Zach Higgins is pictured carving a sign for display at Rough Cuts Canada, a retreat in Malagash for first responders with PTSD. Higgins donated his time and talent on the sign.

By: Raissa Tetanish

MALAGASH: Dan Vachon knows how beneficial it is to keep his hands busy.

Busy hands mean a busy mind, which helps him onto a path of recovery.

“One of the things with me is I’ve always taken pride in how I’ve done what I’ve done for so long without falling apart,” said Vachon, who spent more than two decades as a paramedic on both an ambulance in communities including Port Hawkesbury.

In January 2020, doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After 27 years, he went off active duty. A few months prior to his diagnosis, Vachon connected with Gary Phillips after reading in The Light about Phillips’s plans for “Rough Cuts Canada,” a woodworking retreat in Malagash for first responders diagnosed with PTSD.

“I struggled for a couple of years with knowing what I had. There’s a lot of stigma with (PTSD),” said Vachon, who moved to Howie Centre outside of Sydney four months ago. “I was living in denial thinking this would go away.”

Seeing Phillips’ story in The Tatamagouche Light, Vachon contacted him. He used his ownership of a small sawmill as a pretext, but Vachon also used to live close to Rough Cuts Canada on the Purdy Loop.

Vachon says Phillips instantly recognized his struggles. The two spent time together working on Phillips’s garage on the property and struck up the idea of building a greenhouse. They also talked a lot.

“To me, it was just therapy,” Vachon admitted.

At the end of many of their days together, Phillips would ask Vachon how much time he spent that particular day thinking about work.

“We really made a lasting friendship,” said Vachon. “The whole time I spent with Gary, he helped get my mind off everything I was going through.”

He says things went “sideways and downhill” when his marriage fell apart and his children grew up and moved off on their own. That’s when Vachon had more time on his hands and was less busy.

“Gary helped me get back on track. He helped keep my hands busy and to start doing things I enjoy.”

Contributed photos
Dan Vachon (left) and Gary Phillips worked together to build a greenhouse on Phillips’ property in Malagash. Phillips offers a retreat for first responders with PTSD and spent a lot of time with Vachon at the retreat.

Years of hard work

In the last few years, Phillips has been working on 18 hectares of land that he plans to make into a retreat. The former police officer and dive team member had used woodworking to cope with his PTSD and began to want to give back.

Over the past two years, Phillips has had two members of his own force in Ontario visit the retreat as part of their healing, and he’s spoken with a third. He’s also had visits from other police officers, firefighters and paramedics, and has become friends with retired Air Force pilot Fred Prins who lives less than a kilometre away. He’s had emails from peers in Australia and firefighters in Calgary, and gets messages through the Rough Cuts Canada Facebook page.

“This is my therapy, my solace,” he said, adding he shares tips and tricks on how to cope.

He’s cut two kilometres of walking trail through the woods and built a greenhouse. The property is a wildlife lover’s dream.

Phillips’ wife, Lee, has her own shop on the property (Pretty in the Country) with plans of selling handmade creations such as home décor and upcycled or refinished furniture, and offering arts and crafts classes/workshops.

“When some of these people visit, they bring their wives with them,” explained Phillips. “Lee knows what they’re going through. Not only is she a former police officer, but she’s been through it with me.”

The property now has a Purdy Wood Acres sign to greet visitors. Chainsaw artist Zach Higgins drove an hour each way to visit the property, donating his time and talent to carve the sign.

Small world connections

Fred Prins, a retired Hercules helicopter pilot, noticed Phillips’s logs and sawmill while driving around Purdy Loop. Given his woodworking hobby, the sights piqued Prins’s interest, so he stopped one day to introduce himself.

“We got to talking about where Gary was from and what area he worked in,” said Prins, who moved to Malagash five years ago. “I mentioned I used to own an airport in Baldwin, Ontario.”

Phillips had been at that airport on a number of occasions for work, investigating the deaths of skydivers.

“That’s how small this world is,” said Phillips. “Lee and I actually looked at buying a house at the airport.”

When Phillips shared with Prins the idea behind Rough Cuts Canada, Prins was amazed.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “I really agree with Gary and what he’s offering here.”

For years, Prins has been making children’s toys out of wood. It’s mainly race cars and tractor trailers, but Prins has dabbled in a variety of larger household items.

Thanks to Phillips’ generosity, Prins has a supply of lumber for his own hobby and is giving back to Rough Cuts Canada.

“I told him I’d make some toys that Lee could put in her store to sell,” said Prins. “It’s a good money-making opportunity for Gary. With what I’ve seen in military life and civilian life, this is my way to pay it forward, if you will. Gary’s been supplying me with a lot of lumber. I’ve even been making birdhouses.”

Throughout the years making toys, Prins says it’s an old racing car from 1917 that is his favourite to re-create.

“I’m resurrected it and modernized it,” he said, adding it’s the smaller toys most children love.

While usually only making for family and friends these days, Prins does donate some of the toys to children’s hospitals.

“When I see a smile on a child’s face that, to me, is the most enjoyable. That’s really a lot for me and is what makes this worthwhile.”

Prins says everything else disappears when he’s in his wood shop.

“It’s relaxing for me. There are two things in life that have helped me—woodworking and singing barbershop harmony. That’s been great fun.”

Giving back

Now with a healthy relationship and lifestyle, Vachon is looking at how he can return the favour. He’s thinking about doing some writing, and, with his own logs on their way to his property, Vachon is looking at ways to help others in some sort of recovery.

“I think of everybody that’s ever been (to Rough Cuts Canada) would stay for about a week or two. I think I’m the only one that’s been there on a regular basis,” said Vachon, who would spend hours at a time, days on end at the retreat.

“The greenhouse was an ongoing project, one you would continue to nurture and harvest. The things that grew in it… oh my heart. Some of the produce in the middle was touching the roof, it got that hot in there.”

Their greenhouse at the Malagash property got off the ground thanks to donations from others, including old telephone or power poles from Ontario.

“Gary has such a giving heart and is always helping people. The whole Rough Cuts Canada thing is other people helping it and it helping others. I hope at some time I can help others as well.”

Dreams of funding

With the hopes of having visitors doing their own milling on the property, Phillips has hit a stumbling block: funding.

He’s used all the money raised so far through his GoFundMe campaign (which remains open) and dipped into personal savings.

The biggest issue, he says, is liability insurance. To allow visitors to do their own milling on the property, Phillips needs to buy $5,000 worth of insurance.

“I’m trying to do things that won’t cost any money,” he said. “We still have the property—they can come by and walk the trail, and I’m hoping to start a camera club in the summer. The wildlife here is just abundant.”

He says milling can still happen on the property, just with him doing the milling instead of visitors.

If he had enough funding, Phillips would be able to purchase liability insurance and other safety equipment needed for regular use, along with supplies for sterilizing the safety equipment.

“The point of Rough Cuts Canada is to help people heal, not put their safety at risk while doing so.”