Wearing ball caps, visors and face shields, the ladies of the Hospital Auxiliary Thrift Shop on Third Avenue are back in business serving customers, after more than three months of forced pandemic exile.
New provincial protocols are in place at the store and all customers are politely asked to splash a shot a sanitizer on their hands as they are greeted by a volunteer, who can allow no more than four in at a time. At the sales counter, a large plastic shield is now in place as a physical barrier between customers and the till operator.
This is the new reality for the thrift shop and hundreds of other retail stores in the province have to jump through similar hoops to try to keep that COVID-19 bug at bay. New rules are in place to allow them to reopen but this is not the first pandemic the Prince George Hospital Auxiliary has lived through.
Similar precautions on social distancing, handwashing and self-isolation were in place to limit the spread of the Spanish Flu back in 1919, the year the auxiliary started, and the global epidemic at that time was what spurred them into action. They were tasked with raising money to pay for linens and drapes for the city’s first hospital, the privately-owned Pine Manor at 13th Avenue and Alward Street. The hospital opened in 1920, the year the epidemic ended. Since then, the auxiliary has raised more than $4 million to buy hospital equipment.
“It’s been around for 101 years and it’s all volunteer,” said Auxiliary to University Hospital of Northern British Columbia president Lindy Steele.
One of those volunteers is Gail Engbrecht, a former surgical nurse at UHNBC who retired in 2014 after 46 years on the job. Engbrecht saw the difference the auxiliary made in improving her own working conditions and that’s what got her involved.
“Over the years I was part of using all the equipment they bought for us and they did so many different services,” said Engbrecht. “Years ago, they used to porter patients to the operating room until they had to quit doing that when it became part of the union jobs.
“They’ve been so essential in providing equipment for that hospital. I just feel I need to support the cause and it’s something I’ve always liked to do and the thrift store was my choice because it’s totally different from the work I did and it’s a well worthy cause. It’s a very big fundraiser for the hospital.”
Last year the auxiliary provided a $70,000 donation to play for hospital equipment at UHNBC. The money is still in place for the group’s 100-year anniversary project, a $100,000 gift to refurbish Jubilee Lodge and work is now proceeding on that. They group annually provides bursaries to students at UNBC and CNC and last year came up with a$10,000 scholarship for a Northern Medical Program student from northern B.C.
The COVID-19 outbreak has basically stopped all the group’s activities and the virus has taken a lot of the fun out of it for the 144 volunteers. The hospital information desk service shut down and they were forced to close the thrift store and the gift shop at UHNBC. They had to stop helping patients fill out their menu cards or direct them to the regional clinics and they can no longer join residents of the Jubilee Lodge for afternoon teas or games of bingo.
Quilters and knitters who provided their handiwork for the UHNBC pediatric/neonatal unit and the gift shop were basically locked out of auxiliary social circles during the height of the pandemic in March and April, when fears of catching COVID were running high. Instead of making kids’ clothing and blankets they were given a new task – producing scrub caps for medical staff. Steele would leave the material on their doorsteps and when they’d finished making the caps she would go pick them up and drop them off at the hospital. They ended up making 2,000 scrub caps.
“The staff at the hospital were very appreciative because suddenly, people who had never worn scrub caps had to wear them, and finding them in town became almost impossible,” said Steele, a retired elementary school teacher.
After the cap project was complete, auxiliary volunteers were stuck in a holding pattern until last Monday when the thrift store reopened. They’ve started a new gardening service to add some colour and life to the hospital’s front entrance at UHNBC. Flowers are being planted in existing beds and new window boxes will be installed on the outside wall of the gift shop.
“We just want to dress it up so when people arrive at the hospital it will be welcoming,” said Steele. “Other than that, right now, we’re at a standstill. We may never get back into Jubilee Lodge. We had just started a new service where people in longterm care on the various units, we would go and visit them, read to them and people were coming in to play music and sing. Will we ever get to do that again? It’s hard to say.”
The gift shop can’t reopen until a Plexiglas shield is in place and the same is needed at the information booth and upstairs regional clinics. The additional space required for the shield might limit the already tight confines of the gift shop to just two customers and the auxiliary board will have to decide if it will remain viable with the new configuration.
The auxiliary has had no income the past four months and they were prepared to pay $448 for 50 clip-on plastic shields thrift store workers now use, but the Surrey-based manufacturer, Cap Shield, donated them and paid to have them shipped to Prince George.
Most of the auxiliary are people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who have retired from their jobs, and there are several in the group who are well into their 80s. Until the shutdown, they even had a couple volunteers in the 90-plus age category.
“Most of our members are seniors and a lot of them are still worried about coming back,” said Steele.
“We have to take this one step at a time and I don’t want anybody in that (80-plus) age group coming in, because it’s just too uncertain right now.”
The thrift store is now open from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Donations are accepted during business hours at the back of the store at 1523 Third Ave. As an added precaution, dropped-off merchandise has to sit three days before it can be sorted. Donors can ring the buzzer of call the store at 250-564-7707.