The Grey Nuns have been involved in charity work for more than 275 years, setting up hospitals and learning facilities to help the poor and mentally ill. They were founded by Marguerite d’Youville in 1738 in Montreal. In 1844 a branch of the french nuns settled in Saint Boniface on the banks of the Red River.
Fast forward to 1974, when one of the nuns, Sister Jean Ell was working in the Psychiatry Department at the St. Boniface hospital (at one time the hospital was owned by the Grey Nuns). She noticed that many people suffering mental illness who they would treat at the hospital were part of the revolving door syndrome. These patients would be stabilized at the hospital, then released to deal with their issues on their own. Unable to maintain a state of wellness, they would be readmitted again and again.
In 1977, the Board of Directors at the hospital approached Sister Jean to address this phenomenon. Shortly thereafter, Sara Riel Inc. was born. The name came from a local Metis girl, Sara Riel who, along with her brother, Louis, attended the Grey Nuns School. At the age of eighteen, the young woman joined the congregation and became a teacher herself.
Since then, clients have been receiving housing support, rehabilitation, and employment counselling that they require to facilitate a successful transition into the community. Other services the facility provides are life skills development and support counselling, case management, non-denominational spiritual care (started in 1993), and cultural and community integration, leisure planning assistance and recreation, assistance with medication management and crisis support.
Executive Director Diane Lau, who has been with Sara Riel Inc. for the last five years, has recently initiated an art therapy program. Her and her staff of 30 now have 300 clients who they help. They also own two apartment blocks where some of the clients reside and gain their independence.
On Tuesday Apr. 22, the art program was launched. Every Tuesday and Friday between 3-5pm, residents and clients at 66 Moore Avenue in St. Vital are offered art workshops. Many organizations have generously donated some start up supplies. I visited them on their opening day, where local (and very talented) artist Yuri Andrejowich was instructing a small group in pastel art. Not long ago, Andrejowich took part in a resume writing workshop through Sara Riel and when one of the counsellors asked him what he would really like to do, he replied, “Teach art.” So when this art project came up they asked if he would like to facilitate and he obliged.
Craig Bachynsky, 34, who has been on disability for 6 years and who is being supported by Sara Riel Inc. while living in a community based apartment facility with his 14-year-old son, was busy doing an amazing sketch of Batman. Despite his struggles in life, such as a severe back injury in 1997 and a long custody battle for his son, Bachynsky finds solace in making art.
“I’ve been doing art for as long as I can remember, being inspired by my father’s huge action hero comic collection,” Bachynsky said.
He also does sculpting, carving, woodworking and clay work. He shared a wonderful poem with me called, ‘Fight’, which tells his story of struggle.
Bachynsky likes to keep physically fit. “I like to work out, not only my body but my mind,” he said.
On the other side of the large room, Renata Bursten was sharing with a group of people the ancient Japanese art of Kumihimo (multi-strand rope-braiding). The technique was developed in the 13th century and was used primarily for lacing up samurai warrior armour. There weren’t any Samurai warriors hanging around waiting for their armour to be repaired but some pretty nice and colourful ropes were being created.
The group was doing 8-strand ropes while Bursten was working on a thicker, more complex 16-strand rope. There was a nice atmosphere in the room and pleasant conversation, with cookies being shared amongst the participants. I even tried my hand at rope braiding and I must say it was a very relaxing and enjoyable activity. Different types of art workshops will be offered each week.