“What I love about this place is the people.”

“The warmth here … that’s the reason I came.”

“The people are my style.”

These are just some of the heartfelt comments from tenants and residents at Sakaw Terrace as they shared their thoughts during Sakaw’s first anniversary celebration on November 6, 2019.

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More than 100 tenants, residents and GEF staff marked their first year together with individual cupcakes tea and coffee, and reminiscing on the past year, with plenty of laughter and a few tears from those who spoke.

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Site manager Manak Dhillon remembered holding interviews with prospective tenants and staff members in a trailer in the parking lot. He also remembered the last-minute flurry of permit approvals, making sure everything was in place before people moved in. Not everything went as smoothly as he had hoped, but “we got it all done – just in time.”

Assistant Manager Teslene Walters shared that she has been in every single suite more than five times. She remembered walking through the suites with just the framing done and then again – a few more times – when all the walls were up to make sure everything was perfect for each tenant and resident to move into their new home. She could tell you anything you would want to know about each room.

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Sakaw Terrace opened its doors on November 1, 2018 and the first residents moved in right away. Over the next few months, the apartments and lodge rooms filled up. Currently Sakaw Terrace is home to 175 seniors and is a vibrant community.

The official Grand Opening was held on February 27, 2019 and more than 160 tenants, residents, staff and guests joined in the festivities. You can read more about the Grand Opening in a previous blog story.

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On February 27, 2019, Sakaw Terrace (5815 Millwoods Road South, Edmonton) held its Grand Opening. Over 160 residents, tenants, guests and staff joined us to celebrate this very momentous occasion.

“The official opening of Sakaw Terrace is a very proud time for GEF Seniors Housing as it allows seniors living in the Mill Woods community an affordable, secure and friendly place to call home,” explained Raymond Swonek, CEO of GEF Seniors Housing.

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GEF Seniors Housing CEO, Raymond Swonek, speaking with Global News

MLA for Edmonton-McClung Lorne Dach MC’d the event and we heard wonderful speeches from the Honourable Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Natural Resources; the Honourable Christina Gray, Minister of Labour; GEF Board Chair Karen Lynch and ASCHA’s Executive Director Irene Martin- Lindsay!

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The Minister of Natural Resources, Amarjeet Sohi

The day was full of big smiles and happy hearts. Residents and tenants who have already moved in were so excited to show off their new home. After the speeches were done, a ribbon cutting to announce the official opening commenced. Cake and refreshments were followed by tours of the building. Guests who went on the tours were impressed by the 70 lodge rooms and 88 apartments, two outdoor courtyards, a communal greenhouse, a theatre room, a salon, a bistro, underground and above ground parking and much more!

Seven years from concept to occupation, on November 1, 2018, GEF opened the doors to welcome the first Sakaw Terrace residents. This carefully planned project adopted an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) collaborative partnership approach to construction.  “What this means is that everyone has some skin in the game. The IPD contract has ten parties signed on plus GEF Seniors Housing. All ten of the IPD parties have put their profits on the line for the duration of the construction, which keeps everyone invested in finding those efficiencies and keeping everything on schedule” explains Doug Kitlar, Director of Facility Management. By using this method, the project was able to be completed ahead of schedule and under budget!

The building is currently 90% full and hoping to be at 100% in the next few months. Residents and tenants are feeling at home living at Sakaw Terrace. “I just love the new building. The meals are wonderful and the sugar cookies are just delightful” said a lodge resident. An apartment tenant mentioned “it is my first time in community living and I am more than over the moon. The building, the staff, there is nothing not to like.” One other apartment resident said “I like my apartment. Everything is lovely. It’s beautiful. I like my privacy, but I never feel alone here.”

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One of the things that surprises Cheryl Ackimenko the most about the Community Supports program with GEF Seniors Housing is how often individuals call the team’s main phone line looking for assistance. She points out how every one of GEF Seniors Housing’s buildings has posters up in common areas giving information about the Community Supports program with all relevant contact information. Some individuals contact the Community Supports team even before they’re in a position of needing assistance.

