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Meet Gabrielle Kirk

Growing roots in the community

Gabrielle Kirk is the Community Animator for Claresholm, Alberta. Gabrielle completed her Bachelor’s of Health Science and then pursued her Master’s in Public Health. She explains, “Health has always been a big part of my life. I’ve always been really passionate about population health and public health. I wanted to be more involved.” Gabrielle grew up in Fort MacLeod and is currently living on a farm just outside of Claresholm. Claresholm’s small-town feel and strong sense of community has made the last 4 years of her work in the community very enjoyable.

Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the community of Claresholm. Residents have been struggling to stay connected and avoid social isolation. Throughout the pandemic, Gabrielle has focused on strategies to engage seniors who are most isolated. She says, “We’ve been making care packages for Claresholm’s seniors. We include activities and educational information about where to get help for elder abuse or just health and wellness in general. We have handed out about 300 packages to elders in the community. It has allowed us to be more connected with our seniors.” Gabrielle and her team have also discussed doing telephone programs for seniors and expanding the program into the neighbouring community of Vulcan.

Gabrielle is her town’s elder abuse response coordinator and works with seniors and family and community service agencies. Gabrielle is proud of the development of this program within Claresholm, “Elder abuse is such a complex and unique issue, and there are so many factors involved. You need help from multiple agencies and organizations. There tends to be a gap in communication between the different agencies working together. This program is something that we’ve been working on for four years. It keeps growing and growing. We’re slowly expanding into other communities, which has been really exciting.”

Connecting public health and mental wellbeing

Gabrielle’s focus on public health has led her to become a Community Animator for the Rural Mental Health Network (RMHN). She says, “From personal experience, as I have people in my life with mental health issues, I like the idea of the RMHN. We don’t necessarily talk about mental illness, but we focus on mental wellbeing. The RMHN says said that about 1 in 5 people have a mental illness, but 5 in 5 people have mental wellbeing. I like that the aim is to promote mental wellbeing for everybody.”

Gabrielle’s goal with the RMHN has included ensuring the Claresholm community is engaged in mental wellness and aware of the available supports and resources. She explains, “The disconnect with service providers in the community is that community members may not know how to access these services. Navigating the system is hard, especially with mental health issues. We see stereotyping in rural areas and a lot of stigma. I think it’s hard for people to navigate the system or talk about it in the community, even though there are resources. The resources are not accessed as much as they could be.”

Gabrielle also wants to find the gaps and deficiencies in services and determine the community’s understanding of mental health. She says, “As part of this animator position, I surveyed the community. I was learning where those gaps in resources and services are, as well as Claresholm’s strengths. About half of the participants felt isolated within the community and didn’t have access to mental health resources. Also, in rural communities, confidentiality can be a challenge. In small towns, you know everything about everyone, and this can amplify mental health stigma.”

Envisioning a mentally health future within the community

Gabrielle says that a five-year plan for Claresholm includes a focus on music therapy, a community mental health speaking series and an added focus on community nutrition. Her volunteer work in food security and school nutrition encouraged further research on how nutrition relates to mental wellness. She says, “Some of what I want to do in the future has to do with the gut-brain connection and a healthy microbiome. There’s a huge connection between the gut and brain. I think it is so interesting.”

Gabrielle is an important asset to the town of Claresholm, as she strives to help the community better understand mental health and the resources available. Her final words of advice to anyone interested in becoming an RMHN Animator: “Don’t be afraid to reach out into your community and begin the mental health conversation.  A lot more people want these conversations to happen than you may think. Most people will be appreciative of you taking on this role.”