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‘They provide the human touch’: Vecova embarks on an ambitious Calgary expansion

The planned new facility would be able to handle triple the number of annual visits Vecova currently manages.

The Vecova building along 32 Avenue in northwest Calgary, across from the University of Calgary main campus, is rather nondescript.

You might miss the large, 1960s-era building plunked on seven acres in the University Research Park if we weren’t for the roadside sign. It blends in among the concrete façade and utilitarian buildings surrounding it.  When you step inside the south sliding doors, one is certainly reminded of the structure’s age – particularly the low drop ceilings.

But, like anything else, it’s only as old as it feels, and when you hear the activity inside – the voices in the pool area, the constant flow of foot traffic in the foyer, the conversations – there’s an unmistakable vibrancy.

Vecova has been providing support and services to persons with disabilities for more than 50 years in Calgary and area. It has aquatics, health and fitness facilities, a recycling centre and social innovation and research space. Clients can access employment, housing and mental health services, and there is a wayfinding program to help one develop and navigate support networks. There’s also youth programming to boot.

Annually, the location sees 390,000 visits. There’s a waitlist of 2,000 eligible for support services and activities Vecova provides that, combined, aren’t readily accessible elsewhere.

Capacity is an issue at the northwest location. When Vecova CEO Kelly Holmes-Binns delivered Vecova’s Civic Partner presentation at the November 2022 city budget, she was frank.

“What once was a historic and ground-breaking facility in 1970 is no longer capable of meeting the needs of our community. Our building is beyond its lifecycle,” she told councillors at the time.

“It is in need of millions in critical repairs just in the next 12 months alone to keep the doors open and ensure its integrity. In addition to that, the current facility does not meet the functional or capacity needs we are seeing in the community today.”

‘Check all the boxes’: Chow

Peter Chung also spoke at the November budget deliberations. There was a contingent of folks from Vecova who participated in the public hearing portion – Chung, Noah Ulicki, Jo-Anne Willment, Susan Taylor and Heather Burke – providing different perspectives on the impact Vecova has had.

Chung, who was an original participant in the dementia wellness program, said Vecova has given him different stimulative outlets, all in one place. It provides socialization, exercise, creative pursuits and more. Plus, it’s provided confidence, he said.

“The whole idea is to stimulate yourself and then form… more fellowship,” Chung told LiveWire Calgary earlier this week.

Geoff Chow’s wife participates in Vecova’s dementia programming, diagnosed two years ago with mild Alzheimer’s. He said first and foremost they wanted to manage the progression.

“From everything that we read, and we’re told, being active, physically, mentally, and socialization, were and are important factors to try to manage the progression,” he said.

He said they’d checked out other programs, and most were for more advanced stages of dementia. Those were too passive, he said.

“Whereas, when we were introduced to the facilities here, and the program here it seemed to check all the boxes,” Chow said.

“The socialization, the brain exercising, and then their physical fitness facility was really a good fitness facility.”

Chung said having the services has made him more independent. He said it’s brought him back to his past work in human resources, when he used to mentor people.  He’s still mentoring people and having the Vecova support gives him confidence.

“Based on that confidence, I’m instilling that confidence with my mentee,” he said.

Social enterprise helps build skills

Noah Ulicki has been working in Vecova’s recycling centre for the past 18 months. He said there’s a connection among the employees there because many have experienced barriers to employment – mostly disability-related.

“It’s somewhere I can operate on an understanding I don’t need to hide that part of myself,” Ulicki said.

“It’s where I can talk to people and other people get it.”

It’s built different skills and a sense of belonging with the social side, Ulicki said. It’s also helped him take on leadership opportunities as a student.

“It’s helped me prepare myself for other things that I do in life,” he said.

Vecova CEO Kelly Holmes-Binns said the spectrum of clients they serve runs the gamut. They help people with both developmental and degenerative disabilities, short-term disabilities and rehabilitation. She said there’s an array of ability levels they serve, and a range of services to address them.

“I think the bottom line is that we’re creating an environment that’s inclusive, where everyone belongs,” she said.

“So, no matter what your level of ability is, when you come to Vecova there’s a place for you and you feel a community. That’s really important for people’s well-being and development.”

Ambitious plan for a new facility

In order to meet the demand for services, Vecova has plans for a new, $122 million facility. 

Holmes-Binns said when complete, it will triple their programming capacity. That would mean roughly a million visits per year.  It will allow them to expand their programming

They want to get started on the project as soon as possible. The city, through the recent budget, got the ball rolling with an $8.5 million land contribution and $9.1 million in cash. 

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said they’ve made a commitment to a more inclusive city.

“It’s important to have partners like (Vecova) who are able to deliver programming that makes Calgary more inclusive, more accessible and more welcoming to everyone that lives here,” she said.

“They provide an incredibly important service in the community.”

Holmes-Binns said they’ve submitted funding requests to the provincial and federal governments. Vecova will also be asking for Calgarians’ support.

“Our facility is really accessed by people from all corners of Calgary and the region beyond,” Holmes-Binns said.

“It’s not just a northwest hub. It’s really a Calgary community.”

Without that hub, there’s a gap, Chow said. One he said would likely mean sub-optimal care for his wife. They’d be forced to seek services in a variety of locations. And, while all the interviewees said Vecova has improved their quality of life and their well-being, there’s one thing that stands out, Chow said.

“I think one of the unstated things so far, is that the individuals who actually work here and provide the services provide a phenomenal human approach to the service,” he said.

Chung agreed.

“They provide the human touch.”