Anniversary drive-thru barbecue planned for Mental Illness Week

Ken Kellar

Here’s to forty years of public service.

The Fort Frances Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is celebrating 40 years of work in the Kenora-Rainy River District, and CMHA Fort Frances Director of Service Sandy Skirten said in order to celebrate, they’ll be holding a special drive through anniversary event, Oct. 8.

“Here at Canadian Mental Health Fort Frances Branch, what we decided to do as part of our celebrations, the staff decided to put together a free community barbecue,” Skirten said.

“We’re going to be doing it on Thursday, October 8 in conjunction with not only our 40th anniversary, but also Mental Illness Awareness week.”

Skirten said the plan is to offer the drive-through barbecue in a masked, socially distanced way so that the public can show up how they will — walk, drive, bike — to their 612 Portage Ave location and go home with a barbecue lunch and some informational material about Mental Illness.

Celebrations look a bit different during these strange COVID times, with a lot more going on, but Skirten said the staff still felt it important to celebrate with the public, as opposed to cancelling or holding an internal party.

“Usually we do have a multitude of activities and different presentations, educations, but because of COVID, because of social distancing we have had to scale back what we’re doing, so the staff had thought ‘why can’t we offer the community a barbecue and do it in a safe fun way to celebrate or to kick off the 40th year of our services here in Fort Frances?’”

Skirten said the organization has come a long way from where they began 40 years ago in 1980, starting with an all volunteer board and a single employee.

“They started off by providing education on mental health and mental illness,” Skirten explained.

“Since that time, we have grown to an organization of over 50 staff with six offices and now providing services throughout the Kenora-Rainy River District. So we want to thank the community for their support, for those individuals who have allowed us to get to know them, to provide services to them. We want to thank them for that, so we thought what better way to provide a lunch in a safe way for individuals in the community?”

While plenty of things about mental illness have changed in the past 40 years, particularly the wary society sees and interacts with them, Skirten said there’s still a long way to go in helping remove the negative stigmas surrounding our mental health, as well as those who live with mental illnesses.

“Stigma is a huge issue and it still is for individuals that live with a mental illness, many of which are still stigmatized by a diagnosis,” he said.

“We would hope at Canadian Mental Health that people will be educated or receive education to understand what those individuals are going through. I think compared to where we were at ten years ago, 20 years ago, an individual’s mental health, mental illness is something that we talk much more about compared to what we did in the past. But I think we still have a long way to go.”

Part of the efforts undertaken by the CMHA to remove those stigmas have fallen on Mental Health Awareness Week, which the CMHA has been recognizing in recent years with a Glow Run, starting in the evening at the Sorting Gap Marina. Since gatherings like those are currently restricted under the province’s regulations, recognition for the awareness week will instead be rolled into the barbecue.

“Due to our present circumstances we’re not able to offer [the Glow Run] to the community but we’re certainly hoping that next year we can get back to that,” Skirten said.

“That was a fun activity that individuals of all ages loved to participate in, but certainly Mental Illness Awareness week is an opportunity for people to sit back, perhaps receive a little bit of education, a little bit of information and acknowledge the many individuals that are out in our community and throughout Canada living with a mental illness.”

An organization can’t make it to a significant milestone like 40 years without a good deal of support, and Skirten said the whole organization extends their thanks and appreciation to not only the public, but the staff and volunteers who help to keep CMHA an important presence in our community.

“A big thank you goes out to the individuals that have volunteered with us for years,” Skirten said.

“Whether that be at the board level, whether it be at a community level assisting different activities, our staff have really truly been tremendous and I really believe the pillars of our organization are our staff, not only here in Fort Frances but throughout the Kenora-Rainy River District, and so I would like to thank them, and even moreso those individuals who allow us into their homes, trust us and allow us to support them, sometimes on a daily basis.”