Expert Q & A: What are some ways a program can integrate with the community?

An interview with Frankie O’Connor, Canadian Mental Health Association, Cochrane Timiskaming Branch, who describes her approach to “minding a community.” [Pictured: Top row, left to right: Nathan Rodley, Leon Credger, Richard Martin, Alec Morrison, Chris Gatenby; Middle row left to right: Ashley Lafave, Tina Peddie, Chris Hill; Bottom row left to right: Kirsty Crossley and Cecileah Mejaki]

Frankie O’Connor is a woman of many hats. Frankie is both a certified personal trainer at the local the community physical-activity complex in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, and a community support worker with CMHA Cochrane-Timiskaming. Wearing both hats has helped her develop a physical activity (PA) programming partnership between these two organizations — and her work extends well beyond the walls of these two sites.

The partnership began with family memberships that allowed 10 CMHA clients to use the PA facility. Poor attendance, however, led Frankie to develop a more organized PA program for clients. An oversized treadmill was bought for the PA centre with funding from the Ministry of Health Promotion through the Communities in Action Fund (now called the Healthy Communities Fund) and, using her Can-Fit-Pro training, Frankie began teaching classes that integrated clients with the general public. Twice a week for two hours in the morning, Frankie also assists individual CMHA clients at the gym to develop customized cardio, strength training and flexibility routines. The program also offers a mindfulness yoga class, balance training, chronic pain groups and mindfulness CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy) groups, all of which are open to local CMHA clients.

During the past year, similar initiatives have been started by two CMHA workers, Chris Hill from New Liskeard and Shane Wakeford from Timmins. They refer to this approach as “active recovery,” which is a specialty in their Case Management/Community Support Program. With support from the agency, both Chris and Shane have also been certified as personal trainers through Can-Fit-Pro.

The partnership with the community PA complex has branched out to new alliances with local schools and the local museum, both of which provide opportunities for members of the community to learn about mental health and give clients a chance to be involved. Frankie continues to reach out and build bridges through this work.

Q: Were you a fitness leader before you took on the role of community support worker?
Yes, I was moonlighting … ha, ha. I always had a passion for exercise. And in our field of work, burnout is high and exercise has always been my way of de-stressing.

Q: Can you speak more about the assisted membership program you helped set up at the gym?
At our community’s activity complex, I helped set up an assisted membership program for our group. Participants in the group can receive a discount if they meet financial criteria through the worksheet. Everyone pays something. If they absolutely cannot afford anything, then a plan is made for them on a short-term basis to either pay a minimal fee or get “free” passes that the agency pays for. On rare occasions we can waive a fee for a short time. If their finances change, then the fee will change.

Q: Can you describe the Minding Our Community Weekend?
We have partnered with the community activity complex, the local high school and the town’s Festivals Committee. On the Friday of Mental Health Week [a national public education event that takes place every year during the first week in May], the local high school holds a students’ walk/run (5-10K) and they raise money for those in need in the community. This year, we added grades 1-6. They have been logging up to 40K since the end of February and will run the last 2K together; thus they will be our marathon champions for the weekend.

On the Saturday, for the larger community we have a 5K, 10K and half-marathon, and in the afternoon we have a 2K community walk. These venues are all walk or run. This year, we have a total of 42 clients registered from our three offices who will be participating physically. We have been training with our clients twice a week. In total, to date, we have over 85 participants.

The event name, “Minding Our Community,” was inspired by Minding Our Bodies.

Next year, we’ll have the local museum involved to do art shows through a challenge to area photographers to capture the artistic side of our walk/run. These photographs, we are hoping, will be displayed during Mental Illness Awareness Week in the fall.

All this is a way of raising the profile of our program and raising awareness as to how you can affect your mental health and physical health in a positive way.

Q: What made you decide to be certified as a personal trainer? Why did you choose Can-Fit-Pro certification?
The facility that I worked with in 1993 decided that they wanted the trainers to be certified by Can-Fit-Pro. In the exercise class I was taking, the instructor moved so the class was in jeopardy of being cancelled so I stepped up to the plate. And my passion for learning has never stopped.

Q: Do you think it is important for other trainers to be certified?
Yes. It is about continuing education. Physical health is at risk for our clients also or we would not have programs like Minding Our Bodies. Anyone can go out walking; however, with mental illness there is an added chance of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and a sedentary lifestyle. So, we need to know how to handle this and understand where our clients need to start. Remember: “Do no harm.”

Can-Fit-Pro is a national organization that lends credibility to a group or organization. Each year they hold conferences throughout Canada. There are sessions on chronic pain, physical health, research into mental health, and sessions to help anyone keep on learning and improving their program. They also publish an e-newsletter every month that has all kinds of teaching resources and tips on how to talk to your client.

Certification [with Can-Fit-Pro] gives you credibility and is well respected in the fitness industry, especially if you want to make community partnerships. In our case, it was important as we were seeking funding for equipment for the community gym.

Q: Do you use your client-intake program package to understand where a person is coming from?
Yes. First, there’s a PAR-Q, a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire, to get the basics, to understand if they need medical support or a release, to be physically active. Then we take a health history asking if they have diabetes, if they smoke, if they have a family history of heart disease, if they are pregnant, if they have had surgery. Then we collect an exercise history — what have they done in the past, what did they enjoy even as a child, and what are they doing now? For example, are they walking for transportation or for physical activity? These are different. Then finding out where their energy levels are … for some, the best time is 10 am to 3 pm. We find out if they have support — friends or family who are supporting them to become physically active. Do they have a dog? Do they need a volunteer to support them? Can they motivate themselves? Then we go on to goals, short-term and long-term goals, and figure out what steps are necessary to get there, to make it part of their life.

To see the intake package forms, visit the goal-setting and tracking section in the resource directory.

Q: How do you use the logbook for physical body measurements? How is this helpful to the clients?
If they agree to be a part of the program, it can help with their personal evaluation. I am trying to measure blood pressure, waist, weight, plus depression/anxiety screening monthly. It has helped interested clients keep on task. Even if weight has not gone down, it is encouraging to see that their weight, blood pressure, sugar is stable.

A cardiologist told one participant with a heart condition: “Whatever it is you’re doing, keep doing it. Your heart is stronger than last year.”

Q: Do you have any community-oriented initiatives to address healthy-eating issues?
Yes. Through our drop-in centre, clients have been asking to bring back the food and veggie co-op we ran last summer. We are starting it in May.

The co-op works like this: If you are a single person, you pay $12 at the beginning of the month; for a family, it is $20a month. At the middle of the month, we get together and figure out what fruits and vegetables are on sale, and make a list of what we are going to buy. Once it is bought, we divvy it up into donated recyclable bags and we include recipes.

Fruits and vegetables are what are lacking in their diet. It’s the hard part to include, so [we find] creative ways of including it in their diet with a simple recipe, one that incorporates ingredients they will already have at home, too.

With more people participating, they will have more input than last year on what produce to buy, so it will be their choice.

Q: What other activities do you have running?
We recently bought some mountain bikes, so we can ride on trails now. Tennis, badminton, basketball, soccer and baseball are some of the activities we are looking toward. Also, tai chi in the park, so that we can be outdoors and closer to nature.

To learn more about the Active Recovery approach at CMHA Cochrane-Timiskaming Branch, please see the program directory.


If you have questions to ask Frankie, you can e-mail her at: foconnor [at] cmhact [dot] ca.