Gabriella Wong Ken, BN'19
Gabriella Wong Ken in front of the Rosscarrock community fridge. Courtesy The Hatch

July 20, 2022

Oncology nurse's passion for volunteering makes a difference at the bedside and in her community

Alumni spotlight: Gabriella Wong Ken, BN’19, co-founder of The Hatch

Nurses have always been essential advocates for the general public in the health-care system through direct patient care at the hospital bedside and in their communities. For oncology nurse Gabriella Wong Ken, BN’19, wearing multiple hats in clinical work and volunteering empowers her to give back to her community at different levels. As she says, “I find my passion in that in-between space.”

Wong Ken currently works at the Foothills Medical Centre on the hematology/bone marrow transplant unit, where she did her final focus while at UCalgary Nursing. In September 2021, she started working in specialty outpatient clinics in day medicine at the Peter Lougheed Centre. Last year, she co-founded a mutual aid group called The Hatch with her sisters and friends (among them another UCalgary Nursing alum, Jasmine Wong, BN’18).

They started a community fridge in Rosscarrock and a community pantry downtown just outside of the Kaffeeklatsch cafe, with the aim to offer free, immediate access to food and essential items for Calgarians. The fridge/community pantry is a 24/7 source for free, fresh, and healthy food for all.

“Our goal is to offer barrier-free access to food and hygiene items and to encourage more collaboration between community members,” says Wong Ken. To that end, The Hatch members are even developing a guidebook to starting community fridges so other individuals and groups have resources and shared learning to reference should they want to start one in their own neighbourhood.

Wong Ken drew on experiences from her community health year at UCalgary Nursing when starting the community fridge. “I was inspired by other initiatives and fridges I saw at the height of the pandemic and by research I completed in my second year of nursing school.”

The Hatch members knocked on doors and conducted a survey in Rosscarrock and nearby neighbourhoods and found high demand for the project, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic affected the livelihood of many families and individuals.

“My term three project looked at food insecurity on campus and that project really stuck with me and inspired me for some of the stuff I do now,” says Wong Ken.

I started to put puzzle pieces together in a way around ‘How do nurses work to advance the health care of people in the community more than just being in the hospital?’

The Hatch members

From left, The Hatch members Gabriella Wong Ken, Steph Wong Ken, Natalie Yeung, Jasmine Wong, Tasha Wong Ken and Amanda Gomez.

Courtesy The Hatch

Wong Ken also volunteers as a farm manager with Grow Calgary and has been involved for the last two and half years. It’s a community farm in Balzac that donates 100 per cent of the food it grows to local organizations and charities with food access programs.

She also dedicates her time to the Good Neighbour Community Market which is a pay-what-you-want store downtown. Wong Ken and The Hatch members work closely with Good Neighbour’s Alice Lam to manage the store.

“We now see about 500 people every weekend from all different income levels and offer a safe, inclusive space for shopping and donating,” says Wong Ken. “We also host events and partner with other local organizations.”

Wong Ken says she has always been passionate about health care and community health. “Going into nursing school really expanded my knowledge on that. The longer I work as a nurse at bedside and then also in this community health realm, I'm starting to see more and more how these things are related.”

The Hatch members at the community pantry outside of Kaffeklatsch on 12 Avenue and 1 Street SW.

Some of The Hatch members at the community pantry outside of Kaffeklatsch on 12 Avenue and 1 Street SW.

Courtesy The Hatch

Wong Ken says when she thinks back to her nursing school days and learning about social determinants of health, ‘how people's external factors impact their journey throughout the health-care system’ and comparing to her work in oncology now, she see connections every day.

“The majority of the patients that I care for are going through chronic illness or long-term illness. Regardless of what the outcome is, whether they’re cured or whether they live with cancer for the rest of their lives, I see all the lack of community health, unfortunately, we have.”

Wong Ken says while her community volunteer work keeps her schedule very busy, it has allowed her to use her nursing skills for so much more than she thought possible. That’s why her advice for new grads and current nursing students is “try not to be as stressed out about your future.

“Nursing is such a diverse field. There are so many places that you can work as a nurse so don't pigeonhole yourself into things. If there are opportunities coming your way that maybe don't fit exactly with your nursing practice or don't fit with the trajectory of your career as you thought, take them, because you never know what they could lead to.”

What’s next? Wong Ken says her goal is to eventually find a more sustainable way to combine her passion for community health and her existing clinical background.

“What drives me to do this sort of work is I'm able to utilize some of the things that I see every day in my nursing practice or some of the things that people will tell me that they're lacking. By doing this community work, it’s similar to how one fridge is not going to solve food insecurity but at least it's helping people's immediate needs; it's providing an alternative for people.”

Good Neighbour store in downtown Calgary; Grow Calgary farm out in Balzac.

Good Neighbour store in downtown Calgary; Grow Calgary farm out in Balzac.

On April 27, Gabriella Wong Ken did an Instagram takeover on UCalgary Nursing's account for Volunteer Week and shared more about her clinical role and volunteering.