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Working it out

A Vanderhoof project is tinkering with a new approach to men's health
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David Leslie stands with his Men’s Shed companions at its Burrard Market spot in Vanderhoof. Since it started in November 2014, as a therapeutic space for men to gather and work, the Men’s Shed group has grown to more than 50 members.

When John Allen describes Vanderhoof's Men's Shed his first thought isn't the new 4,000-square-foot space full of tools, car parts and half-finished projects.

The Northern Health worker doesn't discuss the pool table, or the dart board, or the couches for the men to lounge on at Burrard Market shop, or even the gap in men's support services that it seeks to fill.

Allen likes to tell the story of one of their oldest members - 86-year-old Jim Simonson - struggling to put together his own backyard shed. He remembers watching him work and making a call to the group, which has more than 50 members.

The next day, eight were out helping Simonson. Nine months ago that support didn't exist.

"We're helping people in the community and people are helping us," says John Allen of the men's shed which launched in November 2014, making it one of the first spots in Canada to test the Australian concept.

The vision was to make it an updated version of the shed in the backyard to provide a physical space to address men's tendency to suffer from isolation, loneliness and depression after retirement, according to MenSheds Manitoba Inc., which launched the first canuck iteration. There's also a shop in Kelowna.

Allen echoes that purpose, adding the space has therapeutic value for men who are often in difficult junctures of their lives.

"Maybe their widows passed away," says Allen, who estimates that's true of a quarter of their members. "Or they're isolating, or they're on disability, or they're retired and they just want to come here and share their knowledge."

Many clients live in small apartments, and have no space to work or use the tools they've collected over the years.

It's viewed as a pilot project for Northern Health, which has turned its focus to men's health in the last number of years, ever since former chief medical officer Dr. David Bowering published a report, Where are the men? in 2010.

It's an effort to address the fact that men, on the whole, are less healthy than women, less likely to visit the doctor, face higher rates of suicide, depression and die at a younger age.

"It gives them a sense of self worth and in small communities like Vanderhoof or Fort St. James, there are no resources for guys," says Allen, who has a background in mental health and addictions.

That socialization helps with health outcomes without the men ever stepping a foot in their doctor's offices.

Gesturing from the full kitchen on one side of the room, through to the work spaces crammed with tools and supplies, to the lounging space heated by a wood stove, Allen notes "All this stuff has been donated by people in the community."

Either that, or the men made it themselves. Allan shows off the plumbing work, a door, shelving, and more - all men's shed handiwork.

In April John Rustad, Nechako Lakes MLA, presented the group with a $15,000 check. That's on top of Northern Health's original $13,000 contribution says Allen, who is down at the shed most days.

On the wall, Allen shows a list of local businesses that have shared parts and services to keep the place running.

They want the project to be self-sustainable. The main cost is the monthly $800 rent.

"We're looking at things to generate money," Allen says.

Community Futures Stuart Nechako recently donated a 3-D printer - the only one in Vanderhoof - as a way to attain that goal.

"The men don't want to go doing grants. They would rather do something," said Graham Stanley, general manager of Community Futures Stuart Nechako, which supported the winter coffee club where the idea for the shed first started.

"It's a world apart," says Stanley, crediting three men for recruiting members and pushing for its creation. "It's one thing to think of an idea and it's one thing to implement."

It started out at three days a week, and now it's open five days, with a Thursday evening dinner.

"It just blossomed and more and more people wanted it to be open," Allen says.

Alan Sholer

Since he was a boy of 13, Alan Sholer has been working on anything with an engine.

His father was a skilled machinist with his own airplane and Sholer figures he was flying at eight, while his dad sat at a second set of controls.

After 30 years as a truck driver, a heart attack pushed him out of work, leaving him far from the man who could turn to his toolbox as a trade, or even hobby.

He felt stuck. Out of work on disability, home alone, with no transportation and no car to work on, the men's shed changed all that for him.

"Just staying busy, tinkering on stuff, it gets my mind off some things that are weighing on my mind," said Sholer, who comes five days a week.

Now Sholer is back getting his hands dirty as the resident mechanic and one of the shed managers - currently leading the work on a Honda 550. It's just waiting on seat.

The plan is to raffle it off to raise funds for the group, says Sholer.

He's come along way since 2008, when a heart attack at work ended his career.

"I fought with medications for three years before I even started feeling human again."

By that time, he realized he should access Workers' Compensation, but he was refused. Both the appeals process and tribunal denied ruled against him - the main sticking point being he waited too long, he says.

Now, he lives off $900 a month. With no car, Allen drives Sholer in every day.

"It's been helpful, getting me out of the house. I was battling depression before," says Sholer, who also has two ruptured discs and three crushed vertebrae in his back.

Allen argues the unique format of the men's shed can change approaches to mental health, and Sholer agrees.

"People are more able in this environment to talk about their feelings... especially things that bother them, that they keep it bottled up. It gives everybody a common place, you know, to talk and visit.

Sholer knows mental health can be difficult to discuss.

"I think for men it's acknowledging they've got that problem first of all before they can ask for help. It came along in a good time in my life, anyway.

"It's a good place to listen and learn."

David Lowen

Dave Lowen's speciality is woodworking.

At the back of the shop stands a four-bed-high step planter he built for the community garden.

Lowen's creations are sprinkled throughout the town and its resident's backyards, like the stool he made for the community garden.

"David's very talented at woodwork. He's built most of the stuff in here," says Allen.

Lowen, 46, lives in an apartment off of his disability pension and says that's where he'd be without the men's club.

"It's been good."

He's scarce with his words but he comes four days a week to work as one of the managers, or as Lowen says, "to make sure the coffee's on."

Lowen's also been around since it started up.

"I feel better," says Lowen, who worked 14-and-a-half years as a miner.

"Then his mental illness kicked in," says Allen.

Lowen moved from Fort Fraser to Vanderhoof about three years ago. He doesn't feel comfortable speaking of his mental illness, but says the group has still helped.

"I figure it's given me a different outlook."

The people around him, too, seem to be happier he says.

And that's the biggest difference Allen has noticed in Lowen.

"For five years I couldn't get him to smile," Allen says. "Now he smiles. You can't just put that in a pill and just take it."

David Leslie

In the space of a month David Leslie lost his wife to cancer and found himself in a hospital bed after a crippling heart attack.

What was one of the first things the 68-year-old did when he returned to Vanderhoof in April after a stint at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver?

Walk through the Burrard Market doors.

"Now I've got friends. Otherwise if that was five years ago, who would I talk to? It was helpful for me," says Leslie, who joined the men's shed long before the worst month of his life.

"It's like a nightmare that never went away," says Leslie of the mid-March day when his wife of almost 43 years died.

"All of a sudden, you got nobody," he says. "It's tough. You got to keep going. It is what it is."

Allen estimates a quarter of the men are widowers. Many don't have kids nearby.

That support network is essential for the isolated.

"People are living longer and the mandate of all the health authorities is to keep people living longer in their homes, in their communities," said Allen, adding the members are a good health resource too, and can warn if they hear something worrisome.

With men far less likely to visit doctors than women, the place is also a space where men feel comfortable getting advice and even asking for help.

"If they're involved in something like this they're more prone to ask (for help)."

Vanderhoof's men's shed is open during the week from 9 a.m. until about 2 p.m. and Thursday evenings in the Burrard Market.