The heart of the family: Wetaskiwin’s Fern Unland honoured with Florence Riske Caregiver Award

Ponoka caregiver continually honoured with memorial award

After tragedy altered her family 40 years ago, Fern Unland mustered an inner strength some people can only imagine and became the caregiver for her paralyzed husband following a diving accident.

On Sept. 10 Unland was honoured with the 2017 Pigeon Lake Child and Family Society Florence Riske Caregiver Award in a ceremony filled with family and friends at the Village Creek Country Inn in the Village of Pigeon Lake.

“In 2007 the society launched the Florence Riske Caregiver Award program. It was felt within today’s fast paced world the selfless love and dedication of caregivers had sadly gone unrecognized,” said Linda Zukiwski.

Following an accident at Buck Lake that left Walter Unland diagnosed with quadriplegia at the age of 26, he, Fern, and the couple’s six and three year old children began to build a new life for themselves.

Previously the couple had owned a farm near Alder Flats and operated a store in Alder Flats. Walter worked for Great Plains Oils and flew planes.

The pair first met while attending Pigeon Lake High School and married shortly after graduation 47 years ago.

After spending nine months in the hospital the family relocated to Penticton, B.C. to adapt to their new family dynamic.

Walter’s brother Dale built a wheelchair accessible home for the family in Wetaskiwin, where the couple still resides today.

Walter, despite initial reservations, took an insurance sales course and wrote the exam under special dispensation with Fern’s help. Some time later Fern also took the course so the two could work together.

“They did not stay home but lived with the same gusto as they had before,” said Zukiwski.

With the help of friends the couple renovated a holiday trailer and went camping in Cordelaine, as well as taking a boat trip along the coast. “The view on the top of the boat was much better than on the main floor but the boat was not designed with ramps or elevators, just a steep stairwell. Undaunted, Fern and their friends Cheryl and Roger pulled and pushed Walter and chair up to the second floor so they could experience the view together,” said Zukiwski.

After Walter’s accident he was not expected to live past 35 years old.

“With Fern’s love and dedication this dark milestone was easily passed,” said Zukiwski.

Following the presentation of the award Fern took to the podium to say a few words.

“I’d like to thank the Pigeon Lake Child and Family Society for the honour of receiving the Florence Riske Caregiver Award.” said Unland, who added being chosen for the award was an unexpected surprise.

Unland also thanked her children for understanding when the family’s priorities has to change; as well as thanking other family and friends who have given their support over the years. “To our family and friends, you helping hands in so many ways … You’ve been a blessing.”

“Walter, it’s been interesting. The ups and downs, the giggles and tears,” she added. “It has been an interesting life. The love and concern for one another doesn’t make the world go round, but it makes the ride interesting.”

In front of the crowded room of family and friends present to honour the love and strength Fern has given her husband and family, Walter also made sure to give his thanks. “I would like to thank the (society) for recognizing her for what she’s done.”

“A lot of love to everyone … Thanks again everyone,” he added.

As an avid gardener, there were several bouquets of flowers given to Fern as thanks and recognition for her unyielding determination. This included a large arrangement of 40 purple and white roses for Fern from Walter, one for every year since his accident.

Fern was also presented with certificates of recognition from Drayton Valley-Devon MLA Mark Smith and the House of Commons and Edmonton-Wetaskiwin MP Mike Lake; not present at the time but also recognizing Fern is a certificate from the County of Wetaskiwin.

Florence Riske, for whom the annual award program is named after, was the original recipient of the award.

“Florence Riske was one of those special individuals, caring for her son Melvin, severely handicapped from birth. Florence passed away in 2009 at the age of 92, followed in 2010 by Melvin at 71. Up until their passing they lived in their home in Ponoka,” said Zukiwski.

“They are both dearly missed and we are proud to annually present the Florence Riske Caregiver Award in their memory to strong, loving, like-minded people within our region,” she added.

amelia.naismith@pipestoneflyer.ca