University of Regina students studying in a diverse range of disciplines are getting valuable health care mentoring by volunteering at SEARCH, a student run, primary health care clinic in Regina’s North Central neighbourhood.

Irene Mosquito sits stitching beads carefully onto a pair of leather gloves lined with soft rabbit fur. Her ease with both the stitching and the noisy children surrounding her are telling. Just behind her are various pictures of other crafts that she has shared with people who enter through the doors of the Four Directions Community Health Centre every Saturday. One of the crafts stands out.

“It’s called a moss bag,” she says with a warm smile. “They’re used for more than just keeping babies warm.” Mosquito explains how the moss bags are meant to simulate a baby’s life in the womb. “There is even a cord with criss-crossed threads that sits on the inside of the bag,” she says. “Every criss-cross of the thread has a traditional teaching related to it.”

Irene Mosquito (right) used to be a SEARCH client, now she works as a support worker at the after-hours clinic. Mosquito sits with volunteer Busi Mabhena.

(Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

Amidst the hustle and bustle of people, many of them nervous University of Regina students, Mosquito is a calm oasis. Her beautiful black hair is pulled back in a ponytail. Calling her older than most of the others here doesn’t seem quite right. The term grandma seems much more appropriate because ever since she entered the room, the younger children gravitate towards her. She also has that unmistakable presence that makes certain people seem more like an elder than just elderly.

Mosquito is the support worker for SEARCH (Student Energy in Action for Regina Community Health). Started in 2009, SEARCH was the brainchild of a group of post-secondary students who wanted to get involved in a community health initiative in Regina’s inner city. Their partnership with the University of Regina and the Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region led them to Four Directions Community Health Centre, a clinic that had been offering primary health  care in the North Central neighbourhood for more than 20 years.

Using student and professional volunteers, SEARCH builds upon the great work that Four Directions is doing by extending the hours of service into the weekend. Professionals at the facility include doctors, social workers, counsellors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physical therapists and dieticians. Beyond offering these essential services to clients, the professionals provide mentorship to the student volunteers. This community of learning between professional mentors, student volunteers and clients is one of SEARCH’s greatest assets.

Started in 2009, SEARCH was the brainchild of a group of post-secondary students who wanted to get involved in a community health initiative in Regina’s inner city.

Mosquito first got involved with SEARCH because she needed its services as a client. “It did a lot for me,” says Mosquito, who lives in North Central but is originally from Whitefish, Saskatchewan. “For example, for physiotherapy, I didn’t have to go far, because sometimes I didn’t have a vehicle.”

A convenient location was only one of many benefits that SEARCH offered. “When I needed to see the doctor or the physiotherapist, I knew that [SEARCH] was there for me and that I didn’t have to worry about waiting, waiting, waiting.”

The convenience and the friendliness of the people at SEARCH compelled Mosquito to work there herself. Recognizing the importance of Indigenous culture, SEARCH ensures it has staff who can provide leadership and guidance in traditional ways. “I let [the clients] know that it’s okay to be Indian, to use their language, because a lot of people have lost their culture in this community.”

Started in 2009, SEARCH was the brainchild of a group of post-secondary students who wanted to get involved in a community health initiative in Regina’s inner city.

(Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

Mosquito says that the ability to perform cultural activities such as beadwork and moss bags was lost as a result of residential schools. “The grandparents were the ones that were supposed to pass on the values and teach the kids,” she says. “Now that piece is missing.”

She sees her role at SEARCH as a way to bridge that gap. “We’re trying to get all of that back, slowly … Even here.”

As with the other mentors, Mosquito sees her job as providing services to both the clients and the student volunteers. “If you are wanting to teach or work in the North Central community, you need to know the cultural aspects of it and I’m always here to help answer those types of questions, not just for the clients that come in, but also for the students,” she says. “So teaching people all of these protocols – how to dress, what to bring – it’s all an important part of being here.”

Kelly Husack BKin'15 is SEARCH’s executive director. She also leads the Blue Dot Movement, an organization that advocates for a healthier environment. Husack first heard about SEARCH in Christian Thomson’s Indigenous Studies 100 class at the First Nations University of Canada. She still remembers her first day at SEARCH. Following the SEARCH orientation session, she was nervously standing against the wall when one of the social workers approached her and said, “Jump in there and go have a conversation.”

This invitation would alter the direction of Husack’s life and fundamentally change her perspective on community health. After three years volunteering, and having entered her second year as executive director, Husack sees health as so much more than just offering treatment. She says that the community aspect SEARCH offers is its greatest remedy.

“We spend a lot of time with our clients,” she says. “Often, needs that are presented on the medical side tend to be a lot more complex than just, ‘I have a sore throat, etc.’ There tends to be a lot more compounding factors, so we try to allow more time for that.”

The Four Directions Community Health Centre in the North Central neighbourhood is home to SEARCH. The clinic has been offering primary health care in the community for more than 20 years.

(Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

Husack says that SEARCH helps lighten the load on the Regina health care system. “By coming here, people aren’t utilizing emergency services, which reduces cost and strain on the emergency rooms at the main hospitals.”

SEARCH also offers unique educational benefits to its student volunteers. “Students come in with their own backgrounds and their own sets of knowledge that they’ve gained through their university experience thus far,” says Husack. “Then they get to meet and work with people in the community.”

After years of working in interior design, Jessica Dunster BSNU'17 decided that it was time for a change. “I dealt with people that had lots of money to spend,” says Dunster. “The materialism and the greed started to get to me.”

That led Dunster to seek a career where she felt she could serve others. She quickly enrolled in a nursing program. It wasn’t long into her program that Amanda Kukartz, SEARCH’s previous director, came to her school on a student volunteer recruitment trip. Dunster had a choice of ten different placements and she chose SEARCH.

