Olympic medallist Clara Hughes said the stigma surrounding mental health is something that needs to be dissolved, and volunteers are the ones who are working to do it.
Hughes was the keynote speaker at the Volunteer Appreciation Awards and Gala at St. Eugene on Tuesday night, attended by more than 250 people. It was hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association – Kootenays and Investors Group, as well as a number of other sponsors.
The night was about honouring the region’s outstanding volunteers and there were four award categories.
Youth Volunteer of the Year was awarded to Jelena Jensen.
Shirley Yurchychyn was honoured with the award for Volunteer of the Year.
Volunteer Family of the Year was the Farquhar family.
Volunteer Group of the Year was the Kimberley Arts Council.
Hughes said volunteers give their time and energy because they want to make a difference.
The cyclist and speed skater spoke about the hardships she faced with depression as a young athlete, as well as the challenges that others like her sister with bipolar disorder and father who struggled with substance abuse, have faced when dealing with mental illness and the stigma that still accompanies it.
She said everyone is impacted by it.
“If it is not us, then it is someone we know,” she said, adding the work of education and advocating for eliminating and reducing stigma is happening largely through volunteerism.
Hughes has completed over 6,600 kilometres of Clara’s Big Ride, and has another 5,500 to go.
The ride is a part of Bell Let’s Talk.
She said she’s seen good things happening in the realm of mental health in all the communities she’s stopped in.
“It is different in every single place, but what is common in every place is the absolute caring and determination of citizens to make a difference, to not wait for government funding to come in, to not wait for big bills to pass or things to happen. People are making it happen,” Hughes said.
Hughes represented Canada in many summer and winter Olympics, winning one gold, one silver and four bronze medals. At the Vancouver Olympics, she carried the flag into the stadium and raced on the ice, but she said it was the volunteers who stood out.
“They always put a smile on my face,” she said. “So to be here tonight to applaud and to award volunteerism is something that I am so happy to be a part of.”