Women building community by supporting and promoting wellness

Meet 10 community builders promoting physical and mental wellness in Ottawa as part of In Her Words digital conversation series

Meet 10 women promoting physical and mental wellness as part of In Her Words digital conversation series

This week, we explore the idea of community builders. We introduce you to some of the women who are using their passion and influence to support the wellness of communities across Ottawa, including creating spaces to raise awareness, share encouragement, start important conversations and inspire future generations.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Amarpreet Vaid, certified personal trainer and mental health advocate

(Robert Joseph)

In Her Words by Amarpreet Vaid: "From a young age, I was always very active and played many sports. In the South Asian community, women exercising and playing sports was not common. However, through my practice as a certified personal trainer, I started attracting more and more South Asian clients when they saw someone like themselves able to work out and play sports. Now, half my clients are South Asian women and 90 per cent are BIPOC.

I am also a mental health advocate and one common benefit shared by my clients is reduced mental stress through physical exercise. Physical health is an important part of emotional and spiritual wellness, all of which enhances human power and one's mental and social well-being.

I sit on a Board of Directors for a non-profit organization, the Lotus Movement, which focuses on demystifying the stigma on mental health issues in BIPOC communities.

Recently, a group of professional trainers and I created Strength and Seva (selfless service), a series of free online classes to get the community talking about what is happening with the farmers' peaceful protests in India. We create awareness and collect donations on a volunteer-basis. Since launching in January of this year, we have over 500 online members."

CBC Ottawa: Could you share what drove you to your purpose/mission?

Vaid: Growing up in a South Asian immigrant family there were many things we never talked about, like one's mental health – I felt lost. I never felt like I had anyone I could fully depend on, so I want to be that for others – to remind them, they are not alone.

Through my personal training practice, I learned that physical and mental health go hand-in-hand. One cannot be achieved without the other. I believe my physical educational background brought me to where I am today, using my voice to educate people and my community about mental health and physical activity.

CBC Ottawa: Could you identify one challenge and one reward that you experience with the work that you're doing?

Vaid: One challenge is realizing you truly do not know what anyone is going through. That is why speaking out about mental health and helping to end the stigma is so important. Teaching one another about empathy, spreading love and being compassionate is so important to me.

The reward is huge. Letting others know they have someone to rely on, that will be there for them and will guide them, makes a difference. That is the biggest reward as a trainer – yes, to see them reach new heights in their fitness journeys, but to see them feel a little lighter in this tough world we live in, is the light I look for and what pushes me to keep helping people every single day.

Amanda Fox, powwow workout instructor, beadwork and sewing artist

(Submitted by Amanda Fox)

In Her Words by Amanda Fox: "I am Anishinaabe from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory and was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario.

I am a beadwork and sewing artist and a powwow workout instructor. A powwow workout is a high-intensity, Zumba-like class using First Nations powwow steps and music.

In a geographical concept, I work on the unceded and unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin peoples in the community of Ottawa/Gatineau.

Working with and for the Indigenous community has always been my passion but I would love to expand and work with many different communities.

Besides my specific work with the Indigenous people, I currently work within the health and wellness community and the crafting community."

CBC Ottawa: Could you share what drove you to your purpose/mission?

Fox: As a young girl, I always loved to attend workshops and events based on culture. I always thrived to become culturally aware and active within my community.

As a young adult, my passion grew into wanting to learn so that I could teach and share the knowledge I received. Today, I thrive to share what I have learned through my artistry and powwow workouts to preserve, protect, revitalize, and strengthen Indigenous culture.

I believe that sharing cultural knowledge with non-Indigenous peoples is valuable to the understanding, safety, and acceptance of our culture.

CBC Ottawa: Could you identify one challenge and one reward that you experience with the work that you're doing?

Fox: The reward that comes with teaching is the chance to give back to my community, which means the world to me. Having a healthy space to go to, whether you're beading, sewing, working out, chatting, etc. is important.

One challenge that I face when sharing powwow workouts, in particular, is the fact that I share to non-Indigenous people. Sharing our footwork and music with non-Indigenous people may lead to cultural appropriation.

When teaching, I always ensure to teach or remind participants about cultural appropriation and the preservation of Indigenous culture.

Vicki Madziak, program coordinator at The Door Youth Centre

(Submitted by Vicki Madziak)

In Her Words by Vicki Madziak: "I started volunteering at The Door during my undergrad. I instantly felt such a connection to the community there, and I was lucky to be hired after graduating.

