Today we raise our fists high and put our hands together in celebration of our Feature Girl Warrior, Founder and Executive Director of The AOK Project, Ellen Gilfix. The day after receiving her Bachelor of Social Work degree at the University of Manitoba Ellen moved to Vancouver, BC where she began her 35-year career in child and youth mental health, providing treatment for children, youth and their families affected by a variety of mental health issues. For many years, Ellen worked full time in the mental health sector, all the while upgrading her qualifications including attending the University of British Columbia, where she received her Masters of Social Work. As a mental health clinician she worked with many families, that in addition to their mental health challenges, financial hardships hindered their recovery. She noticed a gap in services when trying to find resources for families requiring items just to meet their basic needs, as well as those who could not provide opportunities for their children that most families could access. These financial barriers tended to impede children and youths’ ability to recover. Ellen notes that, ‘although mental health issues occur across all ages, gender, and cultures, the risk is higher for people in lower socio economic groups.’ The AOK Project was created out of Ellen’s desire to provide some joy and relief for families, to reduce stress, improve mood, build self esteem, and increase happiness. For that we are so grateful and say an enthusiastic, heartfelt YES!
What makes you a Girl Warrior?
First question and this is the hardest question! Hmmm. Well I guess being a Girl Warrior means choosing courage over comfort. I’ve always tried to play it safe, make good decisions do the right thing and think of others first. I’m proud first of being a mom and then the career path that I chose of working in child and youth mental health. I just retired after 35 years working in child and youth mental health. I knew I wasn’t done working and giving back. I created The AOK Project and this has become my passion. This is what I think makes me a Girl Warrior now!
How did the loss of your father at 17 change your life?
My childhood was happy safe and secure. My parents always put their kids before themselves. When My father died I was still in my formative adolescent years and a young adult when my mother passed away. I quickly learnt that life wasn’t fair. I was always independent, but I still needed parents. I was so close, especially with my dad. It was life changing to lose a parent so young, I felt lost and there was such a void left inside of me. Losing a second parent years later, brought up all the old feelings of loss again. I still think of my parents every day. I can see some traits of my own kids in them so that is very comforting.
Why did you move from your hometown of Winnipeg to Vancouver immediately after you graduated from the university?
Winnipeg is a great place to be from, but Vancouver was calling. I visited my sister in Vancouver when I was 18. I had barely been out of Winnipeg and couldn’t believe that such a beautiful place existed. So the day after I finished school I left Winnipeg on a one-way ticket to Vancouver. I would have left that same day but I had a dentist appointment and needed my mom’s dental plan one last time before I became independent with no extended health until I got a job! So I chose courage over comfort and moved to Vancouver. I didn’t have a social work job yet, so I thought I might as well start off unemployed and looking for a job in a different city.
What was it about social work, specifically working with adolescents with emotional and behavioral issues, that appealed to you?
I have to say I fell into this field. I was 23, young, no experience in the social work field. I applied for many jobs and landed at a residential treatment centre for adolescents with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. It was my foundation and shaped my 35-year career in child and youth mental health.
How did you deal with the loss of your mom when you were 31? What do we need to know about the grieving process?
I like this quote about grief, it says a lot. “Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”
How did having a family of your own help you grow as a woman and as a therapist?
Nothing makes me more proud than being a mom. I have two kids and am fortunate to be a caregiver to my daughter’s best friend when she came to live with us when she was 12. First being a mom certainly made me appreciate my own mom even more. Having my own family also humbles me as a therapist as I could truly understand the role of parenting and the stressors and the impact.
Being a mom and a therapist, each has enriched the other. And I continue to grow and learn all the time. My clients have taught me so much especially about resilience, compassion and empathy.
What is attachment theory? And how does it guide you professionally?
Attachment theory became my guiding force as it shaped my own parenting and guided me also professionally. I led many parenting groups based on attachment and relationships and this became my passion at work. I loved the individual work but really thrived running parenting groups.
Attachment revolves around the Importance of having healthy relationship and the need for strong bonds for healthy development. We all need a secure base to be able to go out and explore the world. My favorite parenting quote says it all. “On Parenting: There are two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots, the other is wings.”
Why did you start The AOK Project? And how do you want to see it grow?
A co-worker once came up to me and said, I have a family who can’t pay their hydro bill this month, do we have a fund here, that could help. I stopped and paused and said “No, but I think we really should.”
As a mental health clinician I experienced many families that in addition to their mental health challenges the financial hardships they faced hindered their recovery. Kids didn’t have access to taking extra-curricular classes, such as sports, which meant they couldn’t make friends or develop their social skills or pay for art classes or supplies, so they couldn’t express themselves the way they wanted to. And it was frustrating as a clinician that there were few resources that I could access to help for this age group.
When I recently retired I had no Idea what I would do with my time, until I recalled that conversation a few years back with my coworker. So I thought I could look into raising some money to give back to my clients who have given to me all these years and taught me so many skills, especially compassion, gratitude and kindness.
Acts of Kindness for Mental Health Foundation aka The AOK Project happened rather quickly. I retired March 2020, right at the beginning of Covid. Not a great time to start a non profit and raise money, but it took off rather quickly. I was able to form a board of directors, and started the fundraising process (first one being picking plums off my tree and selling them on my front lawn.) By October, The AOK Project was already giving out wellness grants to youth in Vancouver and then gift bags to youth which has now become our annual holiday campaign. And a year after being a non profit we became a registered charity. We continue to grow and our goal is to increase our impact and reach more youth. We already doubled the gift bags we gave out this past year. We look forward to more wellness grants and gift bags for youth in 2022.
And so the The AOK Project was then created to provide wellness grants to children, youth, who have been affected by mental health and are in need of financial support. As a social worker working directly with youth, I witnessed that youth with mental health challenges don’t have opportunities so readily available to their peers. This caused a lowering of mood, and feelings of isolation. The grants can be used for a wide variety of purposes including registering for a course, purchasing items such as sports equipment or art supplies, or paying for healthcare needs. Youth who benefit from our grants get an immediate realization that they are not alone. They come to realize there is a community around them with people who care. What makes the AOK Project unique is its focus on ‘Circles of Kindness.’ Recipients of wellness grants are encouraged to provide their own act of kindness to a person or organization of their choice.
What’s the biggest decision you ever made?
Leaving the comfort of my childhood and moving to a new city to start over.
What’s the most important life lesson your Mom taught you?
She always used to say never go to bed angry. So what I took from that (as I was not an angry person) was to always be kind and grateful.
What would you say to your younger Girl Warrior?
Choose courage over comfort. Take some risks and don’t look back. Step outside your comfort zone and the feelings of uncertainty will subside and you will be OK!
What would you say to future Girl Warriors looking for inspiration?
I would say the same thing as the question before!
Who is/are your Girl Warrior hero(s) and why?
My Girl Warrior heroes are my sisters. As I was the youngest of the 3, they got to go first, and I got to watch, learn and be inspired by how they navigated their lives.
What books are on your nightstand?
My night stand has my iPhone and iPad. My iPad has lots of book titles – some read some unread. I’m reading The Dutch House and The Lost Apothecary right now.
Living or dead, who would you like to have lunch with?
My parents of course! And I would want my kids and husband to be there too, so they could all meet.
Describe yourself in five words.
I had to ask my husband for this one…..compassionate, kind, engaging, courageous, and organized
If a television drama were written about your life, what would it be called?
The Road Still Travelling
A final word…
Looking forward to growing The AOK Project and getting the word out! Thankful to Stu Gershman for connecting us and for all his inspiration and support.
To learn more about The AOK Project head over to the website at:
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