When life hands you lemons, make lemonade, says the popular saying. Allan De Genova, founder and president of the Honour House Society, is a lemonade-maker par excellence, a fact which becomes apparent when he speaks about the way in which COVID-19 has affected the Honour Ranch near Ashcroft.
The Ranch—located off Highway 97C 12 km southeast of Ashcroft—is operated by the society, which established Honour House in New Westminster in 2010. The House has provided more than 10,000 nights of free accommodation for uniformed personnel and their families while they receive medical care in the Lower Mainland.
The Ranch sits on 120 tranquil and secluded acres, and was envisioned as a place that would provide a peaceful space, facilities, and support for members of the armed forces, police officers, firefighters, ambulance paramedics, and other first responders to learn healthy strategies to cope with operational stress injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Volunteers worked tirelessly through 2019 to renovate and repair the site, which includes a main lodge and 10 cabins, and an official opening took place on Oct. 5, 2019.
The plan was for the facility to start being used in spring 2020, as much more work needed to be done in order to make it operational all year round. The society would run the Ranch, and guests would stay in the cabins, with mental health organizations, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and other professionals invited to set up and run the programs needed to provide support for those suffering from PTSD and other occupational stress injuries, as well as their families.
“We were ready to go in the spring [of 2020],” says De Genova. “We were trying to get programming in place. The plan was to work with agencies offering programs, because we don’t run them; we offer the facility at no charge.
“There’s no one size fits all program. There’s one-on-one counselling, and peer group counselling. We have a farm and an equine program ready to kick off. The agencies came up to look at the facility, then went away to look at their plans.
“And then COVID-19 came in.”
It meant plans for opening had to be delayed, which is where the lemonade comes in. De Genova says they knew they had a lot more to do in order to make the site a year-round facility, so with the Ranch unable to open as planned, the plans changed.
“The only positive thing that came out of that was that COVID-19 helped, over the last six months, to get us ready to operate all year round. PTSD doesn’t take down time — it doesn’t go away — but it gave us that time down, and we’ve been able to get all that work done, so we’re up and ready to go anytime.”
He says that it was a mammoth task to locate all the water lines on the property, then do the work necessary to make them able to withstand winter and temperatures well below freezing for weeks at a time.
“The water lines were in place but they were only two or three feet down, because they were never designed for winter use. We had to find where the old stuff was, dig it up, re-route it, and put it back deeper because of frost. Six feet down is a long way to dig. It was a mammoth task and we just finished a couple of weeks ago.”
Work needed to be done on the sewer and electricity systems; more fencing needed to be put in place and barbed wire needed to be strung (“A colossal job,” says De Genova); capacity on the water storage tanks needed to be increased; pipes had to be wrapped and doors sealed so that heat wasn’t lost; and trees interfering with the electrical lines had to be taken down and bucked, with the stumps removed.
“We put the message out [about needing volunteers], and it resonated with a lot of people,” says De Genova. “Calls came in, and people told other people. The amount of volunteer workers we had was amazing. Many people were working 12-hour days and spending a week to 10 days there at a time right through the summer. There were people from the RCMP, Canadian Armed Forces, ambulance paramedics, Dragon boat teams, retired Vancouver police officers, and local volunteers.
“The commitment was unbelievable. It was a challenging time, because we masked up and had to wear personal protective equipment on hot days. It was almost unbearable wearing masks with shovelling, digging, pounding posts. We went through a lot of water.
“People really came together. They helped out and donated. It was very magical how it all came together and people were driven through the cold nights and hot, hot days.”
De Genova reckons that the Ranch lost eight to nine months in terms of offering programs due to COVID-19, but says they will benefit long-term because now they won’t have to close down the Ranch while programs could be running. “When the snow and the deep cold hit, we don’t have to shut down and winterize. The plan was always to eventually get to operating year-round, but it came down to cost, and there were so many things to do.
“Now, magically, it’s got done, and it feels really good.”
If COVID-19 carries on, De Genova says they’re ready, with hand sanitizers in place in every bathroom, masks, and everything designed to make people feel safe. “We have a lot of processes and programs in place for distancing, and we’re ready to get programming going.”
The first program will take place before Christmas, when the BC Fire Chiefs host one at the site, and it will act as a test to make sure everything runs smoothly. De Genova acknowledges that the pandemic has added a layer of stress for people needing what Honour Ranch can provide.
“It takes it to another level. People are worried about their families, and we don’t want people to feel anxious about their own issues with another layer added by COVID-19. We need to make sure we have protocols so no one is worried while they’re here about how people are monitored and checked, how things are cleaned. The BC Fire Chiefs will be a dry run. We’re dealing with frontline responders, so we really need to lay out those protocols as part of the first run.”
De Genova says that the need for volunteers will continue as the Ranch begins day-to-day operations.
“We need cleaners to help maintain the inside of the lodge, do sweeping and salt the paths in winter, wipe down when guests leave; basic maintenance stuff. We have a full laundry facility, and people can help out with that, and we need people to prep food, or pick up and deliver food. If you have two hours a week, or two or three hours on a Saturday, we can find something for you. We have snowblowers and ploughs and need someone to operate them, or do weed whacking in summer.”
The Ranch has been using local sources for food through the summer, and plans to continue.
“Various agencies will be using the site, so they’ll contact us and say “We’re coming up for X number of days; who can we call for food, etc.?’ and we’ll refer them to people in the community and work a lot with locals.”
Plans for an equine program and a farming program are now being worked on. The latter is part of the Ranch’s agreement with the Agricultural Land Commission, while the former will be run with the assistance of the Sundance Guest Ranch.
“Farming will be everything from doing haying to raised vegetable beds and growing everything from beets to potatoes to carrots; basic staples that we can use here or freeze. As part of the therapy we’ll have people help with this, and those interactions and peer group work will help people as part of the program. We’re looking for local ranchers who can give us their advice and expertise.”
De Genova says that volunteers are crucial to help the Ranch function. “People are still reaching out to us. They’re happy to clean, or cook, or wash when the clinics are running. It takes an entire village to run something like this.”
Anyone who would like to volunteer at Honour Ranch, or learn more, can contact Craig Longstaff, general manager of the Honour House Society, at firstname.lastname@example.org.