Despite the fact the Tetra Society of North America was founded in 1987 by a young man named Sam Sullivan who would later go on to become Mayor of Vancouver, most people have never heard of it. This is unfortunate as the purpose of the society is to help people who are having difficulties with everyday tasks by making these things possible.
“I vividly remember the extreme frustration I felt when I first moved out on my own,” says Sam. “I had become a quadriplegic as a result of a skiing accident, which left me with limited use of my arms and no use of my fingers.
“I was anxious to get work and get out of the standard predicament of publicly subsidized housing and a publicly subsidized attendant twice a day. But I couldn't use the washroom, shower, cook on my own. I couldn't even turn the doorknob to get out of my own apartment! I remember feeling quite lonely, wondering if I was the only one living this nightmare. It wasn’t long before I found that I was not alone; there were many frustrated people struggling with things so basic that most people would never think twice about them.”
So, Sam wrote a letter to the Association of Professional Engineers of BC asking them for assistance. Paul Cermak, a professional engineer, offered to help.
“To me, the man was nothing short of an angel – he worked more or less full-time for about six months solving so many vexing problems and helping me achieve the independence I was looking for.”
In short order, the Tetra Development Society was born, enlisting volunteer engineers to help disabled and elderly clients solve problems with managing their day-to-day existence. Seventy-nine year old Dave Doman got involved from the beginning. He credits Sam Sullivan with starting the project and Paul Cermak for being the first volunteer. He also credits them with taking the next step.
“Paul and Sam came up with the idea of putting an ad in the magazine of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geo-Scientists of BC looking for volunteers,” says Dave. “I was interested and went to all the early meetings, then stayed for a number of years until extra demands of my job forced me to drift away. When I retired 10 years ago… I got back in.”
Tetra does not assign projects, and no one takes on more than they can handle. The clients first identify a need in their lives and then fill in a form that they submit to the Tetra office, either online or by mailing it in. The program coordinator brings all the requests to the monthly meetings, where they are read out and discussed, with volunteers signing up to work on projects that appeal to them or that they feel they can help with.
Chapters now exist across Canada and word has grown even further.
“We even get requests from the United States from time to time, as well as from places all over the world,” says Dave. “We offer advice for these people, but do not get directly involved in their projects. We charge nothing for our time and are only reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses for materials we need to buy.”
When a volunteer has taken on a project, the next step is to meet with the client.
“Once you have the details of the request you go and meet the client to see precisely what the problem is. You have to decide if there is something you can do to help them and then you get it done. Some projects are quite simple, while some are extraordinarily complex. But if you are able to solve the problem, the people are very grateful. I find it satisfying to be able to help people. It is good to feel useful and to know you are making life a little better for someone who is less fortunate.”
One grateful client is Jack Tait who is 82. Jack found out about Tetra because he has been involved with both the Disability Foundation and the Disabled Sailing Association for quite a few years and their offices are located nearby. He has had a custom-made rack put on the back of one of his scooters and has had a portable ramp built for his middle-sized scooter and is currently having another one made for his large scooter.
“It is a great thing that they do this for us,” says Jack. “We talk together about the projects and get things worked out. It usually takes a couple of months to get projects done and you are never sure how it is going to work out until they get started on it. They come back a couple of times trying things out until they get it right.”
Sixty-seven-year old Maureen DeLandreville broke her neck in 1992 and has regularly relied on Tetra Society since then. “They are a hugely important organization and people need to know about them. In the disabled community, we hear about them through GF Strong and places like that but they are for everyone who needs their services.”
The first project she had completed was to have a device built so she could attach her scooter to the family car. Once this was successfully done, she had an engineer devise a ramp that could help her get out onto her deck. She has a great deal of appreciation for the volunteers: “They are so creative and talented, lovely to work with and reliable. Watching these retired engineers work is like watching young children learn and experience the world. The first engineer who worked with me was a man named Harry Hardy, and he has done so many more projects for me over the years, including practically building a wheelchair from scratch to replace a British-built one I had and could not find parts for anymore.”
Harry Hardy is a 91-year-old volunteer for the Tetra Society, who is still going strong. After working at MacMillan Bloedel until his 70th birthday, Harry took two years off until the fateful day when he had the radio tuned to the right station.
“I was working in my garage and Sam Sullivan was on the radio talking about Tetra and asking for volunteers. I called the number they gave and went to the next meeting they held at GF Strong in 1994. I have been with them ever since. Right now, I am working on my 313th project for them.”
The monthly meetings of the Tetra Society serve as the vehicle to get the individuals needing assistance together with the engineers who are willing to help. With at least 20 volunteers per meeting, including engineering students from UBC, there is usually plenty of help available for the various requests.
“All of us old fellows are friends, and we are pleased to see some of the young people are starting to join us,” says Harry. “Some of the students like to come over and use my space because it is more sociable than working alone.”
He also enjoys the social aspects of taking on the projects.
“It turns out that working for disabled people is good therapy for the volunteer. I always spend some time with them and get to know them a little before finding out what the problem is. They are always eager to talk and to let you know what is bothering them. Once you have a satisfied client, it is very common to get asked to come back again for something else.”
Thanks to volunteers like Harry Hardy and Dave Doman, obstacles are overcome and friendships are made.
To contact the Tetra Society, call Pat Tweedie at 604-688-6464, ext. 108 or toll free at 1-877-688-8762 or go to the website at tetrasociety.org. They are always eager to accept volunteers, even those who are not engineers.
Sam’s Sullivan’s quotes taken from his own words on the Tetra Society website and are used with the permission of both the Tetra Society and Mr. Sullivan.
MAY 2013 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE
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