Friendship centre in Vernon, B.C. utilizes COVID-19 closure to upgrade facilities

North Okanagan Friendship Centre Society is getting renovations and repairs as staff prepare to reopen.

It was a warm 34 C on Monday morning when hammers were swinging at the North Okanagan Friendship Centre Society (NOFCS), as windows were being replaced on the organization’s building. 

The noise of construction continued as Patricia Wilson, an Okanagan Nation member and NOFCS executive director of six years, explains that, although the doors are closed to the public, the programs and services still remain open to those they serve in virtual formats.

“We look forward to the day when we can re-open our doors,” she says. “We are just a phone call away.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the closure of many programs and services all over the world. NOFCS staff have gotten creative with program delivery, offering some online and others in outdoor settings. 

The NOFCS, which closed on March 17, has decided to use this time to catch up on some much-needed building renovations in anticipation of its re-opening.

Friendship Centre COVID-19
NOFCS with a brand new coat of paint. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna.

The need for renovations

Wilson says that, last October, the NOFCS completed a building inspection and found that some renovations were needed.

In response to the report, the NOFCS has had the space painted, new flooring put in, installed additional windows, lifted ceilings, upgraded the HVAC system, added safety exits and widened doors to code to keep staff and visitors safe. 

“We have also reconstructed our courtyard area to ensure that we have safe handicap accessibility, removing an old ramp and steps and the slippery tiles that were initially installed,” says Wilson. “We also installed a back exit handicap ramp.”

Bringing the building to code has been a labour of love for the NOFCS team.

“We are preparing for the next 20 to 25 years of services to be provided in these buildings,” says Wilson. “The upgrades were long overdue, and with careful planning, we have been able to create a warm, welcoming, COVID-19-friendly environment.”

Friendship Centre COVID-19
Patricia Wilson overseeing the new window installation at the NOFCS. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna.

Programs and services are in full swing

Indigenous friendship centres were established to care for the urban Indigenous population while creating a space for non-Indigenous people to also access services. In the mid-1950s, more and more Indigenous people started moving into urban areas, and the need for spaces like friendship centres grew. These centres can offer a range of culturally enhanced programs and services.

The global pandemic hasn’t stopped the NOFCS staff from making sure these needs are met.

“We have been creative to ensure that our services are still accessible to as many that require the services, however challenging it may be,” says Wilson.

The passion she has for NOFCS is apparent through how much the staff is working to shift program platforms to those that need them. 

“We are providing extensive outreach services in the areas of Prenatal Outreach Services, Aboriginal Infant and Early Childhood Development programs and services.”

The NOFCS’s areas of operation include Prenatal and Nutrition Outreach, Early Childhood Development Outreach, Vernon Youth Safehouse Outreach, Mental Health and Addictions Outreach, Family Support Services, First Nations Employment Services and Kekuli Centre Apartments for young people at risk.

The staff is connecting with those that need to access these services through phone, fax, text messaging and video conferencing.

In the midst of the pandemic, the NOFCS staff also saw the need to create a new position that addresses the needs of seniors and Elders in the community that are at risk of isolation and may not be able to access online resources as easily. 

Friendship Centre COVID-19
Seniors’ outreach worker Maggie King is NOFCS’s newest member of the team. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna.

“We hired a new seniors’ outreach worker at the end of June, and it is exciting to see the work being done to connect with seniors,” says Wilson. “We do hope to have seniors learn about the new computer technology available and have them train and access computer tablet services.”

NOFCS programs like Wellbriety and Women for Recovery are being done virtually through the Zoom platform, or through socially-distanced meetings in open spaces, like the local park. More information for these programs is available through the NOFCS Facebook page

The NOFCS is also providing Indigenous people in Vernon with COVID-19 with relief support. This service can be accessed by calling or emailing the NOFCS to register for a monthly gift card meant to support families and individuals during these unprecedented times.

The NOFCS board of directors continues to meet on a monthly basis to ensure governance and administration processes are kept up.

The staff hasn’t missed a beat with all they have been able to offer and accomplish during a global pandemic. They say they are looking forward to welcoming all visitors back as soon as it’s safe to do so. 

In the meantime, Wilson says she wishes her community well: “Keep strong and safe, the community is in our thoughts.”

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