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“One gentleman, who recently called, moved in to his apartment a few days earlier and said he does not need any support now, but wanted to learn about services in the community should he need them in the future,” recalls Ackimenko. “He was pleasantly surprised the Community Support program was available and so accessible to him.”

Ackimenko’s previous career as an Outreach Worker, made her the perfect fit to oversee the Community Supports team while the team’s original manager, Shanika Donalds, completes her temporary leave. Ackimenko managed multiple buildings around GEF Seniors Housing for five years before moving to her position as the interim Community Supports Manager, where she oversees the team of Outreach Workers and the individual projects each is working on. The Community Supports team is made up of Nicole Smith, Madison Black and Marita Gronberg.  “This team does an amazing job providing support, as they are all passionate about helping seniors increase their Quality of Life.” Though many of the referrals that come to the Community Supports team are straight from the individuals looking for help, there are still those which come from other members of the GEF Seniors Housing community.

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“[The referral] may be a tenant who has a concern about their neighbor in the building and they want an outreach worker to offer information about the program to the neighbor,” explains Ackimenko. “It is great to see a sense of community being built through connections with neighbors.”

Much of the work the Community Supports does involve one-on-one consultations to identify the roots of the hardships the individuals are experiencing. Many seniors face issues around social isolation, which contain a range of debilitating mental and physical health detriments that can seriously affect a person’s quality of life. It’s during the one-on-one work that Ackimenko experiences people opening up about things.

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“Recently, when assisting a woman who wanted help with decluttering her home and connecting to her community, she shared her story of how she came to GEF a few years ago,” says Ackimenko. “She was renting a house with a roommate but the relationship with the roommate deteriorated to the point where she had to move out quickly. She was very grateful that she was able to find housing within GEF Seniors Housing during this stressful time of her life. She moved in to her own apartment within GEF Seniors Housing and has felt safe every day since then. She is again happy that GEF Seniors Housing has a program to support her with her needs.”

Sharing experiences and personal stories isn’t uncommon for the Community Supports team. Part of the work of understanding what’s affecting a person’s quality of life stems from the person’s experiences. Ackimenko cherishes when people are able to open up to her and respects the amount of faith people are able to put into her and her team.

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“As a Community Outreach worker, on the first visit, it is an opportunity to get to know the person and build trust,” says Ackimenko.” You learn a lot about the person and their unique needs as they share their past experiences with you and the challenges they are facing now. Often they are experiencing loneliness and isolation at this time in their life. The second visit is always welcomed, as a relationship begins to build. Helping seniors navigate their needs to increase their quality of life and reduce their social isolation is very rewarding.”

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Janet was never one for napping. Shortly after moving into Canora Gardens in February, 2018, she decided to take a quick rest in the afternoon. She woke up a few hours later, realizing that this was the first long and deep nap she had taken in years.

“I told my daughter and she howled because she’s never seen me nap!” Janet says with a wide smile. “I remember waking up and thinking, ‘oh, this is what it’s like to relax.’”

Moving into Canora Gardens has changed a lot about Janet’s day-to-day life. Even in the short time she has lived in the GEF Seniors Housing building, she says she already feels more at home here than she has anywhere else in the past 20 years. Though it took some time to finally move in, Janet believes that being able to call Canora Gardens home was well worth the wait.

“I would have waited another two or three years if it meant I was living somewhere as great as this,” Janet says. “I applied even before the applications were technically open. I was approved in about four days.”

Janet saw photos from Canora Gardens before it experienced its 2012 fire and was immediately drawn to the building. She was living in another apartment building close to the city’s west-end, but wanted to be further west so she could live closer to her daughter. Janet remembers the first few interactions she had with GEF Seniors Housing staff

“You don’t get that kind of respect everywhere,” says Janet. “I felt immediately welcomed by everyone working here.”

