Honour House Celebrates its First Decade

Ten years and more than 10,000 nights of accommodation to support the men and women in uniform who defend our values and way of life. One reason – sometimes even heroes need a helping hand. 

Honour House
Veteran relaxing in the Honour House Peace Garden.

Located on a quiet, tree-lined street in New Westminster, BC, Honour House is a visionary concept that’s unique in Canada. When military personnel, veterans, and first responders (or their family member) need medical treatment in Metro Vancouver, this lovingly-restored, heritage manor becomes their home away from home as they battle often life-threatening illness or injury. 

In the midst of personal trauma, Honour House is a safe haven, a tranquil oasis for the people who risk their lives daily, yet seldom acknowledge their own pain or ask for assistance when the stress becomes unbearable. 

Firmly rooted in the philosophy that human beings are more able to heal and flourish when they’re part of a supportive group, every decision at Honour House is driven by the goal of creating an environment where people can connect, share, and feel like they’ve become part of a new, extended family.

The social heart of Honour House is a sunny, country-style kitchen that invisibly meets the needs of people with a level-3 disability. This a place where families can cook together – just like they did before disaster interrupted their lives. 

In the adjacent open dining room, harvest tables encourage conversation and many lifetime friendships have already been born here as guests share intimate tales of tragedy and triumph.

Honour House
Honour House sun room and lounge.

Sometimes guests just need a private space to curl up with a book and a latté as they forget the world. Sometimes it’s popcorn and a movie night in the lower-level rec room that fits the bill. And sometimes, holding hands while listening to the music of the gentle bubbler fountain in Honour House’s Peace Garden provides a respite like no other.
And the most amazing aspect of Honour House? Thanks to the generosity of donors from all walks of life (the sole source of funding), this home away from home is completely free of charge for the heroes who stay there. 

Transforming Horror into Honour
Honour House’s 10-year history is an epic tale of unwavering commitment, tenacity, and sheer grit that began with a shocking tragedy. In March 2006, the story of a savage attack on Captain Trevor Greene, a Canadian infantry officer serving in Afghanistan, horrified the nation. In the remote village of Shinkay, the 41-year-old captain and his platoon were preparing to meeting with village elders to discuss how Canada could help rebuild critical infrastructure in their war-torn province. 

Observing the custom of respect, weapons and head gear were laid aside. The Pashtunwali code holds these meetings as sacred and safe for all – be they friend or foe. Until it wasn’t. 

When a 16-year-old Taliban insurgent swung his home-made axe into Captain Greene’s unprotected skull, no one believed the officer could survive. Against all odds, he did – although it would be a year before the first faint glimmer of light shone through the darkness that had descended on his world.

Two years later, Al De Genova, a former Vancouver Park Board Commissioner, and his wife watched in disbelief as the Gemini Award-winning documentary Peace Warrior followed Capt Greene’s miraculous recovery. But it was the story of the Greene family’s ongoing struggle to find, and pay for, accommodations during his long recovery that triggered a personal call to action. 

“If you live in a remote community and you’re not blessed to have family or friends with a spare bedroom, your only option for accommodations is a hotel room,” De Genova explains. “When you’re talking weeks or months, the expense of even a modestly priced hotel rapidly becomes staggering. After everything these brave men and women have given, they should not have to worry about where they will stay or how to pay for it. They should be honoured, not face potential financial ruin.” The Honour House vision had been born.

Finding Home
With the broad strokes of a daring plan already in mind, De Genova contacted Joel Camley, long-time friend and a senior partner at the international law firm of Gowling WLG. “Joel, your country needs you.” It was the first time De Genova spoke the words that would become the signature introduction to his dream of creating a home away from home for those who serve and sacrifice day after day, year after year.

Camley didn’t hesitate, and within days had drawn up the legal documents to incorporate Honour House as a non-profit society. Together he and his friend recruited a board of directors with the skills, connections, and commitment to be there for the long haul. And they began the search for a residence that would become Honour House.

Twice De Genova found what he thought would be an ideal property, and twice municipal zoning regulations slammed the door shut. And then Wayne Wright, the mayor of New Westminster, invited De Genova to meet him at 509 St George Street. Initially, New Westminster had not been on De Genova’s radar, but the moment he saw the home’s elegant architecture, the expansive grounds, and its location near transit, shopping, and parks – there was no question that this was “the one.”

