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VIDEO: Program for brain injury survivors feeds souls at B.C. rec centre

Saanich, Cridge Centre partnership fully led and staffed by survivors of brain injury

A couple of people record a podcast against the back wall.

Comfy chairs surrounding a low table quickly fill up while a quiet card game breaks out at an adjacent table.

Each person enjoys a beverage and snack.

As midday nears, the stack of fresh muffins and brownies dwindles and sandwiches start rolling out of the kitchen.

A pleasant buzz fills the Cedar Hill Recreation Centre, one that was missing for a while.

With Victoria Foundation funding, the Second Chance Cafe quietly reopened last month, but clearly it wasn’t quiet long.

The room packed with smiles is the greatest reward for head baker Toni King.

“It gives me chills just thinking about it, sharing what I’m feeling inside with other people,” she said.

King is clearly all about sharing laughter, even on serious subjects she sees the lighter side – and she’s seen some serious stuff.

In 2015 King woke with “the worst headache ever.” It turned out to be a brain stem aneurysm that robbed her of four months of her life – among other things. She doesn’t remember it, but had actually called 911 herself.

After an emergency flight to Vancouver and several surgeries, King returned to Victoria General Hospital for a few months before waking.

Time was just one thing the injury took.

“I actually became a statistic,” King said. She could no longer work as an operating room technician, and ended up separated from her wife – winding up alone in a new place.

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Then someone from Brain Injury Services at The Cridge Centre for the Family came along.

“They’ve given all the support I needed to get back on my feet. It has been life-changing for me. I could just be sitting on the couch withering away to nothing,” King said. “As soon as I got into the Cridge program it gave me direction and purpose and here I am living every minute of it.”

Among the support was a cooking course that spurred her latest career – with baking at the cafe just her most recent role. Feeding people makes her happy.

Geoff Sing, manager of brain injury programs for the Cridge, boasts the cafe has the best baked goods and wonderful social setting. The program assists about 80 brain injury survivors across Greater Victoria, he said.

“Our role is working ourselves out of a job,” said Sing, also a survivor. “If we invest in survivors early we’re going to have better outcomes.”

In a partnership between the District of Saanich and The Cridge Centre for the Family, The Second Chance Cafe is fully led and staffed by survivors of brain injury.

Statistics show survivors of brain injury are more likely to experience homelessness, poverty and addiction, so programs providing job training, employment, and fulfillment are crucial.

The cafe offers an opportunity to retrain and develop skills, explained employer development coordinator Bryan Rowley.

“The idea is that they’re moving along a spectrum from a place of not working, to a place of starting out here getting their juices flowing, getting their work muscles flexed and then moving on to other things. That’s the end goal,” Rowley said.

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Having the business at a municipally-owned community centre also opens the wider community to opportunities for engagement, interaction and understanding.

Opening an eatery – and creating a partnership between district and non-profit – involves some heavy lifting. Knowing the potential kept Sing and Saanich’s Deanna Roch on the task developing hours, menus and roles.

“They’re putting people back into the community that are survivors of brain injury. Their life is literally turned upside down. I sit there as a human being and couldn’t even imagine. But I also sit there as a mother and that was the piece for me for some of the stories,” said Roch, privy to some of the stories shared through the course of developing the cafe. “Sometimes you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time that’s all it is, and you have a life-changing experience. … This gives people the opportunity to be a part of something and contributing to society”

A 19-year Saanich employee, Roch took a posting at the Cedar Hill centre almost exactly a year ago. Immediately her goal was to return foods service to the centre, but how it might be done differently.

“I have programmed preschool, I’ve run swimming pools, weight rooms, you name it. But I have never operated a kitchen,” said Roch, who did lean a little on her husband, a chef in his previous career.

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Geoff Sing, manager of brain injury programs with Victoria’s Cridge Centre, serves up a muffin at the Second Chance Cafe at the Cedar Hill Rec Centre in Saanich. (Christine van Reeuwyk/News Staff)

The endeavour was worth the extra effort. Raised in a family where sitting down for dinner was mandatory – the community centre connection appeared evident.

“In the community everybody has to eat, you sit down and break bread, it’s the heart of the community. To me, the recreation centres are the heart of the community … we’re able to nurture it in a different way,” she said.

The shared vision is coming to fruition.

Instead of popping in and running off again, or a hurried conversation in a parking lot, folks are following class with a visit. Others are planning it. And while patrons are learning a bit about the brain injury survivors, programs and the Cridge Centre, they’re also finding themselves.

For example, Roch recently ran into a woman snapping a picture of the menu.

Naturally, she naturally engaged the woman in conversation and learned she was rushing off to get her aging husband to his appointments. Inspired by the cafe to take the time to “sit with the girls,” the woman had snapped the photo as a reminder to start scheduling in time for herself.

“She’s really lucky that she does have that community around her,” Roch said.

Sounds like the kind of story that might give the head baker the shivers.

The grand opening of the Second Chance Cafe at Cedar Hill Recreation Centre is Dec. 1 at 10 a.m.

Learn more about the Cridge Brain Injury Services at cridge.org.