Sister Jean Ell, SGM

Sister Jean Ell is a trailblazer in mental health. While working in the psychiatry unit at St Boniface Hospital, helping people in need with their mental health and addictions issues, Sister Jean Ell was “called” to do more and to do better, on their behalf. This led to two major innovations which would support Winnipeg’s mental health and addictions care for persons struggling – The McEwen Centre of St. Boniface Hospital and Sara Riel Inc.

Based on a plan that she took to the governing board, the McEwen Centre was established and provided day programs, group therapy sessions, drug and alcohol detox and cessation clinics, as well as a day care program.

Then in the early 1970s, after noticing that people who had been discharged were returning because of a lack of services in the community, Sister Jean Ell decided to work in earnest to establish a community service which would provide supports to people wanting to maintain their wellness after hospital discharge. This groundbreaking idea would see individuals moved away from the medical model and into recovery model – promoting life skills and personal growth focused on immediate needs for maintenance of social, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.
In 1977, Sara Riel Inc. was established, named for the Grey Nun sister of Louis Riel.

Sister Jean started as the executive director, with the mandate to help the disadvantaged, particularly those who have had mental/emotional problems and to promote or carry on other charitable activities. The first phase was to establish a rehabilitation residence followed by a second phase of day programming. Sister Jean found a four-storey property at 210 Kenny Street, in St. Boniface.

The program initially helped young people who struggled. Families did not know where to go or how to help their children live independently. For the most part, families often hid their children because of shame and stigma. But at Sara Riel, these young adults learned to achieve and manage their symptoms.

Many times, throughout the years, Sister Jean was told her ideas would not work. Government would often say no to requests. But she persevered and would tackle those ideas anyways. In time, her success would be measured by the numbers of people who found their independence and recovery.

Over time, Sara Riel Inc. expanded even further to provide employment services, peer-led respite, community mentorship with support provided directly in the home, rehabilitation services, work placement programs, art and craft groups, psycho- education and support and counselling services.

From a program that started with 20 by 1982 there were 170 people and in 2019, over 600 people are supported annually each year.

In 1995, Sister Jean Ell retired from Sara Riel. In spring of 2000, she received the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada in recognition of her significant contribution to the community. She was recognized for her contribution to Social Work with the Helen Mann 50th Anniversary Award in 2013.

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