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Century Celebration: CCHF nonprofit marks 105 years

This article first appeared as the cover story in the April edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication

By Sylvia Cancela — Special to Today Magazine

IT’S 1918. As World War I veterans return from overseas, the H1N1 influenza pandemic continues to take lives every day all over the world, and in Canton. The Collinsville War Bureau sets up a makeshift emergency hospital at the Congregational Church in Collinsville for patients too ill to remain at home.

A new organization has arrived in town, the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA). The nurses serve alongside the Connecticut State Guard and Canton’s two doctors, caring for patients during this unprecedented time.

Thus the VNA’s mission, to champion the health, safety and well-being of Canton residents, begins. This mission has continued for a century, and remains as true and vital to our community today under the banner of the Canton Community Health Fund (CCHF).

One of the VNA’s pioneer nurses, Amada Furrer, began her service in 1922. By the time she retired in 1946, as a Canton Visiting Nurse, one can only imagine what she would have experienced in her practice.

Surely, she would have supported returning veterans looking to reconnect with their families, despite new physical and mental challenges. She would have been a vital partner in the Canton school system, from kindergarten to high school. And her skills, compassion and experience would have touched multi-generations of Canton families, from prenatal through hospice care — see a sidebar article to learn more about Furrer.

In the decades that followed the 1918 pandemic, the VNA worked closely with the Collinsville branch of the American Red Cross and other regional healthcare organizations to meet the evolving needs of a rapidly growing Canton community.

In 1941, the VNA/Canton Public Health Nursing Association and American Red Cross became two independent entities, with the goal of better serving the unique needs of their communities. With this separation, the VNA became the Canton Visiting Nurse Association Inc. (CVNA).

The CVNA continued to partner with healthcare organizations whose strategic goals were compatible with its mission to enhance the health, safety and well-being of the Canton community.

Case in point: In 1948, from June 28-30, the CVNA and the Connecticut State Board of Health co-sponsored Canton’s first X-ray clinic. Tuberculosis was the ongoing concern at the time. Appointments for service offered free of charge were available to any resident over the age of 15, and 1,600 individuals signed up.

Confidential reports of the results were made available to both the individual and the family physician. The clinic was funded by money raised by CVNA’s sale of American Red Cross Christmas Seal stamps.


IT’S 1955. Deadly flood waters devastate Canton. Lois Maher, a new town resident and nurse at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, is stranded at home. So she volunteers to vaccinate residents against typhoid, using syringes sterilized in huge pots of boiling water.

In 1962, Maher would begin a 30-year career as a Canton Visiting Nurse. Her legacy includes the reimagining and redevelopment of CVNA’s highly regarded home healthcare programming — look for Maher’s story on CCHF’s social media in the coming months.

Three CCHF grant recipients — left-to-right • Mark Selander​,​ Canton Police • Jennifer Herbek​,​ Canton Food Bank • Cheryl Cleaves​,​ SpiritHorse Therapeutic Riding Center of Canton —​ ​Photo by Tom Kutz Photography

Throughout the coming years of expansion and growth, CVNA remained steadfast to its vision as an in-community and personally connected resource. For example, CVNA was both Medicaid- and Medicare-certified, but nevertheless used an accounting model where services were paid for on a sliding scale, depending on the individual resident’s ability to pay.

Many times, services and support were offered free of charge.

A grateful community responded to the professionalism, skill and dedication of CVNA’s nurses with financial donations. Such generosity led to the creation of CVNA’s Memorial Fund, for the benefit of the Canton community.

Further paying it forward, in 1968 CVNA established the Canton Public Health Service (CPHS) Scholarship for graduating Canton High School students pursuing further education in public health. A follow-up study, conducted in 1981, found that over 75% of CPHS Scholarship recipients went on to careers in analytical chemistry, nursing, rehabilitation, physical and respiratory therapy, and psychology.

By the 1980s, Canton had the largest population of children in the Farmington Valley. In response, CVNA prioritized healthy development, safety and wellness by launching the Well Child Conference in 1986. Countering the growing trend for fast check-in and checkout at other area clinics, CVNA director Colette Ostapko laid out a comprehensive plan to “keep

our children healthy and our parents well-informed.”

