Doors Are Open

Paul Wheeler Photo

I am deeply honoured to support the nomination of Semiahmoo House Society in the Social Innovator category for its Chorus development project, specifically for the assessment criterion entitled Challenges.

To complete the recently opened Chorus Project, Semiahmoo House Society (SHS) faced and surmounted a great many interesting and, occasionally, very difficult challenges. I will highlight key challenges that were overcome.

The first, and most important, challenge that was faced and met was the desires and dreams of people, specifically people who live with cognitive disabilities, and their families. Here’s the challenge they presented. Until the early 2000’s options for residential support for people with cognitive challenges in British Columbia were either in group homes or remaining living with aging parents. The Society realized the extremely expensive and restrictive group home model of support was simply unsustainable and that ageing parents could not indefinitely be a residential answer. SHS needed to learn what the appropriate long term solutions were. As it always does in these circumstances, SHS determined that, while learning from other experts, it would need primarily to get answers from those whose lives were affected, the individuals and their families. To this end SHS gathered 40 individuals with cognitive disabilities and their families. Using trained facilitators, the Society learned that the preference of 39 families and, separately, 39 individuals was for the individuals to live in their own apartments, close to the day programs they needed and with life skills support coming to them as needed. An ongoing consultative process continued to reveal that this was the goal the individuals and families wanted the Society to meet. Now, that was a challenge.

Why was this desire/dream such a challenge? Why was it the most important one? The answer to the latter question is found in the reality that SHS only exists to support the needs, dreams, desires of people with disabilities and their families in the community. Thus, when the people revealed what they wanted it became the mission of SHS to bring it about. Why was this “mission” such a challenge? In 2003/4 when the Society decided to stand with the people and take on their mission, there were, at least in Surrey and White Rock, no allies, no funding, no precedents, no zoning or municipal support. If the Society was going to be the champion that supported these citizens to live in their own communities, in residences of their choice, then it would have to start alone and create the answers. That is exactly what Semiahmoo House Society did. Chorus opened in the fall of 2016 and over twenty of those original 40 people now have a home of their choosing in their community.

Compared to that most important challenge all the rest were secondary. Each challenge that followed was about pushing on doors and waiting for some to open. Semiahmoo House Society has:

  • Built partnerships with government agencies
    • Community Living BC – to work with individuals/families and provide some funding
    • BC Housing – to plan together, obtain some funding
    • City of Surrey – for zoning and planning support
  • Built partnerships with financial institutions such as Vancouver Community Credit Union and the Vancouver Foundation
  • Obtained land to build on – converting old assets in new more appropriate assets
  • Found, learned from, and consulted with experts in community development
  • Worked with local politicians to build a willingness and legal framework to build this specialized project
  • Put together funding to build this integrated rental housing program – no small feat considering that all developers consulted claimed it was not financially possible to build a rental building that could support itself – SHS has done it.
  • And on, and on, and on.

The challenges have been 13 years long. Many times, there have been total road blocks and the Society quietly persevered believing that it had a mission in it’s commitment to people who needed a place to live in their own community, near their own friends and families.

Many secondary challenges, one true challenge, all overcome through perseverance, hard work, community building and faithfulness to their constituents and their community. That’s why Semiahmoo House Society deserves this “social innovator” award for which I’m pleased to nominate them.

By Paul Wheeler, B.S.W., M.Div.

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