A booming voice encompassed in a tiny frame.
Nearly five years after her passing, Helen Connolly’s words – often passionately spoken – still resonate with the dozens she helped during her decades of service as an advocate for the mentally ill on the Semiahmoo Peninsula and across B.C.
The White Rock woman, who passed on Dec. 15, 2008 at 74 years old, will be honoured this year at the Oct. 8 picnic hosted by Whale House, a White Rock-based psycho-social clubhouse for people living with mental illness.
The vocal advocate originally organized the Peace Arch Park picnic years ago in order to create an event where members of the mental-health community could connect.
“When Helen came to Whale House, what she wanted was for the members to have a fun-filled day, to enjoy music, dancing and a good meal,” said friend and Whale House staffer LeeAnne Gardiner. “Everything is free.”
Since Helen’s passing, the picnic is now funded by Options Community Services in her memory.
Whale House member Anne Gagnon first met Connolly at Riverview Hospital, where the advocate served on the Riverview Downsizing Committee – and later as chair of the board. Gagnon noted that Connolly’s efforts to connect the community became that much more crucial once Riverview was shut down in July 2012.
“It’s quite unique for us that were in Riverview or boarding homes. It’s like a reunion. When Riverview closed, we were all scattered in various communities, and this brings us all back together,” she said. “We wait for this picnic all year.”
Gagnon was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1991. She received unwavering support from Connolly, who had been an advocate for those who have been diagnosed with mental illness – including her own son – since the 1970s.
“When I moved out of the boarding home and into my own apartment, Helen was there with a few boxes for my pantry,” Anne recalled. “She was a very practical, vocal woman. For example, people were being discharged from a boarding home on Fridays when there was no support on the weekends for them. So she got that to end. She was thinking like a true mother.”
More than 300 people are anticipated to attend this year’s picnic, and there will be few there who have not been touched by Connolly, Gardiner said.
“I always say a speech about who she was and what she did, but they all know,” Gardiner said. “When I started, I didn’t know Helen. I had heard of her. She was called the guardian angel of Whale House.
“I remember being at a big meeting for mental health, and they were talking about something that wasn’t in favour of the members. She was a tiny little thing. And all of a sudden, this tiny lady stands up and her voice just booms, disagreeing.
“She had a strong voice. Her concerns for the people with mental illness was so sincere. She wasn’t afraid to stand up and say ‘no, that’s not fair.’”
Connolly’s impact was such that at Riverview, Connolly Lodge was named after her, in honour of her dedication to helping others.
Her husband, Joe, noted that it wasn’t just mental health she was passionate about. Connolly was a staunch supporter of the underdog.
“It was amazing what the woman could do,” he told Peace Arch News Thursday. “She’s always been sympathetic towards other people. She would advocate for senior citizens. A lot of people depended on her visits.”
Joe recalled one instance where a man whom Helen visited had been depressed, homeless and had no support system in place. While many others would have shied away, Connolly comforted the man, running her fingers through his hair.
“There are not that many people who would do something like that,” Joe said.
Connolly also chaired the South Surrey-White Rock Mental Health Advisory Coalition and the Riverview Family Advocacy Group and was a supporter of the BC Schizophrenia Society. In addition, she represented South Surrey-White Rock on the South Fraser’s mental-health advisory group and served as president of the Surrey-White Rock Schizophrenia Society.
Connolly’s legacy of helping those in need continues through the Helen Connolly Fund, which was set up with a generous donation from the Connolly’s that was matched by Options Community Services, a non-profit charity providing social services primarily in Surrey, Delta, White Rock and Langley
The fund provides grants to consumers of mental-health services or a family member or friend who is supporting someone living with mental illness.
Her legacy is also kept alive at Whale House, where members still feel the ripple effects of Connolly’s work.
The Whale House provides workshops for people living with mental illness, as well as leisure activities, including dances and baseball. With support from the Peace Arch Foundation, the group has purchased a truck, trailer and equipment for landscaping as well.
And, in the early days of the Whale House, which was founded in the late ‘80s , there was Connolly, who provided support in any way she could – including bringing turkey and other meals for members, Gardiner laughed.
“She was tiny, but mighty.”