The conference focused on: the latest healthcare training/education; hands-on nursing support; and strengthening relationships with the local/regional medical community. All programming and services were free of charge, for children aged 6 weeks to 6 years. Case management responsibilities for CVNA nurses could include everything from pre- and post-maternal and child checkups to providing guidance on development phases of childhood.

Well Child also extended from the home into the school system, where the “ladies in blue” were a regular fixture, providing first aid for accidents and illnesses on school grounds. And there was more change to come. In partnership with Dr. Edward Diters and CVNA’s all-volunteer board of directors, programming reorganized under two main strategic operations: community nursing, to promote health and safety, and clinical programs, built around wellness and preventative services.

Community Nursing — In addition to prioritizing children, community nursing addressed other vulnerable populations in Canton by providing: medication compliance and community transitioning for residents struggling with mental health issues; treatment for chronic illnesses and diseases; post-surgical care; and occupational and physical therapy.

One of the most value-added components of community nursing was CVNA’s Loan Closet. Funded by CNVA’s Memorial Fund, the closet stored long-term medical equipment to assist those who were bedridden and short-term tools and apparatus such as wheelchairs, crutches, commodes and walkers.

All of these items were offered to residents free of charge. The closet was devised in response to what CVNA was hearing from Canton’s seniors — they wanted to remain in their own homes vs. going into institutional nursing homes.

Clinical Programs — CVNA nurses were hands-on, boots-on-the-ground and mission-ready through every life stage of Canton residents, whether coordinating monthly blood pressure testing; managing annual flu clinics for seniors; providing vaccines and physicals; offering dental, vision and hearing screenings for schoolchildren; or furnishing nutritional counseling/education and poison control for the community at large.

The CVNA’s enduring legacy wouldn’t be complete without a note on Canton’s doctors — specifically, Dr. Ralph Cox and Dr. Diters. Their guidance, advocacy, mentoring and unbidden respect for the work of both VNA and CVNA helped pave the way for the community leadership and remarkable accomplishments of these nurses from 1918 to 1989. Diters’ personal legacy actually continues to this day.


IT’S 1989. Canton’s beloved family doctor, Edward Nelson Diters, retires after over 40 years of serving the community. At his retirement dinner, $8300 in donations are collected. Diters insists that this funding be used as seed money for a new scholarship, available to a Canton resident pursuing an education in a health-related field.

In November 1986, CVNA​ director​​ ​Colette Ostapko cares for a young patient via the Well Child initiative ​of the Canton Visiting Nurse Association —​ ​Photo​:​ Randy McGovern​,​ Farmington Valley Herald

In May 1990, Canton High School senior Nancy A. MacLaurin becomes the first recipient of a $500 Dr. Diters-CVNA Scholarship. Dr. MacLaurin is now a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist in North Carolina — read more about Diters, MacLaurin and other successful scholarship recipients in upcoming CCHF social media posts.

By 1992, the town of Canton had begun transitioning its senior services to in-house programming, while still funding CVNA’s community health, safety and wellness initiatives. CVNA, meanwhile, started to focus on third-party reimbursement for its home-care operation.

By 1997, with Medicare funding and staffing needs growing, CVNA made a strategic decision to partner with a larger home-care organization. On June 27, 1997, CVNA entered into a merger agreement with a longtime community partner, McLean Community and Home Care Services, a division of the McLean Fund.

Importantly, in acknowledgement and appreciation of the Canton community’s many decades of financial generosity, the newly merged business partners agreed not only to transition CVNA’s mission to a new community entity, but also to fund it with 100% of the proceeds from the Memorial Fund and the Dr. Diters and CPHS Scholarships. What started in-community was to remain in-community.


IT’S DECEMBER 30, 1997. Canton Community Health Fund Inc. becomes the next generation to carry on the VNA and CVNA mission to contribute to the health, safety and well-being of the Canton community. +

• Special thanks to — Kathy Taylor, Canton town historian — Tom Ayres, president of Canton Historical Society — Beth Van Ness, reference and adult services librarian — they shared many treasures found at the Canton Historical Museum and Canton Public Library’s Local History Room that informed this article

• Canton resident Sylvia Cancela is the chair of Canton Community Health Fund — a writer and professional public relations consultant, Cancela is the founder and owner of Red Barn Communication LLC


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