The Family on 20A

Family on 20

Gigi, the Program Manager at 20A, sits between Ariis and Todd. She’s holding her arms around theirs, releasing them only to gently stroke their hand as they reach out for her rewarding touch.

Gigi manages a house that is home to people with special needs. I first met Gigi and her household when I toured all the programs as part of my orientation last July. At the time, she gave me an open invitation to visit whenever I wanted.

This is what I’m doing on this sunny Thursday morning. I’m at the home on 20A Avenue in Surrey, having coffee and cake at the kitchen table surrounded by her team of care givers: Darshan Gosal, Barbara Vanderheide, Pam Gandham and Pamela Grier and the people they support: Ariis, Todd, Suzanne and Amy. Nichol is away today; she participates in programs at The Treehouse from Monday to Friday.

The residents give me the permission to tour their bedrooms. Each room is unique and reflects the personality, tastes, and preferences of its mate. The entire house is squeaky clean, bright, and cheerfully decorated. The kitchen is big and inviting; it’s a place I want to hang out.

Back around the kitchen table, we’re having a great visit, the ten of us; each conversing in our own style. We talk about the favorite activities of the people who reside in the household and the subtle ways in which they communicate. We also talk about the staff, what it takes to support the individuals and the fun they have together.

As I look her way, Ariis gives me with a big smile and lets me know that she’s happy to have me in her home. She’s outgoing and laughs easily. She’s well dressed with a touch of make-up and polish on her nails. She beams at the compliment when I tell her how pretty she is. The staff recount found memories of participating in her favourite activities. She enjoys swimming, shopping, sailing, watching movies and being around people. Ariis looks at them with a big grin and concurs that they are on track.

Todd is quietly clutching his Scooby Doo friend. He looks sparkling in his outfit that he selected this morning. He’s wearing matching orange coloured t-shirt and socks and a pair of kakis. Todd has a vast collection of anything Scooby Doo that he displays on his dresser. Pam tells me that he also enjoys bowling and that his face lights up when he takes down the pins with his ball. Todd is able to bowl because he is accommodated with a special lane extension that reaches to his lap.

Ariis and Todd are good friends. Every morning after they make their way to the kitchen, Ariis gives Todd a big hug by extending her arm to touch him. They both like watching television together in their spare time.

Family on 20_2

Suzanne is more introverted and prefers to be alone. That being said, she likes to hold hands. I notice that she’s assumed the position with Barbara who’s sitting next to her. Suzanne is blind and the hand contact connects her with others. Suzie, as members of the staff affectionately call her, is 65 years old. I remark that she looks 20 years younger and ask her, “What’s your secret, you look so young?” She perks up and opens her eyes proudly toward me. Perhaps, it’s the dance that she enjoys to attend at Semiahmoo House Society.

Amy wasn’t there when I showed up; she arrived a little later. Amy doesn’t live in the house, but she comes to attend the one-to-one day program with Pamela three times a week and to visit her friend, Ariis. Her trade mark is the one thick braid of dark brown hair that she proudly wears close to the left side of her face.

Ariis, Suzie, Todd and Amy have multiple disabilities and many health issues. They do not use verbal language and they access mobility in wheelchairs. Except for Suzie, they take their nutrition through a tube.

Family on 20_1

I ask: “What personal qualities are important for someone working in the home?” Barbara turns to me and thoughtfully says: “It takes sensitivity and patience. And it’s really important to pay attention to the subtle communication cues.”

The staff members are able to communicate with the residents because they know them so well. In fact, when Todd first arrived at the house 7 months ago, he was totally non-communicative. With the persistence of the staff in engaging him, he now communicates without using words.

Gigi and her team continually learn the preferences of each person for whom they care. They respect their individuality and give them choices. For example, the individuals choose what they wear on any given day and they get to participate in the activities they like. I take note at how amazingly caring Gigi and her team are.

Pam credits team work for the quality of care they provide. The team members are obviously close. They really appreciate each other and, to preserve that, they deal with their interpersonal difficulties quickly. They evidence their affection and respect for Gigi by saying: “Even though she’s the manager, Gigi works very hard alongside of us. She’s a great leader”. Darshan surprises me a little when she adds: “We love our jobs. We can’t wait to get to work. It’s like home.”

The house also provides palliative care, as residents reach the end of their lives. Because of that and the complexities of the health issues in the household, staff members have had to acquire an array of technical and interpersonal skills. “We’re very proud of what we know and what we do”, Pam says. It’s a big responsibility to be a care giver. “We have to administer medicine carefully, maintain a daily routine and keep up with many medical appointments in order to maximize the health of the individuals”, mentions Gigi.

