Community

Action Ambassadors to support the community

Carol Dickson is helping train 40 volunteers as part of the new Community Action Ambassadors program.  -
Carol Dickson is helping train 40 volunteers as part of the new Community Action Ambassadors program.
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When you have a physical illness—a cold, the flu—you’ll do everything you can to get better. You’ll take medication, you’ll see a doctor, you’ll rest. Everybody gets sick on occasion. It’s perfectly normal.

But for those struggling with mental health issues or substance use, things aren’t so straightforward. It’s not because there isn’t help available—there is. It’s because the subject matter, even today, remains taboo. There’s a stigma associated with both mental illness and addiction that acts as a barrier to treatment. As a result, countless people suffer in silence. This is especially true of seniors.

Carol Dickson, manager of Volunteer Richmond’s Seniors Community Support Services, is one of the leads on a new program designed to get seniors talking about mental health. Over the next year, she and Francine Gosselin, an outreach counsellor at Richmond Addiction Services, will be training 40 volunteers to serve as Community Action Ambassadors. The training will provide them with the skills to support seniors dealing with mental health or substance use issues, as well as information on community resources available to clients should they need further help.

Importantly, every Community Action Ambassador will be an older adult.

“The peer-to-peer model of support is one of the strengths of the program,” says Dickson. “When a senior talks to another senior, it’s not just that they’re a similar age. They often share life experiences, perspectives. They can relate to one another. That mutual understanding can make a huge difference when broaching a sensitive topic like mental health.”

In addition to offering peer support, Community Action Ambassadors will facilitate public education forums and workshops, which will serve as an opportunity for seniors to discuss not only mental health and substance use, but also other issues related to healthy aging.

“A big part of what we’re doing is filling a knowledge gap,” says Dickson. “People want help—for themselves and their loved ones. They just don’t know where to get it or even how to ask. Talking about these issues, bringing them out in the open, is really the first step. Then people can start accessing services that will improve their quality of life.”

When speaking with seniors, Community Action Ambassadors will employ a dignified, non-judgemental approach. They won’t tell somebody to not drink alcohol, for instance. What they will do is talk about the dangers of taking medication with alcohol, or how the improper use of prescription drugs can lead to addiction.

“Community Action Ambassadors will help seniors make informed decisions,” says Dickson. “They’ll also act as role models, and be excellent listeners. They’re not there to judge.”

The first round of volunteer training begins in March. It will be 11 weeks long and focus on developing communication and group facilitation skills, as well as healthy coping techniques. Upon completion, participants will be ready to serve as Community Action Ambassadors in Richmond, Surrey, and Vancouver.

“We recognize that this is a challenging position,” says Dickson. “Therefore, volunteers will receive support every step of the way. And they’ll learn so much—about their community, about healthy aging, about themselves. It’s a unique opportunity for self growth, and to have a significant impact on the lives of seniors who just need somebody to reach out to them.”

If you’re interested in volunteering, or would simply like more information about the Community Action Ambassadors program, call 604-279-7020 or e-mailinfo@volunteerrichmond.ca.

The Community Action Ambassadors program is a joint initiative of Volunteer Richmond and Richmond Addiction Services, in partnership with SUCCESS, Richmond Youth Service Agency, Progressive Intercultural Community Services, Richmond Multicultural Community Services, and Vancouver Coastal Health.

Funding for the program is provided by the Community Action Initiative.

—Ryan Luetzen, Contributor

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