VON Pictou County is transforming healthcare

The Sobey Foundation’s commitment of $1.1 million over five years will create generational change.

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Peggy Wood carefully measures out a cup of sugar before adding it to a bowl of water that sits at the ready on the counter in the tidy kitchen of her home in Pictou County. Clearly the heart of the home, this kitchen is where mounds of cookies and buns have been baked, countless jars of pickled beets and raspberry jam have been made, and where years of family meals have been cooked.

And now, this room is where Peggy prepares food for the hummingbirds that, beginning mid-May every year, flock to the feeders that gently sway in the wind outside. She is meticulous about feeding her beloved hummingbirds and cleaning the feeders, even going through 13 bags of sugar last summer. “I love to watch them,” says Peggy as she hangs a feeder.

At 91, a fiercely independent Peggy is living in her own home, thanks in part to Pictou County Victorian Order of Nurses (VON), who have been involved with her care for the past 15 years. “The VON has played a huge role in keeping our mother at home, surrounded by her hummingbirds and the beauty of nature. This is what she has always wanted,” says Doreen Wood, one of Peggy’s daughters. 

Peggy, here with two of her daughters, Joan and Doreen, raised six children with her husband Fred in her home, which was once a one-room schoolhouse. “Mom is living life to the fullest in every way, with the VON’s support,” says Doreen.

Over the years, Peggy has received various services from the VON depending on her needs. She has had nursing care, home support with CCAs and frozen VON meals. “They come every two weeks, on Wednesdays, and I just can’t wait. When they sit down before the hour’s up, that’s when we do the chatting about my family,” says Peggy.

“There's such trust with the VON. All of us in Pictou County have been touched in some way by the VON. It's an essential service,” says Joan Wood, one of Peggy’s daughters.

A new philanthropic commitment from The Sobey Foundation will help ensure the VON Pictou County can continue to serve the needs of its community, both now and into the future. Funding of more than $1.1 million over the next five years will help the VON build capacity and innovate to meet changing needs. 

The Sobey Foundation partnership will help create generational change, says Carol Curley, Associate Vice President, Home & Community Care, VON Nova Scotia. “The VON is on the leading edge of the transformation of the healthcare system.”


The VON in Pictou County offers three types of services: visiting nursing, home support, and community support services. Although the VON serves clients of all ages, the vast majority of clients are seniors, many of whom are able to stay in their homes rather than go into institutional care because of the support of the VON, says Carol. 

“We hear from clients that they absolutely want to stay in their own homes. It's their personal environment. They have control there, they have family and friends who can visit in their home, and they just want to hang on to that as long as they possibly can.”

In response to increased demand, the VON is focused on healthcare transformation through the use of improved technology. The partnership with The Sobey Foundation will enable the VON in Pictou County to launch VON Connect, an electronic health record that will link all services provided to clients like Peggy in one client record. This will allow VON to identify all the services its clients are receiving, and make scheduling more efficient for both staff and clients. 

“It will enable our mobile workforce to receive information about the client in real time,” says Carol.

Funding will also enable VON Pictou County to hire a volunteer driver to transport clients to the new VON health clinic in New Glasgow, an essential part of enabling people to stay in their homes while still accessing care.

VON has made me a better nurse. It has given me the opportunity to advance my knowledge and continue further education.

Ashley Lewis


The commitment will also fund the resources and training needed to transform Pictou County into a centre of excellence and leader in palliative and end of life care. One aspect is researching how an end of life doula could help families and clients. “Pictou County is very blessed with a robust palliative care program,” says Carol. “But when you get to the 11th hour, it's often the family that says, ‘I can't just do this anymore.’ That's where the notion of an end of life doula came to mind for us. A doula role is really, ‘How can I support you?’ We want to learn more and we want to understand what that could look like. This commitment will allow us to do that.”


Being able to see people before they go to the hospital or before they go to long-term care is why Ashley Lewis chose to work for the VON. Ashley, a Registered Nurse (RN), sees an average of 10 clients a day, with visits lasting 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the complexity of the care. 

“Some visits are quick and easy. Others we are holding the hands of our client and providing support to them and the family,” says Ashley, who has been a VON nurse for five years. “People are comfortable opening up and talking to you. There's a lot of supportive care and sometimes they just want a voice to listen to. Sometimes we're the only people they see in a day.”

Ashley moved to New Glasgow in 2013 with her husband, who is from Pictou County. She drives past the houses of her clients – her neighbours – on a daily basis, which brings her a sense of pride knowing she has had an impact on their lives. “Pictou County is a close community, and the VON is a big, big part of this community.”

