Healing and restoration

On this bright and sunny fall day at The Royal, a small group is huddled around a picnic table out on the grounds. If you were observing from farther afield you might wonder about the mix of people and age ranges. The huddle suddenly turns into a buzz of activity as one person unloads a cart and another sets up a pair of sawhorses.

Jean-Michel Frechette, a mental health worker at The Royal, lays a thick 10 ft hardwood board across the two sturdy frames. Other members of the group grab sanding blocks and start working away at the surface of the board. It’s actually the top of a gym bench, the kind that a row of basketball players might sit on while waiting to be subbed into a game, and after years of heavy use, it’s definitely seen better days. The wood has been splashed with paint, nicked and kicked, and is hosting its fair share of orphaned gobs of chewing gum on the underside. It definitely needs some elbow grease, which is exactly what brings this group here for two hours every week.  

This new recreation group – made up of clients in the forensic outpatient and rehab programs who are close to completing their treatment and being discharged – are slowly bringing The Royal’s gym benches back to their former glory.

It was Ashleigh McGuinty, a recreation therapist at The Royal, who had noticed the gym benches were in need of some TLC. She remembered that Frechette, her colleague, had always wanted to do something hands-on with the clients. So they collected some basic equipment – mostly loans from fellow staff –asked the clients if they were interested in wood refinishing. Then they got started. 

Each bench is carefully taken apart, cleaned, and sanded with electric and hand sanders. After sanding, each one gets three or four coats of varnish before it’s reassembled and returned to the gym, where it’s used by clients and staff alike. 

The work is done outdoors, directly behind the main building. 

It’s not all work, of course. There’s friendly banter amid the gentle instruction. It’s the kind of activity that can absorb a person as they focus on the work, but it can also be very social. 

“The guys just love it,” says McGuinty. “They just do their thing and we guide them a little bit.” 

McGuinty and Frechette stress that this group is rooted firmly in the “recreation” category of activities at The Royal, and does not represent vocational training. Their hope is that a casual approach sparks interest in wood refinishing, a potential hobby the clients may not have considered before. 

McGuinty and Frechette would love to see clients continue with these kinds of hands-on projects when they return to their community.

“We’re trying to keep the pressure off,” reflects Frechette. “As children we try to expand our interests – to discover new things – it’s all done as leisure. Most of our clients didn’t have a chance to be exposed to these kinds of activities in their youth. We think that through exposure to stuff like this they might be able to discover their interests.” 

McGuinty and Frechette would both like to see this group grow, not just in size but in scope. They’re currently reaching out to community woodworking groups to see if there are any opportunities there, whether it’s the use of an indoor space over the winter or a deeper collaboration. 

“We also have some ideas about keeping it here as well, and maybe doing other things around the hospital,” says McGuinty. “There are so many ways this could go. It’s very exciting.”

Establishing a link with vocational training down the line is another possibility, but right now they’re focused on keeping it fun and also subtly building skills that go beyond sanding and varnishing. Improving concentration is near the top of McGuinty’s list of noticeable benefits.

“A lot of our guys – with their medication and with mental illness – they don’t have the concentration they used to,” says McGuinty. “You know how when you have anxiety or depression or something like that you can’t focus for a long period of time? So this, it helps.” 

“Just learning the skills and accomplishing something from start to finish is a huge benefit,” adds Frechette. “And if they want to take it to the next level some day, they can.” 

Seeing before and after pictures of the shiny benches that were restored by the group reminds us that the pride that comes with a completed project is universal; something we all share. 

“Giving back is such a huge and important goal for our guys, and for everyone’s mental health,” says McGuinty. “Being able to volunteer your time feels good. And we’re trying to teach them that throughout the process.”

It’s early stages yet, and there are no client satisfaction surveys that definitively quantify the level of interest in a permanent wood refinishing group. The reality is that sometimes it’s tough to get clear feedback from clients who are ill. 

“It’s hard for them to sometimes express how they’re feeling, even that sense of accomplishment,” explains McGuinty, but she has her own way of knowing if an activity is popular with clients. 

If clients are consistently spending a focused session without asking for a break and are surprised when it’s time to pack up, the activity is likely a success. Time flies when you’re having fun, after all. 

“Also the fact that there’s no obligation for them to attend and they’re coming back and sticking it out for the whole two hours,” adds Frechette. “It’s an open group, and they’re showing up. That says a lot about our clientele.”