New Brunswick

Young women honoured with Turnaround Awards share remarkable stories

McKenna Wolfe-Lafleur and Aeddan Mulherin showed tremendous perseverance in turning their lives around.

McKenna Wolfe-Lafleur, Aeddan Mulherin show tremendous perseverance in turning their lives around

Aeddan Mulherin, left, and McKenna Wolfe-Lafleur share their remarkable stories of how they turned their lives around. (CBC News)

McKenna Wolfe-Lafleur had big expectations when she headed off to high school.

Finally more time to hang out with her friends and feel a little freedom in her life.

It didn't take long.

She remembers losing control by second semester of Grade 10 and getting mixed up with the wrong crowd.

"It wasn't extremely bad at first," she said. "But they would always talk me into ditching school and smoking weed and cigarettes."

For Aeddan Mulherin, the journey to high school was a long one.

"Starting about Grade 7, I started to experience anxiety," she recalled. "There was bullying and some depression. It was really hard on me. I started to feel sick when I was attending school, like nauseous. And fast forward to Grade 10, it just spiralled a little bit out of control."

For both young women, their high school years in and out of Fredericton High School were some of the toughest times of their lives.

Getting through a dark time

This week both of them are getting awards for not only making through high school, but for making it through some of the darkest moments any young person can experience.

They're being honoured at the 24th annual Kingswood Turnaround Achievement Awards in Fredericton.

The awards recognize students from Fredericton and Oromocto schools who've "shown the most effort, commitment and perseverance in turning around their lives."

Both young women credit their families and dedicated teachers and guidance counsellors for sticking by them and encouraging them to persevere when things looked bleak.

Wolfe-Lafleur said her grandparents definitely deserve a special thanks for their role in helping her change.

"They took me in completely and really helped me go from bad McKenna to good McKenna, if I can word it like that."

As for Mulherin, she said the people who intervened to help her turned around her life.

"I think just like that little push can help people accomplish anything. I probably never would have been able to finish high school (without them)."

McKenna Wolfe-Lafleur's turnaround

For Wolfe-Lafleur, the trouble started in Grade 10. She could never understand why her mother and family never liked her friends. So there were a lot of fights at home over why she continued to hang around with them. She knew it was probably the marijuana and the cigarettes they encouraged her to try, but she felt that was only a phase, nothing she couldn't handle on her own.

"I thought they were good people and were not influencing me negatively," she said.

Things got better the first summer after Grade 10 when she left to work in Ontario at a summer camp.

When school started in Grade 11 the next fall, McKenna didn't hang out as much with her old smoking buddies. That helped, but it didn't last long.

Eventually the old gang was back in her life.

"As the months went on in first semester, we started ditching a class or two a day again," she said. "Normally two and three."

And the tension returned. Wolfe-Lafleur said her mental health "went to crap."

McKenna Wolfe-Lafleur is a Turnaround Achievement award recipient. (Shaun Waters/CBC News)

"My anxiety was so high that I refused to go to class," she said. "I thought my classmates were talking about me and that something bad was going to happen if I went to class. So I started ditching alone."

That started a new pattern for her. She began to show up for class first thing in the morning, and then come back at the end of the day.

"It was a good week if I went to three classes."

Meanwhile, on the homefront life was getting worse as far as the teen was concerned.

"My mother began to get a little crazy, messaging random people I talked about asking where I was and talking badly about my friends," she said. "This along with my absences, drug use and 'lack of nicotine' when I was at home caused many problems."

Toward the end of March that second year, Wolfe-Lafleur decided she had put up with enough. She was getting a drive to school from her mother at 8 a.m. in the morning, but she wasn't going to class.

Cutting class and moving out

She would spend the day driving around with friends, then go back in time for her mom to pick her up.

She would pretend she had put in a full day at school, but every night at 5:30 p.m. her ruse was exposed when the school would leave a recorded message: "A student in your household named McKenna Wolfe-LaFleur was absent period one, two, three, four, five and six."

