Abbeyfield House volunteer surprised, but pleased, with national award

For more than two decades, Sylvia Gent has planned, designed, mentored and organized, for the Abbeyfield Houses Society of Prince Albert.

Those contributions were recognized on the national stage last May, as Gent became the first recipient of Abbeyfield Canada’s Robert McMullen Award for Lifetime Volunteering Excellence.

The award was a huge surprise for Gent, who wasn’t even aware she was in the running.

“I was shocked,” Gent chuckled. “I didn’t know that I had been nominated. Then, of course, I was very pleased and very appreciative.”

Part of that appreciation stems from the person the award is named after. Robert McMullen was vital in introducing the non-profit Abbeyfield House concept to Canada, and personally presented the idea at the Prince Albert Housing Conference in 1995. Gent was instrumental in getting his name on the speakers list.

Later, McMullen approached Gent about serving on the Abbeyfield Canada national board, a position she held from 2004 to 2009.

“I knew Bob McMullen very, very well and had a very, very great respect for him,” Gent said. “He just worked his heart out to get Abbeyfield going in Canada.”

Before she started volunteering on the national stage, Gent was working hard back in Saskatchewan. She lobbied for a housing design with a minimum capacity of 14 residents, something that wasn’t common practice in other Abbeyfield Houses, but would help the Prince Albert non-profit cover its operating costs.

The plan was accepted, and Prince Albert’s Abbeyfield House opened with 14 residents in August 2001. It was the first Abbeyfield House on the prairies, and has been full ever since. Another house was built in Saskatoon in the years to follow.

“(Sylvia’s) knowledgeable. She’s a leader. She’s a good communicator. She’s a manager,” said Molly Cowie, a fellow board member who joined about a year after Gent. “That’s important, having stability (on the board). It needed a leader and she was a leader. We still depend on her.”

The feeling was mutual. Gent loved the concept of a non-profit seniors housing group, which she said fit perfectly in Prince Albert. However, she came to love and respect the Prince Albert board’s hard work too, and that made her stay as much as anything else.

“Right from day one, we have had a tremendous board,” Gent explained. “It’s just a very supportive board. Everybody gets along. Everybody pitches in and helps out.”

Thanks to its non-profit status, Prince Albert’s Abbeyfield House is able to keep its rent low, while also providing a limited number of subsidies. They’re currently operating at 100 per cent capacity, with waiting list so large that advertising has become unnecessary.

There are currently 20 Abbeyfield Houses in Canada, and although designs vary, the goal is the same: providing low income housing to seniors, while also giving them home cooked meals and a friendly community atmosphere.

The concept has expanded to 10 other countries since first starting in England in 1957. Although the rate of growth has slowed over the years, Gent is still confident the Abbeyfield model has a bright future, especially in Prince Albert. 

“In P.A., it is alive and well,” she said. “We don’t see any signs of slowing down.”