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Seeing the show suite at Canora Gardens impressed both Janet and her daughter. They were both immediately drawn to the counter space and cabinets in the kitchen. Living with celiac disease means Janet has to do a lot of her own cooking so having a spacious kitchen with full sized appliances was important.

In addition to the full kitchen, Janet and her daughter immediately noted how safe and secure Canora Gardens is. She immediately noted that all the locks in Canora Gardens are set with a fob and not with the typical key system in most older apartment buildings. She remembers back to her previous building where there were serious issues with break and enters.

“It got to the point where I was piling up chairs against my door,” explains Janet. “Now, I live with a sense of serenity. I’m actually able to sleep now because I feel so safe.”

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Janet’s positive spirit is seeing her already looking to make connections within her community. She’s never been one to shy away from meeting new people and is even exploring the larger neighbourhood to help keep her busy. She’s even starting to look ahead, knowing that as she ages she won’t be able to live totally on her own. Janet laughs as she points out that she already has her next GEF Seniors Housing building picked out.

“I got to see Meadowlark Place and I told my daughter, this is where I want to live next when the time comes,” says Janet. “For now, I am completely happy here. It feels like I’ve been given a new lease on life.”

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Around 30 years ago, Judy learned how to make dog figurines out of wool and wire hangers. She learned the craft from another woman who lived with her back when she called Strathcona Place home. Now living at Queen Alexandra Place lodge, she has become the teacher, showing the craft to her neighbour, Verna. The two ladies don’t make the dogs for just anyone, though. The pair makes the dogs for any of their neighbours who go to the hospital overnight and to the women fighting breast cancer and living at Compassion House.

“We just wanted these people to know that someone cares about them,” says Verna. “The dogs are a lot of fun to make and we get such nice letters from the people we give the dogs to. My grandchildren just love them too.”

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The ladies have the craft down so tight, Verna can finish one dog every two days while the more experienced Judy can finish a dog over the course of a good hockey game. The process starts with the wire hanger bent in the shape the dog will take. Judy’s  step-son bends the hangers for the ladies and drops off groups of them whenever the ladies are running low. The wool is then tied in a pom-pom style bow and tied off to hold its shape. The bows then line the wire hanger frame and are bundled together. The dogs’ ears are tied in the same pom-pom fashion, only with looser threads to mimic the bounce of floppy ears. Beaded eyes and a nose are then hot glued on to give the dog its face, and ultimately its personality.

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Before Christmas, the ladies donated 24 dogs to Compassion House. Two months later, at the beginning of March, they donated another 22. This is in addition to the dogs given to their neighbours in the lodge and to their families.

“My granddaughter is an Assistant Manager over at Julio’s Barrio and she gave a dog to one of the servers she worked with and the server loved it so much she started to cry,” says Judy. “It’s amazing how attached people get to these little dogs.”

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The ladies see the attachment to the dogs in many of the people they give them to. One gentleman from the lodge was given one before he went to the hospital, where he sadly later passed away. The man was so attached to the dog that his family put it in the casket with him. This kind of emotional attachment and positive influence is far from rare for people who receive the dogs.

“We don’t think about the cost while we’re making them,” says Verna. “All we think about is what it’s going to do for people.”

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Even the ladies grow attached to some of their dogs. The pair has started naming many of them before they’re given out. One with orange and blue ribbons that was given to Recreation Coordinator Pavi Lally was named Oscar, after Pavi’s favourite player on the Edmonton Oilers Oscar Klefbom. Another shaggy brown one that Judy has grown particularly attached to is named Rags.

“I almost lost Rags on the way down here,” Judy says with a laugh. “One of the ladies saw Rags while I was coming down to the dining room. I’m saving Rags for my Granddaughter. The wire frame and bead eyes aren’t the best for small children.”

