The 16th Annual Inspiration Awards Gala for the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health offered up a bit of magic, a lot of hope and a very special performance from Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Kathleen Edwards.
The Ottawa-based artist took to the stage Friday night with her acoustic guitar to croon an old Joni Mitchell tune, in front of a black-tie crowd of more than 550 business people and community leaders. For her, the cause of mental illness is deeply personal; she was diagnosed with a mood disorder in 2012, the same year she released her last album.
“There is no greater relief that I can think of in my entire life than having a doctor say, ‘I believe you have clinical depression and I’d like to prescribe to you a medication that might help you’," she told everyone in the Infinity Convention Centre ballroom, which was beautifully lit up in colourful but calming hues. "Within several weeks, I was feeling like there was a piece of me that came back into the universe.
“I know first-hand the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and they are very powerful things that disengage any rational and any true feeling you know about yourself."
The gala, once again presented by TD Bank Group, was wildly successful. It raised a record-breaking $521,724 for mental health research and care at The Royal Ottawa. There were also some amazing personal stories shared through the presentation of six awards to those who have overcome challenges related to mental illness, educated others about the importance of dealing with mental health issues, and helped to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
VIPs included such prominent mental health advocates as honourary patron Margaret Trudeau, mother of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; former governor general David Johnston and his wife, Sharon; and The Royal's community ambassador, hockey hero Daniel Alfredsson, with his wife, Bibbi, honourary chair of Run for Women. They brought their oldest boy, Hugo, 15, who attends Ashbury College.
Former Inspiration Award recipient Stephanie Richardson was also among the notable supporters. She co-founded the Do It For Daron (DIFD) youth mental health movement with her husband, former NHLer Luke Richardson, following the tragic suicide of their daughter, Daron, 14, in 2010. Luke is now an assistant coach to Claude Julien with the Canadiens. Stephanie helped secure for the live auction a Habs VIP experience for 12 in Montreal.
Other distinguished guests include Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, MPP for Kanata-Carleton and the minister of colleges, training and universities, and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki. You couldn't miss her, in her striking red ceremonial uniform.
It was the first Inspiration Awards Gala for Joanne Bezzubetz in her new role as president and CEO of the Royal Health Care Group and the second gala for Mitchell Bellman from the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health. He was joined by board chair Gord Cudney and Dr. Zul Merali, president and CEO of The Royal's Institute of Mental Health Research.
Returning to head up the gala committee was Jane Duchscher, executive director of the Ottawa Community Loan Fund.
Attendees also included such senior public servants as Privy Council deputy clerk Catherine Blewett and deputy defence minister Jody Thomas.
Edwards returned on stage during the live auction to help TV personality Derick Fage from Breakfast Television Montreal sell an exclusive concert for 50. It's be held at Quitters, a café she opened in Stittsville almost five years ago after she took a break from her music career.
Edwards revealed that she's headed later this week to Nashville to record a new album. She promised to play some of her new songs at her coffee shop concert.
The opening bid was $2,500. What happened next was wonderfully spontaneous and fun. As the offers started coming in, Edwards picked up her guitar and started strumming. This led to Fage becoming a melodic auctioneer. He started singing out the ascending prices, with a few added lyrical quips, while Edwards did a terrific job backing him up.
The private concert at Quitters sold for $7,000. That’s a lot of dough, but Edwards didn’t stop there. She had earlier caught wind that well-known Ottawa philanthropist Gary Zed was also interested in having her perform in a private backyard concert. She suggested $3,500. He counter offered at $5,000 in support of the cause.
In total, Edwards helped to raise $12,000 that night.
The Habs VIP experience for 12 was bought by Ottawa philanthropist and mental health advocate Barbara Crook, who later revealed she didn’t win it for herself but for her dear young friend, Kyle Humphrey, a champion for breaking down disability barriers. He wasn’t in attendance but had saved up money for the item, hoping Crook could bid on his behalf. He wanted to give it to his dad, Eric.
Unfortunately, the rising bids put the item beyond Humphrey's budget. Crook — determined to make it happen, even if it cost her — bought the prize for $4,000.
Other prizes sold off that night included: a dining experience for seven at the Urban Element culinary venue with Gold Medal Plate-winning chef Joe Thottungal and special guest Evan Solomon; a VIP experience for eight to Bluesfest; a golfer’s dream package for three in Toronto with PGA legend Ian Leggatt, with first-class travel on VIA Rail; an evening for 20 with singer-songwriter Lynn Miles at KIN Vineyards; and a VIP trip for two to Winnipeg with the Redblacks.
The evening flowed along nicely and kept the number of speeches to a minimum. CBC Radio newscaster Laurence Wall was an effective emcee who knew how to shush the chatty room when necessary.
This year’s gala saw Dr. Natalia Jaworska land the young researcher for mental health award for her work in examining how different brains respond to different treatments. She’s been looking to better understand how aerobic exercise impacts the brain and mental illness, and whether physical activity prescribed at a particular intensity is an effective course of treatment for depressed youth.
Also award-worthy was the parent-led Parents’ Lifeline of Eastern Ontario (PLEO), which offers support, resources and education for parents and caregivers whose children are struggling with mental illness and/or addictions
Chris Nihmey, who promotes the importance of empathy, acceptance and compassion through his writing and public speaking, won a personal leader award while Denis Riordan was presented with a community leader award for dedicating himself to helping his daughter after she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Gabrielle Eyahpaise, who lives with obsessive compulsive disorder, was recognized as a youth leader for mental health for the work she does to educate and increase awareness among high school students.
The Ottawa Paramedic Peer Support Team was honoured for its volunteer work in providing one-on-one support and crisis intervention to colleagues who may be experiencing stress or other difficulties as a result of responding to traumatic incidents.
Lorraine Downey, a front-line paramedic for 13 years and coordinator of the peer support team for the past five years, said she learned the hard way: by burning out.
“I vowed never to let this happen again,” she told the audience after accepting the award with a bunch of her colleagues. “Self-care is not selfish, but giving yourself permission for self-care is hard. First responders have difficulty asking for and receiving help, as we are the helpers.
“We, as individuals and as organizations, have the ability and responsibility to help. Take time to reach out. Have that hallway chat. Go for a coffee. Make a phone call.”