Bruce House founder receives Order of Ottawa

In the mid-1980s, Janet Bruce bought a house that she hoped to use to benefit her community. Little did she know, the three-bedroom house on Arlington Avenue in Centretown would become an AIDS hospice and that 25 years later she would receive the Order of Ottawa for her commitment to serving others.

Bruce, 77, has been volunteering for more than 50 years. She says she grew up at a time when women were expected to be homemakers and had more time for community service. She started volunteering around the age of 20 with a junior May Court Club and she hasn’t stopped since.

“I just moved from one volunteer job to the next,” Bruce says. Over the years, she has supported organizations such as the Ottawa Distress Centre, the Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Little Theatre. She was even once a ski guide for the blind.

Her support for those living with AIDS began in the 1980s. By then Bruce had gained a passion for mental illness because of a family connection, and she was beginning to realize that there was very little support for women.

“Women were on their own,” says Bruce. “I thought, we need a place. We need a home.”

That is when she bought the house. It took Bruce a year to renovate it, but when it was finally ready she could not get any government support. At the same time, the AIDS committee in Ottawa were desperate for a place to provide shelter for those living with AIDS and had been searching for a house for a year.

“I always felt it was meant to be,” Bruce says.

On Nov. 28, 1988, the AIDS housing group, called Bruce House – in Bruce’s honour – opened its doors. At the time there was a lot of fear surrounding AIDS and many with the illness were shunned and left with no place to go, says J.J. (Jay) Koornstra, executive director of Bruce House.

Today, Bruce House is a community-based organization providing housing, care and support to those living with HIV and AIDS, based on the belief that “everyone has the right to live and die with dignity.”

“Housing is such an integral portion to managing a person’s health,” says Koornstra. “It is a stabilizer of not only physical health, but also of mental health.”

 An estimated 3,500 people in Ottawa are living with HIV and AIDS. Bruce House helps those living with the illness find suitable living arrangements. The house on Arlington Avenue is now home to a family and a seven-bed transition house has been built in the Westboro area, offering 24-hour care.

Over the years, Bruce has offered her support however she can. She still attends events and fundraisers in support of the organization.

It was for these kinds of community commitments that Bruce was chosen to receive the Order of Ottawa.

The award recognizes the contributions of 15 Ottawa residents that have made a difference in the lives of others in their community, said Mayor Jim Watson, in a statement announcing this year’s recipients.

On Nov. 21, Bruce received the award for her history of volunteering, including her current work with Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit fair trade organization. She says she was thrilled to be part of such a lovely ceremony honouring so many passionate people.

Nov. 28 marks the 25th Anniversary of Bruce House.

“We keep hoping it will go out of business,” says Bruce. But for now, it goes on and on.