Letting kids be kids

Dalton Sewap, 10, cuts the ribbon to officially open the new mental health unit playground while (left to right) Victoria Hospital Foundation executive director Sherry Buckler, Elks and Royal Purple District Two chairman Nick Trofimuk, 16-year-old Laynie Ironeagle , 15-year-old Kalab McKay and child and youth mental health inpatient unit nursing unit manager Tracy Hamilton look on. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Donation of playground to youth and child mental health inpatient unit gives burdened kids an opportunity to be themselves, health officials say

They’ve bought new mattresses, blinds for the windows and an outdoor garden and gazebo for adults. Now, the Elks have funded another new feature of the Victoria Hospital mental health unit, a playground for the kids.

The new playground was unveiled and a ribbon cut Wednesday. In addition to the new play structure, the Elks and Royal Purple Elks also provided $25,000 to the child and youth mental health unit. Prior to Wednesday, the club had provided about $138,000 to the mental health unit and helped make it a more pleasant place for patients to stay.

“We joined in partnership and went on a mission to improve the mental health units of both the adults and our youth,” said Victoria Hospital Foundation executive director Sherry Buckler.

“As a result of the Elks’ courage and passion, almost $138,000 has been donated just for this area of our health care.”

The partnership grew out of the Elks’ contributions to the dialysis unit. Back when Prince Albert had no machines, they started funding and buying dialysis machines until, eventually, the unit was full. Funding was then taken over by the province, and the Elks moved on to their next project.

According to Nick Trofimuk, the chairman of Elks and Royal Purple District 2, when it was suggested that the mental health unit be the next area of targeted funding, there was no hesitation from the Elks.

“We had a unanimous decision to support mental health,” he said.

“We didn’t want to quit (funding the hospital) and we were aware that mental health was swept under the rug. No one wanted to talk about it or anything.”

Buckler credits the Elks for being the first group to step up to fund needed improvement to the mental health unit. She also said Wednesday’s unveiling of a playground is about so much more than just a playground.

“This playground for our kids is more a symbol of stigma that is coming to an end,” she said.

“We have the Elks to thank for that. They were the first group that stood up and said ‘we want to help,’ because there really is no health without mental health. (They) wanted to be the first group to do it.”

Tracy Hamilton is the nursing unit manager of the child and youth mental health inpatient unit. During the course of a year, on any given day, about eight kids are staying on the unit. They stay for, on average, eight days. In total, about 525 kids come through the unit each year.

“Our kids come to us in crisis,” she said.

“They often come to us with very, every big problems, worries and concerns, very adult concerns and problems. For our kids to be able to forget those worries for just a moment in time, and to get an opportunity to just be kids, to play and have fun, to help heal their heart and their spirit, is beyond valuable.”

Kids in the unit are treated for every mental illness under the sun, including depression, anxiety, psychosis and suicidal ideation. But when Hamilton talks about adult problems, it’s not the diagnoses she’s talking about.

“They frequently have food insecurities, social insecurities, bullying, they (sometimes) come from unstable home situations, and they very frequently have worries that should be left to the adults. They can’t be kids.”

The young patients are often taking care of their family, or of other younger siblings.

“What the playground means is while they’re here and while they’re playing, they can just focus on leaving those worries and troubles behind for e a few minutes and just be free.”

Hamilton had the opportunity to speak at an Elks event a few weeks ago. She said with everything combined – including the help for both the adult and youth mental health units — it’s impossible to put into words how much of a difference the donations have made.

“They’ve given us money from which we’ve bought things, we’ve bought stuff, but what they’ve really done is let our patients know, show our patients that they’re valuable,” she said, “that they matter.”

Now, despite putting blinds on the windows, frames on the art therapy work and new beds on the mattress, despite providing relaxing outdoor spaces for adults and for youth, there is still much that needs to be done to make those in the mental health unit feel more at home. Just on her list, Hamilton has more equipment for the outdoor space and materials for an art and craft therapeutic area, or a library for kids to have books to read.

“There’s much we can do to work on, to go forward,” she said.

Luckily the Elks are there to help.

“Mental health needs a lot more funding,” Trofimuk said.

“We’re going to stick with mental health.”

But the Elks can’t do it alone, and the group itself is growing ever older. Trofimuk said they would love to add new members to their group. The health region, and the hospital foundation, would likely love to have others chip in to fund the hospital’s greatest needs.

To contact the Victoria Hospital Foundation or to get involved, visit helpthevic.ca or call 306-765-6105. To contact the Elks or the Royal Purple Elks, call 306-764-1260.