floor where they were all staying.
"When I showed Alana the tree she was very emotional. She thought the house was beautiful," says Dennis. "I can't begin to imagine what I would have done if I didn't have that support. Honour House became my home-away-from home at a really difficult time and because I was at ease there I could concentrate on Alana. If it wasn't for Al De Genova and Honour House, this would have been so much worse."
While Honour House is always open to the public, a special open house event takes place Remembrance Day, Nov. 11 from 2 to 5 p.m. Honour House is located at 509 St. Georges St., New Westminster. For more information, about Honour House visit www.honourhouse.ca.
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