'Birchwood for Ben' fundraising walk raises $8,580 for mental health supports

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Fort McMurray resident Julio Florez has raised $8,580 in support of the Canadian Mental Health Association after a 12-hour walk in the Birchwood Trails earlier this month.

The annual walk, which is called Birchwood for Ben, started last year to honour Florez’s son, Ben, after he passed away from an opioid overdose in 2016. The funds raised more than double Florez’s $4,200 goal and surpassed last year’s funds of $5,700. Florez hopes the event will also encourage people to talk about mental and emotional health.

“We need to keep talking about it, we need to keep doing our part as individuals,” he said. “And to see how we can affect the people around us and also ourselves. As we all know, by trying to help others sometimes we help ourselves… I experienced that myself.”

This year, Florez’s daughter, Katrina, joined him on the walk. Having her participate was a special experience, he said, and helped bring healing to the family.


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“As painful as it is… we knew that we’re making a difference, impacting hopefully at least one person,” he said.

Florez feels stigmas still exists around discussing mental health, but is seeing more people discuss the issue.

“I think it’s our obligation to just do what we can to keep this conversation going,” he said. “When we look at how mental health concerns and overdoses keep rising at a local, provincial and national level, we definitely have to keep going to reduce that stigma that is out there.”

According to Alberta Health data, last year was Alberta’s deadliest year for opioid overdose deaths after 997 people died from overdoses between January and November.

In Fort McMurray, there were 14 deaths from opioid overdoses in Fort McMurray during the same period. The data also shows cocaine killed five people, while alcohol poisoning and methamphetamine killed four people each.

Opioid overdose deaths have spiralled across Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between January 2016 and June 2020, 17,602 Canadians died from opioid overdoses, according to the federal government.

Canada recorded its highest quarterly count, since national surveillance began in 2016, between April and June last year with 1,628 deaths. This was a 58 per cent increase compared to the previous three months, before COVID-19 swept Canada.

-with files from Alanna Smith


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