Helping the vulnerable takes perseverance

Helping the vulnerable takes perseverance

by Marjorie Soldevilla

The late Steve Jobs once said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

His statement certainly rings true for Mrs. Trifona Calixterio Bermisa’s life’s work. She is this year’s winner of the Female Executive and the Overall Excellence awards at the Manitoba Filipino Business Council (MFBC) Awards Gala on October 17, 2014. The well-organized event was held at our city’s new architectural gem, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Trifona was recognized for her valuable work and dedication for 31 years of running two licensed residential care facilities which provide 24-hour care and supervision to the vulnerable members of our society. These are the homeless, the aged, and infirmed, who may also have co-occurring or mental disorders often requiring the maximum level of care.

Their eight-suite facility was one of the first licensed in August 1983 by the Manitoba Family Services & Housing Residential Care Licensing Branch. Residents were referred through the Manitoba Health, Mental Health Program, as well as by the City of Winnipeg and Provincial hospitals. Through the years, residents became younger adults and are now referred exclusively from the Mental Health Program of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Their second “residents’ home” is a 45 bed facility which formerly served as a Nurses’ Residence and converted by the Grey Nuns as board and lodging for female vulnerable residents discharged from the Selkirk and Brandon hospitals. It was later sold and renovated to become a licensed care facility. In 1984, Trifona was chosen and recommended to take over and continue the operation of the facility for female residents referred through the Mental Health Program.

Trifona started the business after reading a series of articles in the 70s and 80s regarding the plight of individuals with post-mental illness who were discharged from the hospital. She was drawn to the issues surrounding suitable housing, supervisions and assistance to integrate back into our community after years of hospitalization. They often lived in rooming houses which were reported as deplorable, unsuitable and unsafe. She felt it was her responsibility to help these people. “I wanted to do something, I wanted to make a difference in their lives and I knew I would do a good job,” said Trifona.

She certainly had the credentials, work ethic and resilience necessary to start a business helping this segment of society. Prior to immigrating to Canada in 1976, Trifona, who was born in La Union and grew up in Sta. Ana, Manila, graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Her father who hailed from Narvacan, Ilocos Sur was a Philippine Navy assigned at the Philippine Naval base. Her mother taught elementary school in La Union.

Her first nursing job was in Isabella Provincial Hospital in Ilagan. She then worked at the National Mental Hospital in Mandaluyong, Rizal as Charge Nurse in the evening and Clinical Instructor during the day.

She eventually left Manila for a nursing job in Alliance, Ohio in 1973 and later moved to Macon, Georgia a year later to get away from the cold weather. Little did she know, she would eventually end up in Winnipeg in the middle of winter in 1976! When her US work permit was about to expire, a friend with relatives in Winnipeg convinced her to apply for a permanent resident visa and move to Winnipeg, where she later met her husband and business partner Isaias.

Her first job was at the Sharon Home and later as Head Nurse at Health Sciences Centre’s Women’s hospital. Sharon Home moved and later became Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre where Trifona is still employed.

Isaias who passed away in February this year supported her throughout their business journey. She drafted and submitted a proposal to the Manitoba Family Services and Housing, Residential Care Licensing department.

“My proposal became the basis of some of the policies and regulations developed to monitor, license and approve homes for the homeless, vulnerable persons of our community,” according to Trifona. She added that their “facility became the pilot project of the Mental health Program in collaboration with the Family Services and Housing. It grew with the Residential Care licensing Branch. We worked very closely with them.”

While many businesses fail at the early stages due to various challenges, the entrepreneurial energy of the Bermisas has helped them through the sacrifices to build the business that they have today. The most challenging aspect according to Trifona was ensuring that they have sufficient capital to operate the business. “We did not receive any type of financial assistance or funding from the government. We had to re-mortgage our home in order to purchase the building and to complete the entire renovations to meet and comply with the building code requirements,” said Trifona. They eventually sold the home they were in and lived in the facility to provide the 24 hour care and supervision for the residents. Their two young children Jennifer (6 years old) and Gerald (5 years old) grew up around the residents. “They became our family,” said Trifona.

Trifona definitely finds fulfillment in her work. She remarked, “For me it is a calling. You have to be committed all the way to operate these homes. When our residents acknowledge your efforts with “thank you for all your help”, “thank you for accepting me into your home”, “Mrs. B, Mr. B you are my hero”, “I love you”,” I don’t ever want to leave, this is my home”, and when they give you a big hug, the unconditional love… that’s the reward and it is priceless.”

When asked if she and her husband ever considered doing something else, Trifona responded that after 31 years of dedication, commitment and a lot of sacrifices, the answer is NO. “I never considered doing anything else. I just wish our government recognizes that owners and operators of approved licensed residential care homes are not in it for profit. They provide valuable service to our community. They keep vulnerable people, safe and secure in their homes.” There’s also the cost savings on public services (police, ambulance, emergencies, etc.).

When her husband became ill, her son Gerald was ready to assume management of their facilities. “He definitely inherited his dad’s admirable traits and genuine interest in providing care and helping the vulnerable persons of our community. Gerald is hardworking, dependable and you can count on him that he will do a good job. We trained him to be an exemplary care provider all his life. I will remain as his mentor as long as she can,” said the proud mother.

What’s her advice to those wanting to start their own business? “Know what your goal in life is. Pursue your dream, you passion. Share your blessings.”
In accepting her awards, Trifona feels very humbled and thankful to the MFBC and the judges. She remarked that “this is recognition of our 3 decades of sacrifices and hard work for the service to our community. I dedicate these awards to my late husband Isaias who gave his life for his residents and to Gerald my son for his dedication and commitment to our residents.”