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Caring Circle & Colleen O’Neil headed for new home

A change of scenery is coming for both the Island health service and its long-time care provider

A Bowen institution for the past decade has begun a new chapter in its role to continue helping islanders navigate the health care system.

Colleen O’Neil has been behind the Caring Circle since its inception in 2013. The group was originally started as a way to centralize questions about medical options on the island. The inspiration was partly from Colleen’s own cancer diagnosis, which presented challenges in addition to fighting the disease.

“During that experience I felt like I was lost at sea and felt like nobody knew how I would get the care that I needed,” recalls the former nurse and actress. “I had to navigate the health care system by myself, and for my case it was very confusing. There didn’t seem to be a singular source where I would get the information I needed.” She also noted the absence of many primary health services on Bowen Island at the time.

After beating the cancer O’Neil worked with a health care navigation company in Vancouver part-time – hired at their request after she was referred to them in her search for answers on the mainland. Soon Colleen sought to bring these services back to Bowen, and got off to a running start along with Diane Marshall by producing the Bowen Island Health Resource Guide.

“We just sat and brainstormed, what do people call about?” says O’Neil. The guide – which includes a myriad of information such as how to contact people with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), how to receive assistance with food and transportation following a procedure, or how to get a physiotherapist – was meant to help answer the same questions Colleen and many other Bowen residents had faced over the years. It was mailed out to every home on Bowen, and is also available online.

Colleen’s work was far from finished once the guide was complete. “I don’t think Diane was ever expecting me to make a job out of it. Then I just decided to open an office,” she says. Initially starting in Village Square, Colleen was eventually offered use of a room in the Blue Cottage while she explored if her pursuit was viable. “And it was. Tons of people were coming in.”

New questions emerged constantly as the Caring Circle became known as a place to go for health care answers. The queries – how to find a wig after chemotherapy, filling out disability pensions, various home care questions – soon included people from off-island too inquiring about their relatives. “You never know what was coming in on any given day,” says O’Neil.

Colleen O’Neil outside the Caring Circle at the Blue Cottage in Snug Cove. / Submitted

Several programs were born out of discovering residents’ needs, such as the Community Lunch Program (which continues today on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month) and Help in the Home, where local services are offered including cleaning, shopping, transportation, and more. This could be going to pick up groceries or prescriptions, or simply going out for a coffee or ice cream. “They’ve allowed all sorts of families to stay on Bowen instead of moving into care,” says O’Neil.

Caring Circle had become an invaluable part of the community, but the issue of Bowen’s scarce on-island major health services remained. A meeting of medical minds – counsellors, pharmacists, therapists, and others – met to discuss the island’s needs. Organized by O’Neil and Marshall, the emerging consensus was an existing one: Bowen needed more doctors.

Several members of the group went to Gabriola Island following the meeting to tour their health centre, and came back with a hope that it could be done on Bowen too. There was no misconception it would be easy though. “It was kind of an impossible dream to raise millions of dollars and build a building and find practitioners,” says O’Neil. “Early on it felt like a pipe dream, but we just stuck with it.”

Fast forward to today, and that dream is nearly complete. The Health Centre on Miller Road is nearing completion and several doctors and staff have been hired to fill the space. One of those hires is O’Neil, who will be serving as the newly minted ‘Community Health Worker’ for the island. But while her title may be new, Colleen says the services offered by Caring Circle during the past 10 years will remain the same.

“We built up a reputation in the community with Caring Circle, it took a lot of years,” says Colleen. “So we were trying to figure out a way to retain our name. I’m not sure if that’s going to happen, but I do want the community to know what I’ve been doing in the community, I’ll continue to be doing the same kind of job – health navigation – in the Health Centre.”

O’Neil’s role will be expanded as well, allowing her more time for community outreach including meeting with social and mental health workers in Vancouver. She says the centre will “potentially touch everybody that lives on Bowen in one way or another. Their parents, their children, more mental health support, more support for addictions, more support for families… a full dental practice.

O’Neil herself is also looking forward to the change of location. “I’m excited because I’m a people person. Working alone in the little cottage by myself and working at home, I’m working by myself. I love the idea of working with the team.”

As Caring Circle wraps up under its current name, Colleen reflects on its impactful history, which now receives hundreds of inquires a year for assistance.

“I think we’ve helped people age in place with less fear and anxiety than they might have had if there wasn’t somebody they could call about what care they might be able to get on Bowen,” she says.

And with the calls has come an overwhelmingly positive response from the community.

“It’s a pretty rewarding job, because I’d get those kind of kudos all the time. I just knew I was making a huge difference,” says O’Neil.

A goodbye party for the Caring Circle will be held Saturday, November 25 at the Legion, at 1 pm.