Kathy Tretiak’s first experience with the handicapped took place when she participated in volunteer work while attending high school. She could not have known that, in time, she would have a significant impact on their quality of life as the Director of Residential Services for the Association.
Kathy started as a group home worker in 1981. She has attained her current position through years of experience, with a great deal of time and effort put into training. She has taken advantage of the many opportunities for growth and advancement available through the Association.
When Kathy started her career in the 1980s, the organization was known solely as the Association for the Mentally Handicapped. When the name change to Signature Support Services was proposed, Kathy opposed the idea for a very long time. “People who need our service need to be able to find us.” She does not regard the inclusion of the word “handicapped” as labeling. “It’s just a name, just a word. The current acceptable terminology” changes frequently.”
People are always focused on ‘what is the name is going to be?’ You should be working on what is it that you’re doing. And are you providing a quality service and are you doing right by the people that you are working with? That’s the goal, that’s the point.
Staff is continually challenged with issues surrounding morals and client safety. Kathy finds it a constant juggling act to keep personal beliefs aside from those held by the clients. She says the goal of the job is not to impose personal values on the clients but to walk beside them in their choices and notes that a balance between nurturing and support of the clients is critical to providing them a good quality of life.
People will do what it is that they want to do and our job is to walk beside them and support them in that. And sometimes they go on a path that, either morally, or our values don’t want to go there but we need to go with them. We need to walk beside them. Staff are continually challenged with all kinds of issues like that.
Going through the grieving process and the funeral process for clients who pass away is one of the more difficult aspects of the work. Many different reactions from family, guardians, staff and clients are encountered in that situation. The best situation occurs when staff is accepted into the grieving process with the family so that the client is honoured from all sides as a loved one. It is difficult for staff when families take over and discount their feelings regarding the close relationships they have formed with clients.
One of the major changes Kathy remembers is the introduction of the Personal Planning process, which served to give the work with clients more of a focus. She regards it as a very positive alternative to the way clients were cared for before the 1980s.
Personal Planning is a way to cement history and keep a record for the clients who do not have family and/or friends. Many of the people in service depend on the Association for their life experiences. Because their lives are lived within the boundaries of the Association, it is the responsibility of the organization to keep a record for them, whether they will ever want or need it.
Including input from many sources gives an expanded picture of the client and is particularly useful in the case of clients who are non-verbal. Kathy says it is fascinating to learn more about who they are. The process opens the door for better relationships between clients, families and the people who work with them. “It’s a more holistic approach.”
In her twenty-five years with the Association, Kathy has formed many close relationships with clients and gathered many memorable experiences along the way.
There are events and people in our lives that touch us so deeply that we never forget the imprint they have left with us. It was the summer of 1985, and my 26th birthday was quickly approaching. I had been working for the Association for the Mentally Handicapped for four and a half years. A co-worker and I had been chosen to accompany a group of individuals on a houseboat vacation in the Shuswap. Joey and I were excited to have the opportunity. We worked together and liked each other. Both of us had grown up in small towns on a lake and spent many a childhood day in water. Although houseboats were not part of our recreational time in those days, we had spent countless hours on motorboats enjoying the distances and new horizons they provided. It was with that sense of adventure that we departed Grande Prairie in the agency van with seven of the people we worked with. Stephen had never been on any type of boat before and was anxious to test it out. Zelda and Penny came from large, loving families and reminisced of times spent at the lake. They looked forward to the relaxing, sun filled days ahead.
After two days of travel, we arrived at the lake and all but trampled each other as we clambered out of the van. There in front of us, larger than life was the houseboat beckoning us. I can still feel the air of excitement. The next few days were almost blissful. We travelled around the lake, stopping to swim or to explore the vast number of beaches. We played cards and games, sunbathed and enjoyed the fact that there was no rush. I’m sure laughter could be heard across the lake one evening as we took turns wearing the Captains hat and posed for pictures at the wheel. Everyone got along well, and it was proving to be the ideal holiday.
On the morning of my birthday, we awoke to a gloriously warm and sunny day. By noon, the temperature had risen to what turned out to be the hottest day of the trip. We all decided that this was the day to try our hand at fishing. While I enjoyed eating the bounty from such an expedition as a child, I had never been at the business end of catching fish. I have a picture that was taken on that day that still makes me laugh. I’m standing on the dock, my eyes squinting from the sun’s reflection on the water, nearly blinding in its strength. I’m holding a fish at arms length dangling at the end of the fishing line. The look on my face captures my feelings incredibly well. I’ve caught the fish but really don’t want to do the next steps necessary to bring it to its final stage that will see it sitting on the dinner table, garnished with lemon. Joey was insistent that I experience this process, and along with some of the others, I was coached as to what to do next. My total reluctance is captured on film to remain for all time. Revelling in our fun, we didn’t hear the radio broadcast that a severe storm warning had been issued for later that evening.
