Meet Rita-anne Fuss
Beginning the mental health conversation
Rita-anne Fuss is a Community Animator for Millet, Alberta where she currently lives with her husband, Curtis. She is also an entrepreneur selling highline fashion jewellery, Fifth Avenue Collection. Before moving close to Millet in the country, Rita-anne and her husband lived in several different places in Edmonton while she worked for the separate school board as a special needs assistant for over 15 years.
As Rita-anne was growing up, she often noticed her dad would be sick in bed for weeks at a time. Her mom would tell her he had the flu. It was not until after her mother passed away that Rita-anne says she had an “A-ha!” moment. Rita-anne explains, “I was in my late 20s before I realized my dad was dealing with depression. He wasn’t staying in bed for two weeks because he had a cold.”
She didn’t live far from her dad and invited him over to her home.
She says, “We had this great conversation. I flat out asked him, ‘Dad, are you depressed? Are you sad?’ It was the first time he opened up. From that moment on, we became very close. I finally understood him.”
Beginning the mental health conversation between herself and her dad allowed Rita-anne to work with her dad, and together, find solutions to his mental health challenges. She says, “I don’t believe my dad would have admitted there was a problem if I hadn’t asked him.”
Envisioning a healthier community
Rita-anne is a dreamer and a do-er – someone who sees a need and dedicates herself to filling that need. Rita-anne’s motivation to improve her community brought about the creation of a mental health initiative she dreamt up one spring morning in 2019.
Rita-anne explains, “Millet is a great little community. Curtis and I had been living near Millet in the country for a few years, and I went to the town’s website because I wanted to find something for Curtis and me to do. We thought we could take up dancing lessons or maybe join a club.”
On the website, Rita-anne came across the Alberta Healthy Initiative Program.
She says, “The website asked for a paragraph of what you would do to spruce up your town, and my brain started going. I started writing, within literally 10 minutes, I submitted an idea.”
Her idea was sent to Alberta Health Services, which was approved, and the community was provided a grant for the project. Rita-anne’s vision evolved into the mental health SMILES Nonprofit Society (Support Mental Illness Lives Everyday Society).
The first large-scale mental health SMILES event was hosted in November 2019 at the Moose Hall in Wetaskiwin.
Rita-anne says of the event, “We had eight speakers; it was an all-day event with over eighty in attendance. We had vendors, we had a meal and we had surveys put together for feedback. The focus was on mental health and wellness. Everyone said what an excellent event it was, how much they learned from the speakers. Following that event, we were supposed to have another one in the spring of 2020. Of course, that fell through because of COVID-19. Everything came to a halt.”
Finding passion through connection with others
COVID-19 introduced an unexpected challenge for SMILES Nonprofit Society and Rita-anne. She knew how important connection was for the mental health of her community members in Millet. In the spring of 2020, a new idea began percolating between Rita-anne and the other Millet Healthy Initiative organizers. Inspired by their backyard firepit her husband made in the shape of a diamond the points happened to be 2 meters apart where the chairs were to sit around the fire.
This was another “A-ha!” moment and the socially distanced concrete ‘Distancing Diamonds’ was born. Distancing Diamonds is an outdoor concrete diamond shaped space that allows people to sit, talk and connect on the four benches. The space is in the shape of a diamond with a bench on each corner for community members to sit. In the centre is a square planter and on each side are posters from an annual art contest open to residents and students from Millet Griffiths-Scott School to display their work of art relating to mental health. There is even sparkle in the concrete like her sparkly jewellery.
The Distancing Diamond has also been a valuable place for Rita-anne to learn more about what mental health resources community members would like to see for Millet.
She says, “We started asking Millet residents, ‘What would you like to see in the community?’ I have had groups reach out and say they want to build more Distancing Diamond spaces in Millet.”
Rita-anne says founding and organizing SMILES Nonprofit Society has become an unexpected passion.
“I’ve truly felt this is a calling. When you’re passionate about something, then you’re motivated. I have found so much fulfillment while working within Millet and focusing on supporting my community’s mental health. I feel there is so much more to do, and I am excited to keep listening to what my community needs. We have recently formed a group called SMILES of Joy Rural Mental Health. Two more Distancing Diamonds have been approved and will be built in Millet. This is only the beginning!”
Visit facebook.com/changingsmiles365 to follow the SMILES initiative.