That's when McKenna decided she no longer wanted to live at home. She left and said she spent a week with a friend whose father is involved with drugs. The arguments back at her house when she dropped by grew even more heated.

Wolfe-Lafleur and her parents decided it might be best for her to go live with her grandparents in Ontario. And that's her turnaround began.

Finding a new circle

She got a job the second day after she arrived in Ontario and she decided to go cold turkey with the smoking and the drugs. She met a new circle of friends and began going to school regularly. She's proud to say she only skipped one class. She also began talking to a counsellor.

"I had a boyfriend back home so I knew I wanted to come back [to Fredericton]," she said.

"At first I was planning on moving in with my friends in our own apartment but as time went on, they were jumping from place to place. I realized I needed a more stable environment. So with the help of the counsellor I was speaking with, and my mother and grandma, we worked out a plan for how coming back could work for me."

Last June, Wolfe-Lafleur was back on plane and coming home to Fredericton.

Since that time, she's become a new person. She's maintained a 90 per cent average and she's been accepted at St. Thomas University.

"I'm accumulating scholarships," she said. "I rarely miss classes and my relationships with my family and my teachers have improved drastically."

Aeddan Mulherin's turnaround

When Mulherin went to FHS for Grade 10, she tried to make it work. But she found every day it became harder and harder to deal with the anxiety and depression.

"I was like worried about what everyone had to think about me, what everybody had to say," she recalled. "So it ended up that I really wasn't able to stay in school. And I missed a lot of time."

So the next year it was a repeat of what happened.

Every September in the following year, she would try again.

I was just so thankful to be alive, that it just motivated me to do what I needed to do, to get my life back on track.-Aeddan Mulherin

She would manage to get through for a short time before the anxiety and depression would take over.

Finally came the year, she was supposed to graduate.

She got in touch with the administration at FHS to let them know she wanted to come back, and this time she was ready to go.

"I was finally ready," she remembered. "I was super motivated. I was finally starting to come out of the funk and anxiety and depression."

That's when the unbelievable happened. Mulherin became sick and was hospitalized for about three months.

She had contracted a relatively rare disease called Lemierre's syndrome.

Aeddan Mulherin is a Turnaround Achievement award recipient. (Submitted)

"It's all to do with infection," she said. "I got meningitis and sepsis, and it all started from an ear infection. It was a pretty crazy time."

She said one day when she was in the intensive care unit, her doctor told her she was probably the sickest person in New Brunswick at that time. She wondered if she would make it and spent a lot of time wondering why it was happening to her.

"I definitely felt at a lot of stages along my journey, why me? I did kind of bring me down a little bit. But I can honestly say that when I got out of hospital, I was just so thankful to be alive, that it just motivated me to do what I needed to do, to get my life back on track."

And Mulherin knew that finishing high school was top on that list of unfinished business.

"I was just really motivated to go back to school," she said.

Overcoming illness 

And even that was painful for her. Her body hurt from a condition called neuropathy that had affected her nerves.

"I was in a bunch of pain," she said. "I couldn't even walk up the stairs actually when I got back to school … I just wanted to get back to it."

She managed to graduate this past January. One day she got a call at home from a guidance counsellor.

She had been nominated and chosen for a turnaround achievement award.

"At first I was really surprised," she said. "It was kind of emotional for me; it was unexpected for me."

The first call she made was to her parents.

"My parents were there for me, through everything," Mulherin said. "They didn't leave my side at all when I was at the hospital and all through my mental health struggles."

"They've been beside me through everything I've been through and my whole journey with school, so they deserved to be first to know. I think they both cried."

In the fall, Mulherin plans to begin another journey — this time toward medical school. She's enrolled in the leadership program at Renaissance College with the University of New Brunswick, where she intends to write her medical school admission tests.


Shaun Waters


Shaun Waters is an award-winning journalist in New Brunswick. He is currently an associate producer with Information Morning Fredericton.