Having caught enough fish for an excellent meal, we docked the boat in a small inlet and secured it with ropes to the trees on the beach. Joey showed me the package she had been hiding in the back of the fridge, and I was touched to see she had bought a Black Forrest cake in honour of my birthday. The mood was festive as we laughed and talked companionably about the successes of our day. Stephen took pleasure in teasing me about my newfound skills. Adorned with candles, the cake sat on the counter, alongside a bottle of sparkling apple juice. The boat began rocking, and at first, as if unwilling to be drawn from our celebration, we thought little of it. Someone commented that perhaps a large boat had passed us too quickly, and the rocking was a result of the wake left in its trail. We couldn’t ignore the clap of thunder that followed shortly after, however, and looked outside. Black billowing clouds filled the sky, blocking out the sunshine we’d been enjoying all day. A slight tension could be felt as Joey and I began to close the windows and doors to keep the rain from coming inside. The boat started rocking fairly consistently, and as I leaned over the bench to close the window, I saw that the landscape had changed.
Peggy looked very worried and about to cry. I talked gently to her as I made my way to the life jackets and began handing them out. There was a state of both confusion and calm that ensued, and it seemed so surreal. The cupboards and drawers began popping open, spilling their contents, first a few things from the left side, then the right. As the boat pitched in increasing intensity, more and more spilled out. Water began flowing in the back door and mixing with the clothing, food and kitchenware, and the sound of the cupboards banging open and closed intensified. Some of our crew began screaming or crying, while others had a quizzical look on their faces, unsure of what was happening. Once everyone was secure in their life jackets, I made my way to the back deck. Joey had decided that she needed to try and re-tie the boat and had jumped into the water. I called to her to let go of the rope and come back to the boat but couldn’t even hear my own voice over the wind. I watched as she let go of the rope as we drifted away from her. I was worried for her safety but could do nothing for her. Saying a silent prayer, I closed the back door and picked my way back through to the front of the boat and tried to reassure everyone.
We continued to pitch, moving down the lake when the boat suddenly stopped. We later discovered that it had come up against a grouping of rocks about 20 feet from the shore. The boat had wedged into the rocks in such a way that it held us tight. After a time, Joey came stumbling out of the bush. Thankfully, she had made her way out of the water and down the lake to us. The storm continued to rage, and not knowing if the boat would hold or for how long, we decided it would be safer to be on dry land. One by one, we helped people down into the water and led them to the beach. Zelda had difficulty with mobility and weighed only about 90 pounds soaking wet (in this case that’s literal) so we carried her to shore.
Offset in the woods not far from where we were was a cabin. We tried all the doors and windows and made some attempts to break in. Looking at it now, even with all we’d been through, we didn’t try very hard because breaking into anything was such a foreign concept to us! We settled for the porch, which was screened in. The shelter kept at least the rain and the bugs away. The adrenalin having subsided somewhat, Joey started going into shock. She was wearing jeans and a heavy sweatshirt and was soaking wet. The temperature had dropped drastically, and I was concerned she would become hypothermic. Joey is a very prim and proper lady, and the idea of removing her wet clothes in a bid to help her body temperature was a struggle. Her state of shock and my increasing fear and determination had her taking off at least the top layers. We placed her between two people and were successful in raising her body temperature.
Nine of us spent the night sleeping shoulder to shoulder on that 8X10 porch. The storm passed, and the next day, we returned to the boat in much the same fashion we had left it the night before. Our pre-holiday eagerness returned, but this time, it retreated to the safety and comfort of our van! Humour still found its way into our lives as we moved across the now calm lake. The birthday cake, unwillingly abandoned the night before still sat perched on the countertop. The bottle of sparkling apple juice had tipped over and fallen smack into the middle of the cake. We laughed at how not many hours before, we had looked at that cake in a whole different way.
Today, Joey and I are still friends. Peggy and Laura have since passed on. Stephen and I continue to share a laugh and a moment of understanding whenever we see each other. He always has an endearing quirky smile when he speaks of it. Again just recently, Zelda talked about the things flying out of the cupboards. Regardless of where we are, the nine of us are bound together with our shared experience and memories of that holiday and my twenty-sixth birthday.