One of Ashley’s clients is Ellen Conway, 99, who still lives in her own house in New Glasgow. It’s a house that she built, including handpicking the rocks that she added to it one winter. Since 1969, she has boarded various work crews while they are on the road – up to 15 people at a time. She feeds them and gives them a home away from home.


Ellen is fiercely independent and determined to stay in her own home, where she hand picked and laid out the stones on the facade of the house. “I’ve lived here forever and I don’t want to go anywhere else.”


“I’ve lived here forever and I don’t want to go anywhere else,” says Ellen, fresh from the salon in advance of visitors arriving. “I do all of my own business.” 

At one point, Ellen battled sepsis and spent a month in the hospital. She returned home with the support of the VON and initially was assisted with her medications, blood sugar checks, and insulin administration. But Ellen's determination to regain control of her health led her to take charge of her own care. “I've taught her how to redo her insulin and she does it every day, which I find is just amazing,” says Ashley. “We give her control and she leads her own care. We are just there to help guide her as needed while respecting her dignity and autonomy.” 

Empowering, educating and supporting clients and their families to lead their own care is an essential part of the work VON nurses and Continuing Care Assistants (CCAs) provide. It’s what drew Ashley to the job. “We focus on holistic care that improves the quality of life of our clients,” says Ashley. “How beautiful it is that we can keep people in their homes, surrounded by their family and their loved ones, and they lead their own care. It's more traditional care and more comforting.”

Training and continual learning, which will be a large part of the initiative made possible by The Sobey Foundation, will enable the VON to be a leader in healthcare transformation. “The VON has made me a better nurse,” says Ashley, a palliative care lead. “It has given me the opportunity to advance my knowledge and continue my education.”

Having an impact on someone’s return to health, or being part of someone’s end of life care is a privilege, says Ashley. “Illness and disease do not discriminate. I've been in homes of wealthy people, and I have been in homes without running water. Either way, we treat people the same. Those who work in the community know it's more than just a job when you love what you do.”


Peggy grew up on a farm in East River St. Mary’s in the 1930s, where she went to a one-room school and spent Sundays playing with her five siblings in a brook that ran through their property. When she married Fred Wood in 1955, Peggy moved nearby, raising six children in the house where she now lives.

Their house was always filled with friends and neighbours, and the aroma of baking, something Peggy did every day. A vibrant member of her community, Peggy drove ladies to and from church and community events, and made socks, mittens and quilts with her mom for soldiers during the Second World War. “Mom was our role model for the importance of being part of, and involved in, our Pictou County community,” says Joan. 

Now, Peggy is the one being supported by her community. “They're so kind,” says Peggy of the VON nurses and CCAs. “There's some that come who want to learn about knitting. So I show them, or they show me a new stitch. I just love them when they come.”

Peggy has had health challenges, including major surgery. Living 45 kilometers from the nearest hospital meant post-operative support from the VON was essential. “After mom’s operation, we felt so secure that she was coming home in the arms of the VON. She would never have been able to come home without them,” says Joan. “The word for me is gratitude. The VON has been a large part of our family.”

The care provided by the VON reflects the spirit of their motto Live Every Day, says Doreen. “Mom is living life to the fullest in every way, with the VON’s support. They help mom live every day better.”

Fast Facts

The Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) was established in 1897 to ensure that care is available, affordable and accessible to everyone in Canada — no matter where they live. 

VON has helped communities during some of the most devastating periods in Canada’s history: First World War, 1917 Halifax Explosion, 1918 influenza epidemic, Great Depression, Second World War, COVID-19 pandemic. 

VON Pictou County provides three levels of care:

  • Visiting nursing services are provided by licensed practical nurses and registered nurses who provide clinical care, including wound care, IV therapy, post-op interventions, and palliative care.
  • Home support is supportive services in the client's home that helps to keep people there as long as possible. Primarily provided by continuing care assistants (CCAs), home support includes personal care, range of motion exercises, and getting clients ready for bed and up in the morning, and non-personal supportive services such as meal preparation and light housekeeping.
  • Community Support Services including Meals on Wheels, adult day programs, and volunteer transportation.

A total of 265 people are employed by VON in Pictou County: 

  • 118 home support staff
  • 108 nursing staff
  • 24 scheduling staff
  • 15 office admin and management staff

The Sobey Foundation commitment of $1.12 million over five years will go towards:

  • The creation of VON Connect, an online one-person one-record system that will help enhance care quality, efficiencies and capacity
  • The hiring of a driver to support client access to the New Glasgow VON clinic.
  • Training programs that will support Pictou County becoming a centre of excellence for frailty, palliative and end-of-life care to ensure continued support for the region’s aging population.