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Sundre organization bolstering personal and community well-being through inclusive conversations

Greenwood Neighbourhood Place Society initiatives a response to needs identified by residents of all ages in assessment survey
MVT The Den 4
The renovated interior of the former Centre Street Video store is barely recognizable after being modernized into a bright, open recreational space to serve as Sundre's new youth centre, called the Den, which was among numerous needs identified through an extensive community assessment conducted by the Greenwood Neighbourhood Place Society. File photo MVP/Staff

SUNDRE — A couple of programs now being delivered courtesy of Greenwood Neighbourhood Place Society were developed in response to needs identified by residents during an extensive community-wide assessment.

“We invited the community to the table just over a year ago and our goal is to promote mental health and wellness,” Sari Werezak, the GNP’s executive director, wrote in a statement highlighting the initiatives.

“We also want to bring together people in our community to raise awareness and help each other,” said Werezak, who is also known as what’s called an Animator for the Sundre Rural Mental Health Program.

“Animators create short- and long-term mental health plans with rural communities to support local community well-being,” she said.  

There are three trained animators in Sundre.

“Basically, to ‘animate’ just means bring life or movement into the conversation,” said Werezak, adding the focus is not so much about being a trained expert, but rather an enabler of discussions who brings energy and empathy to the dialogue.

People are during a time of emergency generally familiar with the more formal approach of leaning on reputable professionals, she said.  

“They focus more on symptoms and how to treat them, sometime less about upstream causes,” she said, adding the cost of accessing such services might for some people present an insurmountable financial barrier.

So, GNP opted to provide the community with another option through support from Alberta’s Rural Mental Health Project, which strives to strengthen community capacity for improved mental health in up to 150 rural and remote communities through ongoing training and network development.

“You could say we are using a community approach, in the context of local experience and driven by curiosity or passion,” she said.

That process involved plenty of listening, reflection, respecting other ideas, and being responsive but also while remaining open to change with an ability to adapt, she added.

“This is a such a big topic,” she said. “Our journey is with the understanding that we can’t fix it all and all voices are important.”

For example, she said, developing a plan to address homelessness without including people who are actually homeless in the consulting process, is not an ideal approach.

“We want to generate solutions prioritizing the perspectives and desired actions of our community.”

After gathering the data obtained by the community needs assessment conducted last year, several issues in the area came out on top, she said.

“In the midst of COVID, and the loss of connection people faced, it was not surprise mental health was a big concern,” she said. “It’s a complex issue, but we agreed we had to focus on how create conduits for connection.”

Youth centre success

Among the needs identified by the community assessment was a lack of places for local youth to spend time, she said.

“Most had no idea how to find supports,” she added.

The resulting brainstorm between some volunteers and GNP representatives, she said, led to the idea of creating a safe and positive space for adolescents.

“They immediately responded to this enormous undertaking,” she said, adding the new Sundre youth centre, dubbed The Den, officially opened its doors late last year.

“Through donations, an initial grant through the Rural Mental Health Project and now a second grant through the Alberta government’s Community Initiatives Program, this initiative has been entirely community-driven,” she said.

Ever since opening last November, she added the Den has been able to remain open five evenings a week under the supervision of screened and trained volunteer personnel, a part-time engagement and program coordinator, as well as several volunteer facilitators, leaders and staff.

“This youth hub and its success has exceeded expectations,” said Werezak, adding that while still early on, she anticipates the eventual introduction of an international mentorship program.

Sharing circles

Additionally, another initiative called Sundre Welcome All Circles started as a result of the pandemic.

“Small circles of people, who began as strangers even if they were neighbours, have been meeting monthly in safe spaces in Sundre over the last year and a half,” she said. “The circles remain open, inviting every adult person in the community who feels called to attend.”

The circles were adapted from the processes observed and embraced by the Nehiyo and other First Nations community traditions and mentors, she said.

“The Rural Mental Health project initiative in Sundre acknowledges profound gratitude for these learnings, and for the deepening respect, understanding, and trust that they facilitate in community relationships,” she said.  

“There are beautiful applications of this process being used around the continent in the fields of conflict resolution, restorative justice, family, work, community dynamics and school yard struggles.”

Program facilitator Heather Plazier further explained that people who participate enter into a circle of peers.

“We are invited to quietly connect with our own centre of awareness and then take uninterrupted turns to share our reflections, our joys, challenges, hopes and other diversity of personal experience and perspective,” said Plazier.

“We are asked to listen attentively and with respect for different paths. We are invited to share only to the extent that we feel trust in the group, with the knowledge that depth of sharing grows if — or as — depth of understanding and trust builds.”

Anything shared in a circle is confidential to those attending, she said.

“Participants in the circle can choose to listen only and pass on speaking for any round of sharing,” she said, adding sessions conclude with an informal conversation and sharing of simple food.

“Project members in Sundre recognize that circles boost personal and community well-being. They have expanded to include zoom options, an LGBTQ+ group and also an Open Circles or Inspire time with youth at the Den.”

The society was founded 20 years ago and operates the Sundre Resources Centre in recognition of the importance of identifying needs when striving to address social issues. GNP endeavours to inclusively bring together people of all ages, gender, ability and financial background.

The Canadian Mental Health Association’s annual Mental Health Week started May 2 and continues until May 8.

Visit www.mygnp.org for more information about the society as well as the programs and services delivered through GNP, or visit www.ruralmentalhealth.ca to learn more about the Rural Mental Health Project. GNP’s office can be reached at 403-638-1011.



Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel joined Mountain View Publishing in 2015 after working for the Vulcan Advocate since 2007, and graduated among the top of his class from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology's journalism program in 2006.
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