The essence of what I do there is to create a safe(r) space for 12–18-year-olds, that supports and empowers them to be engaged members of their community. Through workshops and activities, we focused on topics such as sexual health, mental health, employment skills, financial literacy, art skills, and more.

The reward is when you complete an activity and you have, even if just one youth, saying they learned something new. It is a tangible reward and hopefully, it's something that will stay with them and motivate them."

CBC Ottawa: Could you share what drove you to your purpose/mission?

Madziak: My mother works in Community Health, so at a young age I learned from her the importance of programs that support people – even if it seems like a small way, it can have a large impact.

Since I was fairly young, I knew I wanted to work towards dismantling the various barriers that many individuals and communities face. I thought I wanted to do this work on a more international level, but pretty quickly realized the importance of community, grassroots level work. That's what led me to The Door. It is so beautiful to create spaces where the main goal is for people to feel safe, learn, and try new things.

Also, the youth that I work with are definitely a huge motivation for me. They are all so smart, funny, and I admire them for being willing to make sure of the programs at the centre.

CBC Ottawa: In the future, where do you see yourself and the work you are currently doing?

Madziak: In the next few years, I hope to have completed my Master's in Public Policy and Administration. My main focus is working towards policies that shift power towards communities and individuals, instead of being a barrier to them.

On both a personal and professional level, I hope to contribute more towards mutual aid and grassroots-level efforts in my community. And I would like to continue building accessible programs that build healthy communities.

Meghan Wills, education and wellness entrepreneur

(Adetola Salako)

In Her Words by Meghan Wills: "I am a mother, daughter, sister, cousin, aunty and successful education and wellness entrepreneur.

I actively support children and youth in local school boards in Ottawa and Gatineau in anti-discrimination and wellness initiatives.

In March of this year, I launched the Mindful Educator Program as a part of the New Teacher Induction Program for the Ottawa Catholic School Board. This program is a supplementary 8-week live and online training course for new teachers and their mentors to teach mindfulness practices that foster well-being, self-awareness, resilience and calm within OCSB educators.

I was also honoured to act as the Chair of Parents for Diversity for 6 months in 2020 and continue to offer volunteer support to their incredible initiatives.

Mindfulness, also known as a contemplative practice, is incredibly powerful in our ability to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery; it empowers self-awareness, self-mastery, and equanimity."

CBC Ottawa: How did your personal story shape your current professional path?

Wills: I am passionate about inclusive wellness and mental health support because of my own continued experiences as a multi-racial Black Canadian Woman with Jamaican heritage.

For most of my life, I have held shame in my mental health challenges. Mental health awareness already faces barriers related to stigma so you can imagine, intersecting a visibly transparent part of my lived experiences into my mental health was not easy to identify and accept.

I have chosen this professional path because of my lived experiences and the lack of diverse and inclusive mental health resources available. With the support of inclusive wellness offerings and the increase in diverse, anti-racist wellness practitioners, I have been able to develop offerings for our communities.

Learning to claim my authenticity and the true freedom that comes with it, has been a huge motivator in how I show up in my entrepreneurial journey.

CBC Ottawa: Did you have a clear vision, and path to this line of work?

Wills: I must admit, I did not have a clear vision or path getting here. I used to work in hospitality, human resources and talent acquisition. And it became undeniable that there is a lack of education, awareness and understanding of how race and mental health intersect.

Even after years of therapy and guided meditations led by white practitioners, I still experienced "otherness." I eventually stumbled on Black-led Yoga and Mindfulness which spoke of social justice and the importance of self-care for Afro-Caribbean Black communities.

Finally, I was hearing the gap addressed. I felt like I was not alone and could pursue this as a career even though I was "one of" or the "only" at the time.

Mindfulness helped me find the peace and belonging I was truly looking for, through radical self-care, self-love, compassion, and the attentional skills of mindful awareness.  It really does change everything, and when I realized how well it worked for me, I wanted to share it with everyone.

Once I saw that it was helping so many people, I kept moving forward and I have not stopped since.

Aneeka Ward, physiotherapist and business owner

(Amy Zambonin)

In Her Words by Aneeka Ward: "I was fortunate that from a very young age, both my parents emphasized the importance of needing to be a self-sufficient, independent woman who could stand on her own two feet. They didn't want me to be in a situation where I had no choice but to fully depend on someone else. They helped me understand that as a woman, who happens to be a woman of colour, I was going to have to work much harder than everyone else.

I've dedicated the last 10 years to master my craft as a full-time physiotherapist.