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The ladies have no plans on slowing down any time soon. How the gesture of making and giving one of these dogs to someone facing a hard time positively influences a person’s quality of life is very evident to Judy and Verna. Some of the future dog projects they have in mind are also a little ambitious.

“We were given this one set of wool, and it is just massive,” Judy says, holding out her arms expressing the size of the ball of wool. “We were thinking of using it to make a mom, and dad, and a whole litter of puppies. Make a little family for others to enjoy.”

An apron hangs in Michael’s kitchen. Stitched into it is a patch that says, “Michael is not only a great chef, he is a culinary artist!” Though he admits he’ll never wear it, Michael hangs the apron with pride. It was a gift from one of his neighbours at Strathcona Place. Sharing his culinary skills is something Michael takes a lot of delight in.

“Right from a young age, my siblings and I were taught to cook, clean, all for ourselves,” says Michael. “We were taught to be self-reliant with the things we had and that sense of self-reliance has certainly helped me be able to call this place home.”

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Michael knows that a space like his in a Manhattan rental market would easily cost around $2,000 a month. Thankfully, Michael lives in Edmonton and in a GEF Seniors Housing apartment where the rent is geared to his income. For most people, 325 square-feet is not a lot of space. For Michael, it’s a perfect fit.

Before moving to Strathcona Place, Michael owned a house in Edmonton’s west-end. He admits it took him around six months to settle into his new apartment but now can’t imagine living anywhere else. The smaller square-footage wasn’t a deterrent at all. In fact, it was almost a selling point for him.

“I was able to see the space empty before I moved in,” Michael explains. “I took only the things I wanted from my house. I then measured out the space I had to work with and found furniture pieces that worked within the space.”

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Growing up in southern Alberta coal towns, Michael remembers his family home only being around 600 square-feet. He looks at average house sizes now and can’t believe that people need so much space. The Globe and Mail reported that the average house size in Canada has ballooned to close to 2,000 square-feet (though still smaller than the average house size in the US at 2,600 square-feet).

“I have a friend who lives in a 3,000 square-feet house,” Michael says. “Every room is just full of stuff. There’s a craft room, a man cave, and it’s still not enough room for him and his wife. In Japan, an apartment the size of mine would be big enough for a whole family. What I’ve learned is the more space you have, the more money it costs.”

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Michael acknowledges that many people he knows have difficulties parting with material goods and keepsakes. He notes that this could be partly because of either living through the Great Depression or having parents who did, so the need to hold onto things increases with that frame of reference. He also notes, though, that growing up he didn’t have many of the modern conveniences that so many take for granted today.

“The house I grew up in didn’t have TV or even electricity,” Michael says. “If we wanted entertainment, we had to go outside.”

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The idea of leaving your space to connect with the community is something Michael still lives by. He notes that many of the people he knows in Strathcona Place get together regularly for games and for potlucks (where he shares some of his well-executed home-cooked delights) and he spends plenty of time walking in the neighbourhood. He explains that the conveniences in the community such as banks, grocery stores, and clinics are so easy to walk to, he doesn’t even own a car anymore.

“Everything you could need is right here, even the bus routes along here are some of the best in the city,” says Michael. “A monthly pass for the bus is $15. You can’t drive anywhere for that cheap.”

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Not the only tenant of Strathcona Place to embrace the paired down lifestyle, many of Michael’s neighbours live in the same square footage as he does without sacrificing any passions. He points out one neighbour utilizes modular fold out tables to create a crafting space. Even the University of Alberta students who also call Strathcona Place home live in the smaller bachelor units and continue to be a welcome addition to the community inside the building.

After the six months it took him to adjust to his new living environment, he feels fully connected and comfortable where he is. He understands that the transition is stressful for many to embark on but also points out that it’s completely worth it by the end of the process.

“The staff here are amazing and do such great work to keep the building safe and so no one ever has to look over their shoulders,” says Michael. “It really is like a small town. I’m never left wanting. This is the perfect space for me and I have no plans to ever leave.”

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