A bucket list dream became cross-country ride for suicide prevention

Jim Zvonar biked across the country to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide. He will be ending his journey Thursday in St. John’s.

Stoney Creek High School teacher bikes across Canada for mental illness and suicide prevention awareness

Jim Zvonar is a Stoney Creek High School teacher who embarked on a cross Canada bike trip to raise awareness about Mental Health. (Jim Zvonar)

Hamilton high school teacher Jim Zvonar will be ending his 54-day cross-Canada bike trip Thursday with a triumphant ride to the Cape Spear Lighthouse, in St. John's, Newfoundland.

His arrival at Canada's easternmost point will end a trip he began on July 2 in Victoria.

The physics teacher at Cardinal Newman Secondary School in Stoney Creek embarked on the trip in celebration of his 50th birthday and Canada 150, but more importantly, to bring awareness to mental illness, an issue dear to his heart since he lost three family members to mental illness.

Zvonar had always wanted to travel across the country. So when the opportunity presented itself this year, he wanted to "hitch his wagon" to a cause that was very meaningful to him.

Zvonar lost his brother-in-law eight years ago to suicide.

In order to bring awareness to mental illness, especially for high school kids, Zvonar focused his journey on raising money for the Suicide Prevention Community Centre of Hamilton (SPCCH).

SPCCH gives grants to schools that have programs or initiatives to reduce stigma and raise awareness in high schools for mental illness, not just suicide.

Zvonar faced challenges on his journey while in B.C. with the wildfire situation making temperatures near Cache Creek extremely hot. (Jim Zvonar)

As a high school teacher, Zvonar knows the pressures that mental health issues can have on students.

With the rise of technology and tv shows that showcase difficult mental health issues, Zvonar hopes that his journey inspires students and other children to seek out help when they need it and know that there are always people around who are willing to help them.

"I hope kids at [Cardinal Newman CSS] and people that are following me in general see that it's okay to talk about mental illness," advised Zvonar. "There's still a stigma attached to it."

He also notes that parents have a role to play when it comes to mental health.

"I think parents put a lot of pressure on their kids in school to do well and achieve in society today because it is difficult to get by and get ahead," said Zvonar.

"I hope they realize that kids will make their own way in life. Kind of lay off of them a little and just be there to support them and guide them and try not to live vicariously through their lives."

Support along the way

It took Zvonar 54 days to reach St. Johns from Victoria, a journey that should typically take three months. He rode on average six to eight hours a day.

For the most part, Zvonar says he has been blessed with good weather and good health during his trip.

"I think my longest day was 11.5 hours on a bike," said Zvonar.

Throughout his journey, he has had the opportunity to enjoy the minute details of Canada that are hard to experience when flying or driving a vehicle.

Blogging and talking to raise money

Zvonar has also kept an online blog discussing his trek and he is educating people along the way about his cause. People have donated to the SPCCH online and in person with Zvonar, and he feels the response to his initiative has been great as people have discussed with him their own battles.

"I've actually had people that have given me money along the way. [It] has really been amazing for people to just hand over money to you and congratulate me on doing [the trip] and the cause that's involved."

Zvonar was happy to have had good weather for most of his journey with just a few occasions of rain. (Jim Zvonar)

Zvonar managed to get a few sponsors for his trip to support him financially, but credits his wife and kids for their support and encouragement that kept him going.

"My oldest son, he told me [in] the latter part of the trip that 'you gotta finish it now, there's no way you can stop. I'm going to force you to finish it if you try not to.'" said Zvonar.

Zvonar's family drove out east to join him at the end of his journey as he rides his last 150 km from Argentia to St. John's tomorrow.

Now more than ever before

Marisa Mariella sits on the Board of Directors for SPCCH and says the entire board and volunteers "feel inspired by Jim's committment to mental health and suicide prevention."

Zvonar hopes that if mental illness issues with students are addressed when they are young, it would lessen the prevalence of mental health issues in the future for the general population.

Giving back to the Suicide Prevention Community Council of Hamilton was important to Zvonar because he has had three family members who have lost their battle with mental health. (Jim Zvonar)

"I look at even eight years ago when my brother-in-law passed away, I really don't think it was even talked about as much back then. That was only eight years ago. I think there has been more of an effort to bring this out and for people to be more aware of [mental illness]. After seeing what my brother-in-law went through, it's very difficult to cure [mental illness] or even handle that mental illness aspect of what he went through."

He wants kids to ease the pressure of perfection on themselves and be open to conversations and help whenever they need them.

"It's okay to fail because you learn from those mistakes as well along the way."

As for educators, he feels many of them simply don't know how to handle mental health issues among students and that there needs to be more education for them to learn how to address and communicate with students about mental health, which is why he wants to support initiatives like SPCCH, who offer support grants to make such education possible.

As for his journey, Zvonar says overall it went well. And he has one person to thank.

"It was a very good trip. I say somebody's been looking down and taking care of me from heaven, possibly my brother-in-law."