Courage to Come Back Awards pay tribute to those who overcome the odds

For nearly two decades, the Courage to Come Back awards have recognized those who recover from severe challenges through extraordinary courage and character.

Now entering its 17th year, the award ceremony will take place this year at the Vancouver Convention Centre on May 7.

Six people will be recognized in the following categories: Addiction, Medical, Mental Health, Physical Rehabilitation, Social Adversity and Youth. Global News will be airing each of their stories in the six days before the event.

Social Adversity – Jim Mandelin

His father an alcoholic and member of the Ku Klux Klan, Mandelin was regularly beaten and sexually molested growing up.

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“Every day was a violent day in some form or fashion whether it was at school or whether it was at home,” he says.

Running away from home at 15, he landed in Vancouver but quickly found himself involved in drugs and gangs.

A heart attack was a turning point.

“I remember slipping away, and then all of sudden I look down, and I see myself laying on the gurney…I thought ‘what am I doing down there? Oh my God, I think I’m dead.’ It was the best feeling I’ve ever had in my whole life.”

Heading to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting soon followed. Today, Mandelin is 35 years sober and works as an administrative assistant for Shelter Net B.C., helping new employees deal with some of the most vulnerable and mentally ill people needing shelters in this province.

He also gives speeches to young people – hoping they will make different choices.

“If it’s just that one kid, it’s all worth it. ‘Cause he’s not going down that road. ‘Cause that road is prison, dead or you get out. There’s no choices.”

Physical Rehabilitation – John Hedderson

Ask John Hedderson about his lifelong health battles and he’ll tell you his secret for coping is honesty and a sense of humour.

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“I’ve been dead,” he says, then adds that now “I’m not.”

The Campbell River man has suffered through too many illnesses for one lifetime, starting with childhood diabetes. Later in life he suffered a stroke and fell victim to aphasia, a rare language disorder that forced him to learn to read, write and speak again.

Hedderson says the loves of his life saved him–his wife Pam and music.

Pam suggested he should perform with a local theatre group. When the music started, everything came out exactly as he had planned.

“The next thing I know, I’m dancing, singing in front of 350 people without missing a beat,” said Hedderson.

His health struggles aren’t over. He deals with chronic pain, but he says he starts each day making the choice to smile and laugh.

“With me I’m in a lot of pain all the time…whoop-de-do,” he said.

“When you’re suffering with things like that, you just laugh at yourself. I still keep ‘er going.”

Medical – Wendy St. Marie

At the age of 24, doctors diagnosed Wendy St. Marie with melanoma and told her she had two years to live. But that’s not how Wendy St. Marie saw it.

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“I just thought that it’s OK that you can use numbers and say 80 per cent will [die], but I can say 20 per cent will [survive]….I think that’s been my strength is to be able to turn things around,” she said.

Turning even the toughest odds in her favour is how Wendy faces every challenge. After skin cancer, she fell and broke her hip and femur in 2002. A year later an MRI revealed multiple sclerosis.

St. Marie’s life’s work is giving back. She volunteers as part of a team that teaches new bus drivers how to be more comfortable with people with disabilities.

“What we’re trying to get them to grasp is that people with disabilities, we’re just like everybody else. Talk to us the same, look us in the eye the same. Do everything the same. But on buses especially, the drivers have to get up very close and personal with people so they need to have a comfort level with that.”

Ultimately, she says, it comes down to gratitude, not just for the good things but for the obstacles too.

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“I’m just so thankful for my life,” she said. “I don’t know any other way to live. I just feel blessed with everything I have and the people in my life. Quite honestly, being in a mobility aid and having MS, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve done in my life are incredible… Everything is really a gift.”

Mental Health – Andrea Paquette

When the symptoms of bipolar disorder first appeared for Andrea Paquette, none of it made sense.

Very quickly, routine tasks became too much to handle.

“I couldn’t taste my food,” said Paquette. “I couldn’t cook my food. I couldn’t chew something in a grocery store. To even take a shower felt like building a house.”

Being diagnosed with bipolar disease was not a relief, at least not initially.

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“The self-stigma, the shame of having a mental illness…I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror,” she said.

Things changed when she decided to wear her struggle on her sleeve.

“My T-shirt is fitting,” she said. “It’s pink, it’s cute and it’s going to say ‘Bipolar Babe.’ And that was my T-shirt that I wanted to wear proudly and not feel stigmatized.”

Today the Bipolar Babe movement is a charity that operates five programs in B.C.

Her friends say her ability to flip the script on shame makes her a hero. She’ll tell you her real power comes in sharing her story.

“It’s not a curse, it’s a gift,” said Paquette. “Because without it there would be no Bioplar Babe, there would be no Bipolar Disorder Society of B.C. and we wouldn’t be helping people every day.”

Addiction – Andy Bhatti

When he was a teenager, Andy Bhatti was doing drugs and committing robberies nearly every day.

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“Drugs was my reality to escape my life, to cope. No matter what happened I had to be high at all times,” he says.

It started around the age of 13, after years of sexual abuse by a Big Brother.

“It first went to massaging me, then it was like, ‘oh give me a kiss, I’ll give you money for kissing,’ then ‘oh here, can you massage me here? Go a little lower,'” he says.

After over a decade in and out of jail, Bhatti was motivated to get clean after becoming a father. Today, he’s nine years sober, raises money and awareness for victims of abuse, and motivates young people to avoid the mistakes he made.

“If people don’t talk about it, this stuff can happen, and it recycles,” he says.

“I talk about sexual abuse and sexual abuse prevention facilitate because I believe that if I don’t talk about it, who will?”

Youth – Kyle Jacques

When Jacques returned to class after recess one day when he was eleven, his life had changed forever.

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He just didn’t know it until he tried to stand up again.

“I must have got back from recess around 10:30, and by lunchtime…I went to go get up and was paralyzed. That’s the last time I walked normally,” he said.

Diagnosed with transverse myelitis, Jacques was determined to beat the odds.

“They kept telling me you’re never going to walk again, you’ve got a 10 per cent chance. And every time I left the appointments, I told my mom and dad I’m not going to listen to them. I’m going to walk again, I just have to put my mind to it.”

Within six years, both his mother and father would be dead. But Jacques persevered, spending years in grueling rehabilitation sessions.

“In 2008, I got up out of my chair and walked upstairs. I knocked on the door at my sister’s house in Richmond. They opened their door and were shocked. They couldn’t believe it.”

Jacques graduated from high school and community college. Has a wife and a son. Fixes wheelchairs for a living. And is happy how his life has turned out.

“If this wouldn’t have happened to me, I would have never accomplished the things I accomplished. I’m grateful I was given a second chance. Things could have happened a lot worse than they did.”


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