Russ Mitchell was a lost soul and very lonely.
His wife died two years ago and he decided to move to Kelowna to be closer to family.
Thanks to the Okanagan Men’s Shed and the many good people he’s met there, he’s found a purpose — and happiness — in his life.
The Okanagan Men’s Shed is a shared-space version of the workshop in the basement, garage or backyard that has long been a way of Canadian life, with the focus on retired and less active men, said Mitchell, who is now vice-president and a board member.
While the men’s shed movement has gained traction around the world, the Okanagan Men’s Shed was among the first of its kind in Canada and is modelled after a larger movement created in Australia decades ago, he said.
It opened on Fuller Avenue in downtown Kelowna seven years ago, but that building is being torn down to build affordable housing and members are relocating into a new home in the south end on Mayer Avenue, near Springfield Road.
Members, now numbering close to 70 and growing with each passing month, recognize the life transition from being active to a life of leisure with only a few obligations can be difficult for many men who often feel lonely and isolated.
Mitchell, 85, who enjoyed a long and successful career in the oil and gas industry before retirement, believes men can live longer, healthier and happier lives by having a safe space to enjoy the company of other men with similar interests to share knowledge and skills and have some fun.
By forging new networks and finding new interests and opportunities, members can retain or recover their self-esteem and feelings of usefulness and having a purpose in life, he said.
“I read about this men’s shed in the local paper. I drove down, opened the door and this wonderful man looked at me, shook my hand and said ‘welcome’ . . . I joined on the spot,” said Mitchell. “I’ve just become so involved in it and am absolutely passionate about it.”
Mitchell has been spearheading a publicity and media campaign to let all the residents of Kelowna, West Kelowna and the entire region know about the Okanagan Men’s Shed and the opportunities being offered.
The shed offers a wide variety of shop equipment that allows members to indulge in woodworking and other hands-on trades skills.
Members also have the opportunity to showcase their skills at public events like Canada Day and at local seniors’ residences.
“We recently built a whole bunch of bat houses and invited local scouts to come out to the shop and help us put them all together,” he said.
Besides offering a safe place to build things and have access to equipment and tools, the men’s shed is equally about creating friendships, camaraderie and companionship, said Mitchell.
“The idea of a men’s shed is to provide a safe place for guys to go and do guy things with other guys,” he said. “When you retire or lose a spouse, as many of us have, it’s a huge adjustment to your life. For me, I lost my wife and this is something that really gave me great insight into the community and I’ve got totally involved. It’s really reinvigorated me.”
Kelowna’s Trinity Baptist Church has signed on as a full partner in the new Okanagan Men’s Shed and helped provide the workshop space on Mayer Avenue.
“We share projects to help the church, which helps us with the rent,” he said. “The church has been a great support.”
Mitchell said he spent most of the past 30 years in Coquitlam before moving to Kelowna and didn’t know a men’s shed program was available, even though it was located only three blocks from his home.
“I don’t want the same thing to happen here,” he said. “The reality is most people in Kelowna don’t know about the men’s shed, but I’m trying to change that. We’ve signed up almost 15 new members since a recent television interview and another seven since I did a radio interview last week. We now have more than 60 members, although many aren’t really active.”
While a focus is on having access to equipment and tools and being able to showcase handy skills, the men’s shed is open to any man seeking friendship, he said.
“We’re a non-inclusive society and actually have two women as members, the same two who are trying to start a women’s shed program in Oliver,” he said. “You can go and help with projects going on or you can do your own thing. If you just want to sit and play cards or talk . . . that’s OK too. I know this place has helped me greatly and I really enjoy sharing my experiences with others.”
When he moved to Kelowna, it was to be closer to his extended family, but he didn’t know anyone else, said Mitchell.
“Oh my how that has changed,” he said. “Now I know all sorts of people. It’s amazing how it’s gone since I joined last August.”
For more information, visit: mensshed.ca.