THUNDER BAY -- Clara Hughes doesn’t even have to be present for the power of her message to resonate.
Hughes, the six-time Olympic medalist who is in the midst of a cross-country voyage to promote awareness and the de-stigmatization of mental health issues, had to cancel her final appearance in Thunder Bay to head towards her goal of reaching Ottawa on Canada Day.
But that didn’t stop the show from going on.
Representatives from her Bell Let’s Talk! team hosted their scheduled community event at Superior Collegiate and Vocational Institute on Saturday morning, still attracting a large gathering of people.
Sara Smith, 16, is one person who has been particularly touched by the journey Hughes has started. The local high school student has battled with anxiety and depression, first alone but now leaning on the support of those around her.
The work that Hughes has done in driving conversations and bringing mental health out of the shadows has been liberating, and that allowed Smith to chronicle her struggles with the audience.
“A lot of people don’t really acknowledge it. Like Clara says, there is a big stigma and nobody really talks about it,” Smith said.
“It has a really significant meaning to me because I’ve hidden it for so long, I’ve never actually talked about it. So her going everywhere and talking about it, it’s really inspiring.”
Like Hughes, Smith has discovered sports as a valuable tool to channel her energy and focus while discovering a sense of self and belonging.
She credits wrestling and basketball as two pursuits that have helped improve her mental health.
Derek Forgie is the travelling master of ceremonies with the ride and said hearing from people like Smith has become common on their travels across the country.
They are encountering so many people who have been able to step forward as a result of the trail blazed by Hughes.
“This topic is resonating with so many people. This just doesn’t happen. This isn’t discussed in pretty much every town we’ve seen,” Forgie said.
“It’s not just about meeting somebody famous, like your favourite musician or actor. It’s about meeting somebody that in some cases is a lifesaving figure for them.”
Along with hosting the event, Superior unveiled a new space inside the school that is designed to promote positive mental well-being for the students. The school converted one of its art classrooms into the first designated mental health space in a city high school.
Superior principal Michelle Probizanksi said the school wanted to find a way to have the visit from Hughes have a permanent impression on the community. That led them to the creation of their relax and restore room.
“It shows we’re all committed to reducing the stigma around mental illness,” Probizanski said.
In Hughes’s absence, Forgie brought a panel on stage that included Smith, Thunder Bay’s own Paralympic gold medalist Robbi Weldon and comedian Kevin Breel to discuss how they have overcome limitations.
Hughes hosted a public event at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium on Thursday that drew upwards of 800 people.
Her ability to talk about her own struggles is inspiring others, like Smith, to follow her lead.
“Now that I’m speaking about it I feel good because I feel like I can help make a change,” Smith said.
No doubt that is the lasting legacy Hughes is hoping to leave behind in each community she visits.
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