VIDEO and story: Heart of Our City — Enjoying life and living

Occupational therapist Sue Neilson has worked with clients to help them live beyond just surviving

Camp Jupiter is one way that kids who need a little extra support can have a memorable summer, and it’s one way that a recently retired occupational therapist can give back.

Sue Neilson didn’t always know that she wanted to be an OT — the career fell into her hands while she was studying history at university in Ontario. To help pay tuition, she worked at a nursing home over the summer months, and she started doing activities with the residents for extra hours.

“I really felt that we were giving them an opportunity to do something that was fun, that was different, that didn’t just relate to survival, but did relate to enjoying life and living,” Neilson said.

Before explaining how she came to co-discover Camp Jupiter in Prince Rupert, the tale on how she worked her way to Kaien Island is worth telling.

After university, her and a friend attempted to travel Europe with only $500 between them. Unsuccessful, they hooked up with Neilson’s relatives in Yorkshire, England, where she he got a job as a weaver in the mills.

“I was really bad at it,” she said with a laugh. Weaving fine worsted woolens wasn’t her future, and after a year she went to school in Scotland to become an occupational therapist.

She returned to Canada to work in a chronic psychiatric facility in Ontario in the hospital system, which she enjoyed. This was the era when it was the first rush to de-institutionalize and integrate patients back into the community. Her next move was to Prince George to work at the psychiatric unit at the hospital.

But when she moved to Prince Rupert with her husband in 1983, it wasn’t for work. The couple had bought a sailboat that was moored on the North Coast.

“Technology was not part of the equation. You put the sails up and you took them down. Those were your choices,” she said.

The boat, Fulmar, had a one cylinder Wisconson engine that required her to get down on her knees in the cabin to reach down under with a bit of a twist to get it going. The couple decided that only one of them would work, and whoever got a job first would be the breadwinner. Neilson got the job as an OT in physical medicine with Prince Rupert Hospital Board.

“There were very few OTs at that point along the Yellowhead, and at one point, not for very long, I was the only working OT between here and Prince George,” she said.

As an OT she examined the function of the client’s muscle and improved their ability to perform day-to-day activities. In 2006, she retired from the hospital and shifted to working in the school district and to help children within the classroom.

Six years ago, she collaborated with a speech pathologist to create Camp Jupiter and provide extra care for some of the kids who needed it. In the past three years, Pacific NorthWest LNG has supported the camp along with the school district. For two weeks in the summer, an average of 17 students get to experience activities that may be new and otherwise unavailable to them.

“We do provide them with experiences they haven’t had before, for example this year we went to Metlakatla and we poked around on the beach and we chartered the ferry and for some of them it was the first time they’d been on a boat,” Neilson said.

As they came down to the Metlakatla ferry, there were three seals playing between the dock and the shore, a highlight of the trip for the kids and Neilson.

Being on the water and in a small coastal city has kept the Neilson’s here since they bought their sailboat. They would cruise up and down the coast until they upgraded to a high-speed boat. Douglas Fir II was a class of forestry boats they purchased from the province. After cruising, quite faster, for four years, they went back to sailing with Tzigane.

“Those were the days that we had the North Coast sailors in the sailing association and there were races in the harbour. We raced her and sailed her and had a great time,” she said.

They enjoyed the water so much, they decided to try to live aboard a 52 foot boat called Phoebe. Her husband worked for Fisheries and Oceans at the time, and she said they were allowed to tie up at Sourdough Bay in the boat yard.

“We could sit in the wheelhouse and look out and see the wolves coming out on the little spit of land just ahead of us,” Neislon said.

After five years living aboard Phoebe, they became indefinite land lovers. But Neilson still reflects on all the opportunities she’s had as an OT and living by the sea, being flown into Lax Kw’alaams to do clinics, and visiting Diane Lake with kids in Camp Jupiter.

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