In September of 2019, my husband and I built and opened Third Line Health & Fitness. Our dream facility allows us to do the work we are both so passionate to do. We are uniquely located between two farms in the outskirts of Ottawa and offer indoor/outdoor fitness classes, personal training services, and physiotherapy."

CBC Ottawa: How did your personal story shape your professional path?

Ward: My parents played a fundamental role in my personal story that set me on the path and led me to where I am today. I remember sitting in the lobby of residence in my first year of undergrad talking to my mom on the phone discussing what possible paths I could take with my biology degree. I remember discussing the pros and cons of medical school vs dentistry vs physiotherapy.

I remember at that moment, I knew my path was physiotherapy.

As a profession, it would allow me to serve others, have a direct impact on improving their quality of life, potentially own my own business, and eventually allow for a work-life balance that I could control.

CBC Ottawa: When it comes to your work, what is one thing that you wish had more of?

Ward: Time. Trying to balance being a mother, wife, physiotherapist and business owner has its inherent challenges.

When it comes to my career, I have always been driven. It comes easy for me to pour all of myself into my work and sometimes it's hard for me to find an off-switch. I constantly have to remind myself that there are only so many hours in a day, that work will always be there tomorrow and that it is important to be present for my family in those few hours a day we are together.

Having a few extra hours a day wouldn't hurt. 

Courtney Beaulne, high school physical education and dance teacher

(Submitted by Courtney Beaulne)

In Her Words by Courtney Beaulne: "I would describe myself as energetic, determined, and a firecracker, which was my nickname as a camp director and camp counsellor many years ago.

I was born and raised in the west end of Ottawa. I'm a former GeeGee with a Bachelor of Science in Human Kinetics, Bachelor of Education and Masters in Education.

I've been teaching for 11 years – physical education and dance. At school, I can be found in the gym or on the field.

Besides coaching boys and girls basketball, badminton, and track and field, I act as the female representative for the National Capital Region at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) and represent Eastern Ontario on the OFSAA executive council.

When I'm not at school, my life revolves around my young family. My husband, Steve, and I have two beautiful and energetic little ladies, Phoenix and Oakleigh, and a four-legged daughter – our dog, Maizie."

CBC Ottawa: How did your personal story shape your professional path?

Beaulne: High school athletics were a huge part of my upbringing. My mom was a physical education teacher in Ottawa for over 30 years, so I lived in the high school gymnasium growing up.

When I finally got to high school, I tried out for almost every sport – water polo, badminton, both field hockey and ice hockey.

I had a lot of positive memories competing in high school sport, but it was mostly the relationships I formed with strong, confident female teacher-coach role models – including my mother – that ultimately led me to a career in education. I even have a few of these women, who I now consider friends, that are still working and teacher-coaching alongside me now.

I can't wait for this to come back to me full circle- having some of MY former students come work alongside me someday.

CBC Ottawa: Did you have a clear vision, and path to this line of work?

Beaulne: I always wanted to have a career in athletics in some capacity. Going into university, I was trying to decide between sports psychology, exercise physiology or physical education. But completing my master's degree and studying the positive correlation between physical activity and academics, solidified my true career path in physical education. 

I feel like I have the best of all my former career options wrapped in one. Some days, it feels like I chose psychology – my office is always full of students talking to me about their stories or the latest high-school drama. Other days, I get to practice my athletic taping and exercise physiology when coaching or teaching my all-girls personal fitness class.

I'm so happy that I ended up back in the same gyms I grew up in. 

Dr. Keri Cheechoo, Director of the Indigenous Teacher Education Program

(Submitted by Keri Cheechoo)

In Her Words by Keri Cheechoo: "Wachiye, I am an Iskwew from Long Lake #58 First Nation which is in Northwestern Ontario.

I am an Assistant Professor specializing in Indigenous Education and the Director of the Indigenous Teacher Education Program at the University of Ottawa.

My research uses Cree Knowledge, arts-based methodologies, and poetic pedagogy. My doctoral research engaged a Cree Nisgaa methodological framework that is framed by protocol, Mamatowisin, or engaging inner mindfulness, and reciprocity.

My academic journey was long and windy, often stressful and was very fraught with precarity. But I made it! 

I am humbled to be positioned in a way that I am able to make and hold space for others on their academic journeys.

Personally, I am a mom to 5 adult children and Gookum to 2 wonderful beings. My partner Patrick has always championed me, and I am glad that we are on a life and love journey together."

CBC Ottawa: How did your personal story shape your current professional path?

Cheechoo: My lived experiences as an Iskwew or Cree woman shape who I have become professionally.