“I just felt that there was a lot of stigma to this area,” says Dunster, “and as someone who was going into a health profession, I think that it was very important for me to understand the background that people from the inner city were coming from.”

Jessica Dunster left a career in interior design for nursing in order to serve others.

(Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

Now a registered nurse at the General Hospital, Dunster says that her learning at SEARCH is something that you can’t get in a classroom. “You can go and take an Indigenous health class and learn about the residential school system and everything that happened, but here you have the opportunity to sit down with someone and learn about their particular experience: what it has done to their family, what’s going on now and the issues that that has caused.”

“It was the individuals and families that I connected with that made it more personal for me,” she says. “It kept me wanting to come back.”

After completing her one-month course requirement, Dunster decided to continue volunteering. She eventually joined the student-led SEARCH Board of Directors and is now a board co-chair. “It was the individuals and families that I connected with that made it more personal for me,” she says. “It kept me wanting to come back.”

Dunster says that her time at SEARCH has opened her eyes to the judgement that marginalized people feel from our health care system, and, in turn, how she can become a better advocate. “Being at SEARCH has given me much more of a catalogue of contacts for help and supports that [marginalized] people can use.”

Connecting with other students and professional mentors was also “huge” for her. She not only got to observe and perform pre-interviews with clients, but also to have key conversations with mentors about the clients’ diagnoses.

Above all, Dunster says that SEARCH has helped her dig deeper and look beyond the clinical aspect of what’s happening to people. And this, she says, has made her a better nurse. “It’s made me more aware of getting to know what’s going on in a person’s life, so you can have more of an impact,” she says. “It’s having a more holistic approach. For some Indigenous people, this may mean getting them access to an Elder.”

Dunster believes that without SEARCH, she would not have had the same depth of sensitivity to people—that she wouldn’t be doing the same “digging” that she does now.

A black string with a large plastic white bat is wrapped snugly around the neck of Matthew Pechey BScHons'15, a second-year medical student and SEARCH volunteer. “I’m a fan of Batman,” says Pechey. “I like to go to the Fan Expo in Regina—it’s a good conversation starter.”

Like Bruce Wayne, Pechey comes from a place of privilege. “I’m in a pretty advantaged situation as a Caucasian male coming from a middle-income family,” says Pechey. “Acknowledging that lack of fairness and knowing that there’s a responsibility to work towards something better is important, even if it’s going to be slow and difficult.”

Matthew Pechey, a second-year medical student and SEARCH volunteer.

(Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

Pechey speaks of the humility that he has learned as a SEARCH volunteer. “I am learning too. I might be doing one thing that I think is helpful, but then find out that it is completely inappropriate, that you need to be informed on what the specific needs are in the community rather than imposing your own prejudice.”

Pechey first volunteered with SEARCH during his undergraduate degree in psychology. Seeing how the professional counselling mentors worked with clients and their family members was eye-opening. “[The mentors] have worked within the community and the insights they bring are very valuable,” he says. “They know the events and the health care issues within this neighbourhood.”

If Irene Mosquito is the wise SEARCH sage, then Sam Berg is the Jedi master. A veteran counsellor of more than 20 years, Berg’s warm disposition is matched by his handsomely lined face and silver hair. “As mentors, we provide the services that we are professionally equipped to do and then we are observed,” he says. “We then debrief after each session.”

Berg says it’s fascinating to watch the professional and educational progression of the students during their time at SEARCH. “It gives them the opportunity to get out of the ivory tower and get involved with people on the ground,” he says. “It’s been a really wonderful experience working with them and with the clients that come here as well.”

Berg says that the students that come through SEARCH’s doors give him hope for the future. “If there’s a problem with millennials today, these aren’t typical,” he says with a laugh. “These are the type of people that get up in the morning, work hard and have dreams and ambitions.”

Sam Berg a veteran counsellor and SEARCH volunteer.

(Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

One of those millennials is Aimee Kowallski, a second-year psychology student at the University of Regina and one of the ten people experiencing their first day at SEARCH. Like Kelly Husack, Kowallski first heard about SEARCH in Christian Thomson’s Indigenous Studies 100 class. Originally from Moose Jaw, Kowallski says that the things she’s been learning in her Indigenous studies class are “blowing her mind” and that she sees SEARCH as a great way to learn and help Regina become a better place.

Peter Boyko is a larger-than-life character. He is one of those rare people that can be loud and endearing at the same time. As soon as he rolled through the SEARCH doors, waves of smiles came over people’s faces.

“I’m really happy this place is here,” says Boyko.

Boyko has been coming to SEARCH for the past four years. While he’s definitely used the medical and counselling services, Boyko makes it very evident that the staff and students here are his friends and that the social aspect of SEARCH is extremely important to him. He often refers to different staff members, such as Kay Yee (a dietician) and others as if they were his regular chums on coffee row at a small-town diner. “Chats with these people ranged from the efficacy of hydroelectricity, to the KKK, and then the limited uses of solar power,” says Boyko.

A resident of Argyle Park, Boyko says he first noticed the Four Directions Centre when passing by on the bus. Now he doesn’t know what he’d do without it. “I had an ear infection once, a cold another time. I saw the doctor a few times. I saw a counsellor when the social worker wasn't here,” he says. “It’s truly important that these [extended Saturday] hours are available.”

Boyko brings up the sign that hangs above the kitchen in the main room. It says, ‘Love is the best ingredient.’ “It’s not just a statement, but something that is lived out by the staff, and that includes those that come and volunteer on Saturdays,” he says. “I’m really happy this place is here.”

About the Author

Joshua Campbell is a high-school teacher, freelance journalist, and proud husband and father who lives in Regina, Saskatchewan. He has a passion for investigative stories related to social justice, the environment, and Indigenous peoples.