The elevator was old and creaky with steel-grate doors.
It was only with the help of more senior staff members that rookie hairdresser Darlene Horutko, fresh out of high school, was able to muster the courage to ride it from floor to floor in her new job at what was then called the Alberta Hospital Ponoka.
Forty years later, Horutko looks at the three-story brick building — now standing empty among the many buildings that have replaced it — with admiration, respect and many fond memories.
Horutko, now working in the environmental services department at the complex, said after its 100th anniversary celebration on Friday that she made friends among its patients.
She recalls in particular a “little lady,” now passed on, who was a patient in the geriatric area. The woman always got her hair done on Friday and, every Friday, she gave a box of chocolate fingers to the staff who looked after it for her.
Horutko changed jobs during spending cuts in 1995. She said she still misses her interactions with the patients.
“It was just as much therapy for me as it was for the residents getting their hair done. I loved it. They just touched your heart.”
Comfort and well being of the patients was a cutting edge philosophy when the Alberta Insane Asylum was first opened on July 4, 1911, said celebration emcee Dwight Hunks, executive director, addiction and mental health for the Central Zone of Alberta Health Services.
The name was later changed to Alberta Hospital Ponoka and changed again in 2006 to The Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury.
The building, meant for 150 patients, was modelled after a similar structure in Utica, New York, featuring steel and concrete construction with terra cotta bricks and white trim.
Set on an 800-acre parcel of land, the hospital was wired for electricity and had its own power plant, which also provided power to the Town of Ponoka until l929.
Almost fully self-sufficient, the facility had its own farm and dairy herd, a creamery and a cannery.
Male patients worked on the farm, considered beneficial to their treatment as well as a form of cost savings for the province.
Overcrowding was an issue from that very first day, when the hospital admitted 164 patients, said Hunks and other members of Alberta Health Services and its board as they walked guests through the Centennial Centre’s first 100 years.
From its inception, the Centennial Centre was placed at the cutting edge of treating people with mental illnesses and addictions as well as for its training and research programs, said Hunks.
The Centre’s staff of more than 1,000 people treat about 1,500 people a year. It has 330 beds, of which 157 are occupied by long-term residents.
Cathy Pryce, vice-president, addiction and mental health for Alberta Health Services, spoke of what the next 100 years might bring.
“The individuals who stood here 100 years ago couldn’t have dreamt of the progress that the next century would bring,” said Pryce.
The next 100 years will be drawn on a set of principles that include elimination of the stigma associated with mental illness and brain injury, more emphasis on community-based care, embracing scientific advances including increased understanding of the brain and final embracing a model of care in which all individuals have hope for recovery, regardless of their diagnosis, their age or their personal circumstances, said Pryce
“The pioneers embodied that attitude in many ways. Our staff and physicians demonstrate their commitment to that ideal every day,” she said.
To celebrate its past, The Centennial Centre has placed 14 permanent markers on its trails, showing photos from the sites of its original buildings and outlining their histories.