My parents experienced the atrocities of the Indian Residential School System and parented through the lens that emerged from their formative years. I recognized early on that it was critical that I do my best to break cycles, and that it was my responsibility to champion my children the best that I could, in spite of generational traumas.

Though we experienced precarity, I persisted as I wound my way through my academic journey, hoping that I was breaking a trail that allowed for less gatekeeping and increased opportunities for my children and the next generations.

CBC Ottawa: If you were not doing what you are doing today, what else would you be doing with your career?

Cheechoo: Before I began my Ph.D. journey in 2015, I was a Literacy Resource Teacher in Constance Lake First Nation.

My experiences from that time stand out in my memory. I always felt welcome, I learned so much and met so many wonderful people. I would be there teaching and learning. No doubts about that.

Samiyah Zawawi, co-owner of Rubiks Counselling Services

(Saleh Zawawi)

In Her Words by Samiyah Zawawi: "I came to Canada to expand my education and slowly built a home in the process.

Coming from a cross-cultural background I had always been fascinated by different cultures. I find that there is incredible knowledge to be shared when we make space for moments to really listen and communicate honestly.

In 2013, I was lucky to have interned at the Ottawa Community Immigrant Organization  (OCISO) which I think truly solidified my interest and passion for working with immigrants, refugees and individuals from BIPOC communities.

Currently, I co-own Rubiks Counselling Services to address the lack of resources and services needed to provide adequate mental health services in the BIPOC community.

I also work part-time in a community organization, serving diverse communities, including immigrants, refugees and vulnerable populations.

I really do enjoy connecting with people, engaging in creative outlets and trying new  things, especially all kinds of food."

CBC Ottawa: How did your personal story shape your professional path?

Zawawi: Growing up, the communities around me were mental health stigmatized – even talking about it was taboo.

I think watching those close to me suffer in silence really fuelled my drive to change the narrative around mental health through education. I realized, right away, this would be an on-going process that requires patience and continued advocacy. But I do see some progress and notice the second generation of immigrants is slowly opening up about their own mental health challenges – It is so great to see and makes me feel hopeful.

CBC Ottawa: Did you have a clear vision, and path to this line of work?

Zawawi: I wouldn't say I had a 'clear vision,' but I always knew that I wanted to work with diverse populations.

Throughout most of my career working in different community organizations, it quickly dawned on me that mental health treatment is in fact a privilege and not everyone can have equal and affordable access to care. This need is even greater in marginalized communities where resources are very limited, making the job at times difficult – there aren't enough people and resources to support the needs of these communities.

When we started Rubiks Counselling Services, we knew right away we wanted to address this gap. We are mindful about the services we provide and we tailor our therapeutic approach to further support the needs of our clients.

Wala'a Farahat, co-owner of Rubiks Counselling Services

(Saleh Zawawi)

In Her Words by Wala'a Farahat: "I am an Egyptian-Canadian, born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario. I am grateful to have been immersed in my cultural and religious identity by family and community members at a young age, while also given the opportunity to experience and learn from other cultures.

Although I do not necessarily fit into a particular category or group, my rich cultural experiences and interactions make me who I am today.

Initially, I had no intention of being a therapist, and frankly hadn't heard of the profession as the topic of mental health was very taboo within my circles. Ultimately, during my community work, as I helped others, I learned more and more about the field and grew an interest in pursuing a degree in counselling.

My interests range from community-based work, understanding the refugee, immigrant, and second-generation experience, and providing representation for children from diverse populations to make sure they feel seen.

I am a book-worm, I love to travel and learn new things, and I'm always up for  a good intellectual conversation – especially if it leads to action or change."

CBC Ottawa: How did your personal story shape your professional path?

Farahat: The value of community involvement and social responsibility was instilled by my parents from a very young age. This included understanding concepts of privilege, shared values, advocacy and belonging.

As a third-culture kid, the more I learned about myself and how to incorporate the different parts of me, the more I wanted to talk to others about it. As the eldest child, this also meant learning how to bridge the gap between my parents', uncles' and aunts' experience of culture and that of my younger siblings and friends.

My personal pursuits to understand my own identity and ongoing conversations with family and friends led to my research on identity, immigration and diversity, and the interest in addressing these topics with my clients.

CBC Ottawa: When it comes to your work, what is one thing that you wish had more of?

Farahat: I wish I had more resources to provide free, accessible therapy, community-based programming, and support groups, particularly for BIPOC.

Ongoing access to quality therapy and mental health services should not be limited to those who can afford it or specific communities.