I’m looking at the clock and I’ve been here for an hour already. It’s time for me to get back to work and let these folks go about their day. As we close our visit and walk together toward my car, Gigi confesses: “We don’t feel sorry for them. That’s their lives. We give them their lives and we love them.” Conversely, she says: “We suffer a lot when someone passes away. But, we remain strong to support the living.”
“Come back anytime, Louise.”

“I will for sure, Gigi, bye for now.”

By Louise Tremblay, The Semiahmoo Foundation

Semiahmoo House Society, a non-profit organization located in Surrey/White Rock, exists to provide quality services and supports to people with disabilities and their families in the community. 

The Semiahmoo Foundation, located in Surrey/White Rock, exists to fund, support and enhance the programs and services delivered by Semiahmoo House Society.

The Family on 20th Avenue


A great family lives at 20th Avenue, a group home operated by Semiahmoo House Society. It’s the place where Donna, Gary, Ron, Terri and Sadie call home. It’s also the place where Barb, Christina, Kathy, Kuldeep, Lori, Raniel, Sarin, Leona, and Susan, the members of the staff, call their second home.

It’s 3:30 on a clear cool Thursday afternoon early in January. Christina takes me to the great room and offers me tea and cookies. She’s very hospitable.

The kitchen is warm and the air is infused with the cooking fumes from the meal that Barb is cooking. On the menu tonight are pork chops, brown rice and a mixture of vegetables. “We make sure that they get a good balanced meal with plenty of vegetables”, says Barb.

There is another lady named Barb at the house, Barbara Coad, the Program Manager. Barbara has a busy schedule; she manages another group home as well. She has been with Semiahmoo House Society for 14 years, but she has been at 20th Avenue for just over a year. “We have an incredible staff team here”, she says. “Everyone is so nice—too nice—and so warm. They know what they’re doing and they get along well. You don’t get this kind of harmony everywhere.”

Donna is quietly sitting in her comfy chair. The others have gone to the dance and choir that is held at The Treehouse every Thursday, but her interests lay in other areas. Donna enjoys quiet activities like going to the park, the beach, for tea and to her favourite restaurants. She has the greatest smile and shows it when she’s out for lunch. Barbara credits the staff for creating a trusting and secure environment for Donna over the years, allowing her to express what she likes to do.

Donna and Christina

Gary gets out of his room full of energy. As he approaches the group, he recites lyrics of his favourite songs and attempts to engage the staff in signing in unison. As he does that, he taps people on the shoulder or points toward them as their cue to sign. He has an amazing memory for song lyrics ranging from Sesame Street to the Beatles and Anne Murray. He can carry a tune too.

Christina helps Ron sit in his swivel chair which allows him to turn 360 degrees and keep track of everyone in the great room. He’s handsome and charming as he acknowledges the ladies in the room. “He’s a big flirt”, muses Barbara. Then, he turns his chair toward the television to watch the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Ron also enjoys watching sports. He likes going out to eat sushi and spicy food. He looks forward to the dance and choir on Thursdays, looking out for Gary through the crowd.

Ron and Barb 2

Terri and Kathy return from a shopping trip. Terri is holding a shopping bag and she can’t wait to show us her new outfit. “She wants to look good for the New Year celebration at the Pink Palace next week”, explains Kathy. Terri proudly pulls out a feminine flowing pink top that she plans to wear over beautiful new black pants with glitter strategically placed on the pockets. She also has a delicate black sweater to complete the outfit. She will look fabulous!

As the family is talking fashion, I’m told the big debate is whether or not Donna should wear her hair up for the event. Christina said: “It probably won’t matter, as she will pull out all the barrettes at some point.”

As we speak, Gary goes to the counter and makes himself a cup of coffee. He’s probably not too interested in the topic of girly fashion. “Gary is a pretty cool guy who likes to say cool guy things”, observes Barbara.

Sadie is the canine member of the family. She came with Terri 5 years ago. Shortly after her arrival, Sadie had an accident and injured her leg. Understanding the importance of Sadie to Terri and the rest of the family, Semiahmoo House Society accessed some funds to provide for the care that the canine friend needed. She has fully recovered. Sadie is like any other members of the family. She has her own care plan and binder to make sure that her health is optimal.

Terri and Sadie

It’s dinner time, but before leaving I ask the residents and staff if I can shoot a few pictures. Except for Gary, everyone is posing. Gary has declined to have his picture taken, a decision that we all respect.

At the end, all the staff nods when Barb says: “We treat them like family. They are our brothers, sisters, daughters and sons.” Barbara adds: “Some of them have a great extended family. But for the others, we are the family connection they have: the people who care about them. We love them!”

As I leave, I think to myself: “Here’s another amazing household in the Semi family.” The residents with the support of the staff get to be part of a nucleus family, do the things they enjoy and live their lives.

By Louise Tremblay, The Semiahmoo Foundation