United Way Oakville supported R.O.C.K. builds an Oakville Superhero Advocate

Maria Estrada
United Way Oakville supported R.O.C.K. builds an Oakville Superhero Advocate
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Brad Park

Brad Park

Brad Park is the CEO of the United Way of Oakville. Prior to that he was the executive director of Brant United Way. He has his Bachelor of Arts in Management and Economics from the University of Guelph.

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Maria Estrada spent the first years of her life living happily in Peru. When she was six, her mother moved them to Canada with the hope of living a better life. They arrived in Canada speaking no English and having left behind the family supports they needed to establish their lives.

Within months of arriving in Canada, Maria taught herself English as a way to stop from being bullied in school. With her mother still struggling with the new language, Maria became her mother’s translator and found herself doing the talking in very adult situations such as at the food bank when they needed food, and at the shelter when they needed beds. At 7 years old, Maria was taking care of herself while her mother worked odd hours to pay the rent and began her struggle with anxiety and mental health issues.

When she was younger, Maria suffered from stomach pains and headaches and her mother told her there was nothing wrong. She spent most of her time alone and afraid, without the emotional attention that a young girl needs to thrive. The year before high school, her anxiety and mental health issues escalated when she began dealing with the pain through self-harm by means of cutting. That same year, Maria felt that life was no longer worth living and one night, alone and afraid, she tried to take her own life.

When the attempt on her life failed and she awoke the next morning, no one had noticed.
With the insight of a person twice her age, Maria knew she needed help. That very morning, she walked herself into a doctor’s office and told them she wanted to kill herself. She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, was given anti-anxiety medication and was recommended to a counsellor.

Struggling with the stigma of a child with mental health issues, Maria’s mother chose to move the family to a new community with the thought that it would make her daughter’s problems go away. Maria was distraught at losing her counsellor and once she settled in her new home, Maria took to the internet to find the support she needed. She found the Reach Out Centre for Kids (ROCK) in an internet search and quickly convinced her mother to take her to their walk-in program. This was the real start to Maria’s road to managing her disease.

ROCK became her home away from home, offering her multiple options for services and a staff who cared about her well-being. According to Maria she “lived at ROCK. It was just my safe space.”

In her last semester of grade 12, just months before graduating, she says “my mental health just took me down again.” When asked to describe the pain of depression now, Maria says “It hurt to be alive. It just hurt. I would wake up and just be like ‘I have to do this again’. I have to be alive again and it hurts so badly.”

She had her third suicide attempt that semester and spent several months bouncing between hospitals before she was diagnosed with PTSD, borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety and OCD. Maria was thankful for the diagnoses and went as far as to thank her doctors for letting her know she’s not crazy. Now she knows there is something wrong with her that explains why she has been this way her whole life.

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With further support from both ROCK and her high school she managed to graduate with honours and even received a scholarship to college. She took advice from staff at ROCK and began to speak in public about her mental health issues, while becoming more confident in herself and working as an advocate for mental health awareness.

She says ROCK saw something in her that she had never seen in herself. She had been hiding both her mental health issues and the physical scars on her arms from years of self-harm, covering her wrists with bracelets. As she began to understand herself and get the support she needed she began to think “I’m actually pretty strong. I’m pretty brave, and the bracelets started coming off and my self started coming out…”

Maria is an inspiration to us all. She has big plans for the world of mental health and she hopes to land right where she started, helping kids like her at ROCK. She’s already landed a paid position and plans to work there full time once she graduates from college.
As she says herself, she is a survivor:

“People always ask that ‘Are you better now?’ Yeah, I’m better. Yeah I’m managing. But, you know, I get sad and sometimes that sadness turns into depression and I don’t want to go to school. But I force myself. It’s just I have to survive. I survive every single day.”

Maria’s story isn’t unique. She shares her fight with hundreds of other teens who struggle with mental health issues every day. There is a lot of work to be done to overcome stigmas and Maria is now a superhero advocate in the battle against mental health stigma and disease. She aims to change people’s perspective and begin a dialogue on the diseases that shaped her life. She says, “It’s okay to have bi- polar or schizophrenia. It doesn’t matter. You’re still Maria, or you’re still Julie, you’re still whoever, you know. It doesn’t define who you are.”

With the help of our community, maybe Maria’s story will inspire others to join in the battle and more teens will receive the help they need to lead healthy, successful lives.

Support Reach Out Centre for Kids or United Way Oakville this Holiday Season.

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Readers Comments (1)

  1. Laurie Mclachlan says:

    Your story was very touching.I have been to Rock with my daughter .Support is key in mental health.I would be interested in volunteering at Rock. We all be to help one another.

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