One of the main objectives of Rubiks Counselling Services is to provide accessible mental health services to diverse populations. This includes raising awareness of the challenges faced and working to build partnerships with funders and community organizations. 

Tina Lamontagne, founder of Yoga Attic

(Laura Kelly)

In Her Words by Tina Lamontagne: "I am a new mom, a wife to Guillaume and I am the founder of Yoga Attic.

Almost 4 years ago, my husband and I opened our home to the community with the hopes that people who visit would find a sense of home within themselves. We believe life is meant to be shared and we do believe showing up with open hearts is a simple opportunity to share real moments and meet incredible people.

What started as a yoga community that has grown into a safe space for everyone that wants to show up here.

This year, [because of the pandemic] we had to take a real step back from what we do – offer wellness retreats, a space to gather, an escape surrounded by nature, – and come back to the why we do it – to foster connection, community and healing.

I believe community and wellness are more important now than ever before. Call me an eternal optimist, but I still dream of the day we can gather in person again, and one day having a bigger retreat space where we would host people overnight."

CBC Ottawa: Could you share what drove you to your purpose/mission?

Lamontagne: I never imagined this would be my life. A few years ago, I had been working for about a decade in the postsecondary education industry. One day I hit a wall – I had burnout at the age of 30. My husband, who was a co-owner of a yoga studio at the time, had one spot left in a yoga teacher training. I jumped at the opportunity without overthinking it, wanting to dedicate one weekend every month to myself. [During training], I connected to a community and I reconnected to myself. The whole experience brought me back to the feeling I had years before where I previously worked on the road and stayed in local B&B's and travelled for work.

After my yoga teacher training, I wanted to bring these two worlds together and recreate that feeling I felt: a space of special details, combining the values of yoga, the essence of the home bringing people back to the basics, an escape from the business of everyday life. I wanted to bring strangers together, invite them to look at each other in the eyes and treat people to a well-needed dose of comfort...movement, nature, community and good food!

CBC Ottawa: Could you cite one challenge you faced in your journey?

Lamontagne: I would like to say that my biggest lesson in business was in 2019 with my pregnancy with my son, who is now 16 months old. I was in my second year of business, we had recently renovated our new space, I was motivated, and business was really starting to peak. But then, I learned that my pregnancy was high risk and I had to spend 17 weeks on bed rest.

It was the most humbling experience and I was terrified.

I realized that my whole business depended on myself and if I wanted it to grow and be sustainable in the future, I needed to learn how to ask for help, delegate, and change the structure of how we did things. I was fully transparent with our community. I was very well supported and in many ways, it prepared us for 2020.

Maya Shoucair, diversity and belonging specialist at Shopify

(Submitted by Maya Shoucair)

In Her Words by Maya Shoucair: "I'm a Lebanese-Canadian refugee-immigrant born in war-torn Beirut and have nearly always called Ottawa home. I consider myself to be a community builder and cultural translator since I can weave in between communities, cultures, online and offline spaces, and I'm a natural connector – whether it's personally or professionally.

Growing up, my house was sort of a community hub in the Sandalwood/Herongate neighbourhood. My mom was great at knowing how to navigate the complexity of the system and she helped others to do the same. Seeing her helping others taught me that the knowledge and resources I have access to can change someone else's life for the better.

Through my work at Shopify, on the board of UKAI Projects, or as a BMW Foundation Responsible Leader, I help shape inclusive spaces where others feel like they belong, are seen and valued.

Right now, I'm learning and leaning more into Arab diaspora communities.

I've worked with Afikra, a Middle Eastern cultural talk series, which has helped me learn about my identity in a way that I hadn't had access to before. Since it's a global community, I also get to connect with other Arabs around the world and recognize the similarities in our experiences."

CBC Ottawa: Could you identify one challenge, and one reward that you experience with the work that you're doing?

Shoucair: The challenge will always be that there are too many problems to solve and not enough time. It's easy to get lost in the feeling that I should be doing everything all at once but I've learned that there is power in being intentional, in setting my vision and chipping away at it bit by bit. I've learned to find power and pleasure in the small victories, knowing that they collectively lead to something bigger. But the real reward is in the connections and relationships I build with others and in knowing that we are collectively co-creating something bigger than ourselves.

CBC Ottawa: In the future, how do you see the work you're currently doing?

Shoucair: I'm here to help build digital economies that are more inclusive, accessible, and connected on both the local and global levels. For me, that means that everyone has access to an internet connection, that our online and offline spaces are free from harm and hate, that everyone has access to fair and equal employment and that anyone who wants to can start a business with the tools and capital they need.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now