Renovations took many months, but an unstoppable tsunami of help arrived daily. The Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA) rallied its members who donated materials and countless hours of skilled labour. Military personal in combat fatigues and uniformed first responders soon became a common sight installing toilets, applying drywall, or digging irrigation trenches – whatever needed doing, they gave it their all. More than a few times, a volunteer simply showed up unannounced, asked how they could help for a couple of hours, and got on with the task at hand.

Honour House

Finally, On November 10th, 2010, Trevor Greene cut the ceremonial ribbon and declared Honour House open. The moment was a poignant one, made more so by the knowledge it was the courage and determination of himself and his wife Debbie, facing what many believed were insurmountable odds, that were the inspiration that transformed Honour House from a dream into reality. 

Honour Ranch
Almost a decade later, in October 2019, a new chapter in Honour House’s outreach was officially unveiled 10 kilometres south of Ashcroft, British Columbia. Honour Ranch, located on 120 acres of rolling hills that overlook the South Thompson River, is poised to become a place of education and personal growth.

Honour House
From left: Robert Parkinson, Health and Wellness Director, Ambulance Paramedics of BC & Director, Honour House Society; Diane Sandy, Bonaparte First Nation (First Nations Blessing); The Honourable Judy Darcy, British Columbia’s first and Canada’s only Minister of Mental Health; Steven Rice, Area Director, Thompson-Nicola Regional District; Captain Trevor Greene, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada; and Honorary Colonel Al DeGenova, President, Honour House Society took part in the official launch ceremony for Honour Ranch in October 2019.  

Here military personnel, veterans, and first responders will have opportunities to discover cutting-edge strategies in the treatment of PTSD and other silent, mental injuries. The goal: empower these heroes so they are better equipped to navigate the often debilitating emotional and physical stresses of selfless commitment to service and personal sacrifice. 

Like Honour House, Honour Ranch welcomes not only the men and women who protect our Canadian freedoms, but their families as well. Its creation is also a story of many people coming together to achieve a common goal. Local Ashcroft residents, soldiers, first responders, the Honour House board of directors, contractors, business people – hundreds of willing hands were raised instantly when the call “your country needs you” went out once again. 

Honour Ranch
Members of the crew of HMCS Vancouver Volunteering at Honour Ranch.

The property, a former adventure park that had fallen into disrepair, was donated by Ian Porter, Director of Real Estate with Vancouver-based Seacliff Properties. “When he heard what we wanted to do, Ian just handed me the keys and told me to make it happen,” De Genova says.

Months of intense physical labour followed, as volunteers and trades people poured hours of sweat equity into restoring the 10 dilapidated cabins and chalet-style lodge. Waterlines were installed six feet below ground (twice the distance required to ensure they’re impervious to even the harshest winter freezes). One newlywed couple spent their honeymoon putting up fences instead of basking on a tropical beach.

Honour Ranch
Aerial photo of the Honour Ranch property courtesy of Aspect Film Works @aspectfilmworks

“It’s only now that operational stress injuries like anxiety, depression, and PTSD are being talked about openly,” says Bob Parkinson, Health and Wellness Director of BC Paramedics and the Honour House board member who spearheaded the Honour Ranch initiative. 

“Until recently, the prevailing attitude was to just ‘suck it up’ and carry on. Finally people are beginning to accept the validity of these mental injuries, and our members are beginning to get the treatment they need. But we’re still missing a critical component – education. That’s where Honour Ranch comes in. It won’t be a health care treatment facility or an institution, but rather a safe haven where people who are suffering can learn from mental health specialists and experts.” 

Honour Ranch

The Ranch itself will not provide the program content. Instead, it will create a platform for program delivery. Offerings will be diverse – equine therapy, music, meditative practices and movements. But all must meet one fundamental criteria: any organization that presents a workshop or retreat at Honour Ranch must have an established infrastructure in place so when participants return home, they have access to a support network of professional practitioners. 

“You won’t be able to simply put on a three-day course and send people back home where they’re once again isolated and alone with no answer to the question: Now what?” Parkinson stresses. “This is a need that’s been ignored for far too long.”

His words ring agonizingly true for one local family. In a cruel twist of fate, just over a year before Honour Ranch’s dedication ceremony, Master Corporal Joe Allina of Vancouver’s Seaforth Highlanders had taken his life after a lengthy battle with PTSD.

“Honour Ranch is the realization of a vision to create a safe place where we can support people who give unconditionally day after day, month after month, year after year.” De Genova pauses. “If Honour Ranch had been up and running, I believe Joe would still be alive today. Every day, his memory motivates me to make this the perfect setting for changing lives.” 

Susan M Boyce is a Vancouver-based writer.
Visit www.honourhouse.ca