The Fidelis House Story
Visiting a hospital can mean a stay far from friends and family, and the comforts of home. For those seeking outpatient care, the long-distance travel is difficult. For visiting friends and family, the options for accommodations are costly and limited. Added to illness, these extra burdens pile up. Situated on the grounds of the hospital in Kentville, Fidelis House has been offering a welcoming ‘home away from home’ for patients and their visitors since 1992. Staffed around the clock by dedicated volunteers, and funded exclusively through donations, guests are only asked to contribute $20 a night towards their stay. In the past year alone Fidelis House has welcomed over 4000 overnight visitors, with most arriving from western Nova Scotia area as well as some from other provinces and even other countries. For twenty-five years, Fidelis House has helped keep friends and family and the comforts of home close by.
Nova Scotian hospitality: Supper at the kitchen table, the company of friends and family, a cozy place to spend the night. It’s no secret that we excel at welcoming our visitors. While plenty of tourists make their way here for pleasure, there’s also a steady stream of Nova Scotians regularly travelling across the province each year to access medical services. Fidelis House is making those trips more comfortable and affordable for patients of the Valley Regional Hospital.
The bonds of friendship have always been a driving force behind Fidelis House. When Gertrude Morse met Shirley Cameron in the mid 1970s she felt an immediate bond, as though they’d known each other forever. Although Shirley had grown up in Yarmouth and spent time living in Boston and hosting a talk show in Moncton, and Gertrude hailed from Holland by way of Manitoba, they quickly became good friends. In 1981, Shirley was diagnosed with myeloblastic leukemia and chemotherapy treatments took her to Halifax for extended periods of time. Being far away from her friends and family weighed heavily on her and she started to dream up a project: a place for hospital visitors, not a motel or a hospital cot, but a real home-like environment, somewhere comfortable and accessible — bedrooms just like at home, a proper kitchen table to share a real meal around, a living room where visitors might chat into the evening hours, sharing their common experience. She called the idea the Fidelis House Project, named for her mother Fidelis Cameron and the Latin root of the name, meaning ‘faithful’. She knew it wasn’t a small idea and that it would require the support of her entire community around her. “I’m not asking for little things,” Shirley once said, “I’m asking for big things.”
A COMMUNITY PROJECT
Eventually, knowing that she wouldn’t survive to see the project realized, Shirley enlisted everyone she could to get involved with the Fidelis House project. Gertrude Morse and over twenty-five community members formed the initial organizational team. One of Shirley’s only speaking engagements on behalf of the Fidelis House resulted in the most significant long-standing community partnership of the project. On an early September evening before her death in November of that year, she spoke to the Kentville Lions Club, asking them to help with the project. Eventually, the Kentville Lions Club sponsored the project, helped to create the first Board of Directors, and significantly aided in the fundraising efforts. Though Shirley passed away in 1988 before her dream was realized, the community had been sparked by her passion and the project continued under her good friend Gertrude’s dedicated guidance.
By all accounts, in the early years of fundraising, Gertrude Morse was happy and willing to go anywhere and tell anyone about Fidelis House. The project had become much more than just Shirley’s dream; it was an opportunity to add something necessary to the healthcare system. “Often terminally ill people feel a terrible sense of isolation,” Gertrude wrote in 1989, “this house would be the bridge to create a support system that would help them and family members cope.”
Small fundraisers led to larger ones, and over the course of four years, the Fidelis House team raised the capital needed and secured a location for the project. Initially housed in the vacant third floor of the old Miller Hospital in Kentville, Fidelis House officially opened its doors to guests in October of 1992. As an interior designer, Shirley would have been proud of what the team put together. The rooms filled quickly with everything a regular motel might offer as well as kitchen and living rooms fashioned as family spaces. From the very beginning, the entire facility was maintained by volunteers and the upkeep continued to be looked after by fundraising. In 2001, the team received unexpected news: The Miller building was earmarked to be permanently closed.
Undaunted, the Fidelis House team picked right back up where they’d started from and began fundraising again. The new plan was for an even more accessible independent building on hospital grounds. This facility would make hospital visits even easier — just steps away from the hospital, the new building meant that no driving would be required once guests and patients were in place — no late night taxis, no extra commute. The projected costs were $400,000. Once again, Gertrude Morse, now along with John Calpin, was back on the fundraising trail, speaking with any group who would have them about the indispensable service that Fidelis House offered. Their diligent work paid off. Businesses, organizations, and groups of every size throughout the Annapolis Valley and beyond supported the project. With many of the visitors to Fidelis House arriving from the southwest Nova Scotia area, the Yarmouth Lions Club became significant supporters of the project. The funds were raised and the new building for Fidelis House on the grounds of the Annapolis Valley Regional Hospital was completed in the spring of 2013.
Gestures large and small have contributed to the house and its upkeep over the years. From the early years of bake sale fundraising to the larger sponsorships and business donations, over time the efforts by Gertrude and the team have equalled nearly $600,000. For years, long time volunteers Connie Morris and Isabelle Gibson fashioned more than 4000 butterflies out of recycled bottles, selling each of the them at the reception desk for two dollars a piece. Butterflies, often a symbol of endurance, hope and life, have long held a special spot in the hearts of those close to Shirley Cameron. Eventually they became a symbol of Fidelis House and its mission.
THE HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Now Fidelis House operates thanks to over fifty regular volunteers. Almost half of the volunteer team have been with the project for more than ten years. Their commitment to Fidelis House and the vital community service it offers is immense. Any day of the week, twenty-four hours a day, volunteers are on hand at the house to make visitors feel welcome, to insure that they are comfortable, and to lend a sympathetic ear when necessary. Ann Marie Mentink started volunteering about a year ago and, along with a friend, manages a weekly evening shift at the house. She had always planned to become a volunteer when she retired from her healthcare position. The need was obvious to her, “It’s very, very important to our region - essential really.” she says. “And the guests”, she adds, “are very grateful”.
Countless cards of thanks have made their way back to Fidelis House. Guestbooks are filled with notes from visitors. One visitor called the house “a heaven-sent haven” in a newspaper article written later about his family’s medical ordeal. A note from another reads, “It was such a welcome relief to have such a beautiful spot to lay our heads, get a bite to eat, and talk with other folks who had a common interest: a sick loved one. Because our mother was dying, we spent late nights at the hospital and appreciated being able to return to Fidelis House at any time and have a bed to fall into.” Those visitors came from out of province, during an obviously emotional time. They didn’t come to sightsee or take in the splendour of the world’s highest tides, but at a time when it likely meant the most to them, they were welcomed home in typical Nova Scotian style.
Shirley Cameron had a wish, and through the faithful efforts of her community and friends like Gertrude Morse, that dream became Fidelis House. Twenty-five years later dedicated volunteers still maintain a quietly fundamental addition to the healthcare system. An affordable room to spend a night, a place to relax: it’s a small comfort but one that can make a significant difference during difficult times.