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Camillo Zacchia

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Jim Tremain

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Moving Ahead program, Douglas hospital

Become a volunteer at the Douglas!

Stella Gaucher-Murovic - Volunteering in mental health
Making Miracles

In 1988, at the age of forty, Stella Gaucher-Murovic left a successful business position to land her dream job—working with volunteers.

Stella explains, “I wasn’t unhappy in my old job. There was just something missing in my life.”

Determined to find her “life’s work”, she earned her degree in applied social science from Concordia University, and put her smarts to work at organizations like the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Crohns and Colitis Foundation. She enjoyed the challenges, but still hunted for the right job.

Luckily for us, she found it at the Douglas Hospital as the programming and planning agent for the Moving Ahead Program. Since 2003, she has matched volunteers with patients in group homes and other residential resources under contract with the Hospital. Fuelled by Stella’s drive and enthusiasm, the program has exceeded all expectations—serving an amazing 132 clients in 64 homes with over 104 active volunteers, and discrediting powerful stigmas that hinder people’s recovery from mental illness.

Early Inspirations

Not surprisingly, Stella’s drive to make a difference started at home, “I was raised by my grandparents in the forties and fifties, at a time when people tended to stick to their own race, culture, religion and class. But my grandfather taught me that there was beauty in all people— whether they were different from us or not. Above all, he taught me to put my beliefs into action and to never give up.”

When she entered elementary school, Stella learned what it was like to be shamed for being different, “I’ll never forget the day when I didn’t have money to contribute towards a teacher’s present. When the class presented her with the gift, she asked everyone who had given money to raise their hand. When my hand stayed down, she shut me in the clothes closet and left me there, crying. I’ll never forget what it felt like to be isolated and stigmatized for something out of my control. “If I could prevent anyone else from feeling that way, I would.”

Miracles Happen

As soon as Stella joined the Douglas, she began to visit group homes and other residences to assess their needs, “Some residents were doing very well, but others just sat in front of the television or stared at the walls. The caregivers did what they could, in addition to their many other responsibilities. But they knew that some residents needed more social interaction and exposure to the community than they could provide.”

Step by step, Stella built up a list of volunteers and matched them with residents, “It’s one of the most difficult types of volunteer positions to fill, because client needs are so great. It’s not enough to be friendly and nice. You have to build a long-term trusting relationship, and find ways to help the client move ahead from where they are to where they want to be.“But when it works, miracles happen.

“Here’s an example: one of our volunteers is a tiny bird of a woman in her seventies with a will of iron. I linked her with two isolated female residents. She brought them to a community centre and helped them get to know the people there. Now they’re invited to parties and they invite people home too. They’re also taking the bus and metro—something they would never have done before. “It’s taken their self-esteem to a whole different level.”

The benefits don’t stop there, “The residents go out into the community with volunteers— to parks, movie theatres, restaurants, churches…everywhere. Their confidence builds as they interact with family and neighbours, friends and strangers. Some residents speak candidly about their illness, helping to break down powerful myths about mental disorders.”

Keen to improve the program still further, she has also introduced peer counseling, “We already have four residents who act as Moving Ahead volunteers. The key is to put the right two people together. Both need to get something from the experience.”

All Ages, All Interests

Anyone 18 and over, with any interests, can volunteer, “What I look for is a good listener, who is enthusiastic and willing to commit to a minimum of six months to help the resident move forward in his life. It’s a big commitment and can’t be taken lightly.”

A Simple Hello

How can we reduce stigma in society? “We can be powerful mental health ambassadors for the general public by explaining that many people with mental illness lead productive, satisfying lives—provided they have the right treatment, encouragement and support.”

Closer to home, Stella also suggests, “When you see patients, be sure to look them in the eye and say hello. It’s such a small thing, but it’s a powerful way to make sure they feel part of the world around them. Remember, they’re people first. That’s what destigmatization is all about.”

What word best describes mental illness?
Taboo—unfortunately, this is still true today

What film has most influenced your thoughts on mental health?
A Beautiful Mind, emphasizing the intelligence/creativity of a person with mental illness

How do you maintain a balanced lifestyle?
By keeping my personal and professional life separate

Who is doing outstanding work in destigmatizing mental illness?
Patricia Deegan, PhD, recovery and empowerment pioneer

In 125 years, will the Douglas still be here?
Yes, if no cure has been found

One word that describes the Douglas?
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Affiliated with McGill University. A WHO/PAHO Collaborating Centre for Research and Training in Mental Health