The rainbow connection

September 2020

I recently caught up with Cherie Kok, Executive Director of Hospice Northwest. We talked about the challenges and the rewards of these past months while she, her staff, volunteers and clients have had to pivot because of the pandemic. While we were talking, I watched a rainbow form in the sky outside my window.

I interrupted our conversation to go outdoors to take a photo of the moment. To me, that rainbow seemed to signify that when times are tough, we need to look for signs of beauty and hope.

Back indoors, I picked up the telephone to continue my conversation with Cherie. She said that while camping this summer she had witnessed a double rainbow in the sky over Caribou Island. She says these “miracles of nature” seem to tell us that things will be ok. We just have to keep moving forward and maybe, as Hospice Northwest has, learn to adapt to whatever our new “normal” will look like.

Cherie Kok has been Executive Director of Hospice Northwest for 2 years now. It is a volunteer, non-profit organization, dedicated to providing compassionate support and resources to clients and their loved ones. The group started in 1986 as Via Vitae, Thunder Bay Community Palliative Care Volunteers but changed their name to Hospice Northwest. They refer to themselves as a hospice without walls and define hospice as a philosophy of care, rather than a place. They train palliative care volunteers to provide emotional and spiritual support for clients and their families in their homes, hospitals or long-term care facilities. Their services include end-of-life support, grief and caregiver support.

Learning to adapt their service provision back in March when the pandemic hit was important. “We had to pivot,” Cherie said, “because our organization is all about the human touch and being with clients for personal visits. That just wasn’t possible anymore. We realized our volunteers wouldn’t be able to provide connection to their clients in the same way.”

“It is amazing the stories we have heard about volunteers adapting to the needs of their clients,” Cherie added. She told of one volunteer who used to conduct face-to-face visits with her client but had to switch to telephone calls. “This was fine at first, but the volunteer got worried because her client didn’t always answer the phone. It turns out that one time he was in the washroom and couldn’t get to the phone, and another time he was lying down and couldn’t get to the phone in time. The volunteer solved the problem though. She ended up bringing him 3 phones – one for his bedroom, bathroom and kitchen! Now he never misses her call!”

During the last 6 months the organization has seen changes in the demand for their services. They only had one referral for palliative care during this time but their offerings for grief support groups went “through the roof,” as Cherie put it. “We started a new program during Covid called Support-a-Senior to link trained volunteers with seniors in the community over the telephone to compassionately visit.” The seniors who requested the service were not at the end-of-life but were folks who wanted a regular call to chat with someone – and to take a break from watching the depressing and scary news on the TV. This program “filled a gap” by linking folks together and helped both clients and volunteers navigate through a remarkable, challenging time. Over one weekend in April, Hospice Northwest recruited 27 new volunteers for the Support-a-Senior program and switched their existing volunteers to telephone visits. This new, telephone-based program attracted younger people than those who typically volunteer. They saw many young people in Grade 12 and first- and second-year university who wanted to fill their time with something meaningful. One of those young volunteers was Cherie’s daughter, whose picture appeared in the newspaper at the time of her graduation from high school. Her client, reading that paper, saw what her “phone mate” looked like for the first time!

“Having the young people volunteer with us was a good learning experience for both them and their clients,” commented Cherie. “One high school grad, Ally Kortes-Miller wasn’t able to reach her client by phone. She navigated the health care system and found out that her client was in hospital. The hospital helped her continue to talk with her client by phone and when the client moved to St. Joseph’s Care Group for rehabilitation, the connection continued by telephone.” It is stories like this one that have made the Covid time memorable and meaningful for those connected by Hospice Northwest.

At the time of this writing, long-term care facilities were starting to open up for some visitors and Cherie said that her hospice volunteers are lining up to get Covid tests every 2 weeks so they can see their clients and resume the important role of connecting in-person. Eventually in early July, volunteers were able to visit clients who lived in their own homes. There was a screening protocol implemented and Hospice Northwest provided personal protective equipment for volunteers, in order for them to resume their visits.

For Cherie, this time has been especially poignant. Her mother and father were both living in long-term care. On March 9, Cherie took off for a vacation in Cuba and her brother, Jeff, took over the daily visits with their parents who lived across the hall from each other. Just a few days after she arrived back in Thunder Bay on March 17, Cherie’s mother passed away. She feels for all the families and friends who miss visiting their family members in long-term care and applauds the staff who work tirelessly to try and fill those challenging roles of both caregiver and friend.

Hospice Northwest is understandably proud of the important services it provides to the community, but they are also proud of a permanent structure that they have contributed at Boulevard Lake. The Butterfly Memorial Wall is located on the east side of the lake. Local artist Luc Despres designed the butterfly-themed remembrance wall. People are welcome to sit on one of the three benches donated by a local resident who loves butterflies. If you want to remember someone who has passed during these last few months, or someone you lost years ago, you are welcome to tie a ribbon of remembrance on the wall. Engraved on the benches are the following words: Love. Compassion. Remember. These words aptly describe the reality of living in the time of Covid and give us strength, like those at Hospice Northwest, to face whatever comes next. We could all use more rainbows, butterflies and friends.

Nancy Angus is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Bayview. Contact her at

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