Fergus Elora Rotary Club member Neil Dunsmore took the first steps to stopping the silence around mental health and suicide by walking 531 km or 330 miles from The Township of Centre Wellington to the nation’s capital Ottawa. When asked why he would take on such a challenge, Dunsmore answered with a typical Rotarian response “It’s about my community! We are 2.7 times the national average for suicide and that’s an issue for me. Someone needs to raise awareness and get this issue on everyone’s radar, the Federal Governments, the Provincial Governments and the service clubs. Our community is in crisis and when a crisis hits, we have no choice but to act. Service above self!
Dunsmore’s goal was to not just raise awareness but also funds for local mental health initiatives sponsored in part by the Cody Shepperd Project. Cody Shepperd was a Centre Wellington Wrestler who on the outside had the world at his feet. He was a champion that represented Canada at the Pan Am games and was popular among his peers. On October 17 2017 Cody died by suicide and his family and friends’ lives changed forever. Cody’s parents Paul and Darcie Shepperd started the Cody Shepperd Project to help families and youth in our community understand Mental Health issues and raise awareness of the services that are out there. Their motto Stop The Silence resonated with Neil and he knew it would be the perfect fit. “As a professional Speaker and Speaker Coach I know the quickest way to reach people is by sharing your story and being honest and vulnerable! Talking about the people in our lives and sharing your own story helps other realize they are not alone. Realize they are not the only one and by sharing your success they find hope!”Dunsmore is currently a Township of Centre Wellington Councilor but prior to that he was a Provincial Corrections Officer and a Crisis/Hostage Negotiator so he understands the power of connecting with people and he felt now more than ever was the time to do this. “COVID19 has shut my business down, no one is having speakers come to their organization to speak. I realized so many people will be struggling mentally with this isolation and they need to know there are people and services here or them. It was a financial hit as I should have and could have taken a job to help with our personal finances but this was a burning need and that old motto of Service Above Self kept ringing in my ears!”
The walk itself proved to be a battle both physically and mental for Neil who has one replaced knee and another that needs to be replaced. He trained for almost 10 months to make sure he was physically ready and knew that with a bit of pain medication he was capable of finishing the walk. What he wasn’t ready for was the mental struggle he would be forced to endure. “I am an extravert by nature and I thrive best in the company of others and to be out there alone for 22 days! Well that was an eye opener, I walked between 8 to 10 hours a day somedays I would go all day without seeing another person. That’s a long time to be left alone with your own thoughts which I taped so I have a record of what I was thinking, however when you are out there talking to yourself and you finally do meet someone, they can look at you a bit sideways.”  Neil said it was the help he received from home that helped him through the really tough parts. Not just family but a few Rotarians called and texted at just the right time. “I was walking one day and had to stop to take pain medication as my knee began to swell and I didn’t know if I could finish the day. When out of the blue a call came from one of my club members Don Vallery. He just wanted to check my progress and thank me for what I was doing and express how proud he was of me. We talked for almost an hour as I walked and pushed on, when I looked up, I could see the end of the trail! That connection allowed me to push aside the pain and just walk Don who has 2 replaced knees of his own even suggested a minor adjustment to my brace which made all the difference in the world as far as pain went.” On another day it was another Rotarian that helped Neil persevere only this time it was in person! “It was I believe day 18 or 19 and I got a text from our president elect Rob Galloway asking where and what time I would be starting out the next day. He and his wife Donna-Lynn took a detour from their vacation so Bob could walk with me. He actually walked over 5km with me that day! Although his wife asked how I could get him to walk that far be she couldn’t get him to walk the dog! Other Rotarians helped with text messages of support and with donations as well the Fergus Elora Rotary Club made a sizable contribution as did individual members.    “The support I received was heartwarming and humbling. They even invited me to zoom into the annual BBQ there I was my feet in an Epsom salt bath and my knee wrapped in ice it must have been quite a sight for them but it sure helped me! I couldn’t have made it without them”
When asked if he thought the walk made difference in peoples lives Dunsmore became emotional. “I had hoped it would but I know it did at least in 2 lives for sure. The last thing I ever expected was to use the skills and experience I had a crisis negotiator on the trail but I did twice. The first time was around 6:30 am as my son was driving me to the trailhead and I got a Facebook messenger video call from a man in Scotland. He had been following my walk on Facebook and it didn’t take long to realize he was in trouble and when I asked if he was thinking about suicide he said yes. That stopped me in my tracks, I mean have you ever made an international 911 call? I didn’t even know where to start! I talked to him for about half an hour and got hm to a slightly better state but he was still in a dark place. When he hung up, I check my messenger contacts and luckily, he was a distant relative of mine and I also had his father as a contact, I called him right away and by the grace of god he answered. I had him send help to his son and he is now receiving the help he needs. The second situation occurred several days later in the middle of nowhere I had not seen a human being for hours when I came across a woman crying! We were at least 10 km from the next road and 5km from the last road I passed so it was strange to say the least. She was scared and I mean scared. I worked 10 years in a maximum-security facility and I have seen fear on a lot of faces and this poor woman was one of the worst. It took awhile to get her to communicate but she did and I had her walk with towards the next road. She kept looking back making sure he wasn’t following It took her awhile but eventually I convinced her to reach out to shelter and call for help. I waited with he until they picked her up at the next road. Our conversation convinced me she may look back but she is never going back to that situation. Those two incidents alone make the walk worth it! However almost everyone I met out there and the people here in my community who have shared their stories with me and how my walk effected them are truly heartwarming.”
When responding to how did the walk effect you Dunsmore says” Wow! In ways I had never imagined. I always knew I was an extravert but I did not realize the extent to which I need other people in my daily life. This journey was designed to mimic a mental health journey some days are tougher than others and often you are struggling alone but you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I had no idea how difficult and mentally exhausting that would be and I had my son out there with me he was never more than an hour away and waiting for my call. Still it was hard and my emotions were all over the map as I struggled it was just a glimpse at what people go through on a daily basis but it caught me by surprise. It taught me however that when we as individuals reach out, even just to say hi how are you doing? It has a huge impact! I mentioned earlier about the Rotarians who reached out but there were many others as well and those calls and text messages meant the world to me, they were my tether to sanity. They kept me grounded and kept me going, if people hadn’t reached out when they did I don’t thing I would have finished. I also learned a lot about my own personal strength I have struggled with my health for decades after a car accident and my weight has been all over the map but this walk showed me what I am capable of and I am much healthier for it. I started training in October of 2019 and lost 35lbs in the process. When I left on September 15, I was feeling great and even though I struggled I continued to push and I lost another 10lbs! Physically even though my knee hurts I haven’t felt this good in 30 years.
Finally, I realized the importance of reaching out both from having people reach out to me and me reaching out to them.  Those 2 incidents I spoke of earlier taught me that we are so busy with our day to day lives we don’t see what’s happening to others. I wonder if I had met that women in a parking lot or even in a park near my home with all that I have going on would I have noticed her but on a trail in the middle of nowhere I could miss her and I certainly couldn’t leave her. The call from Scotland haunts me as well how many times have; we all declined a call because we are to busy working or we are waiting for an important call so we set it aside until later. I am glad I was there and helping to save a life/lives is a true blessing. This walk has reminded me that we grow the most as individuals when we step out of our comfort zone to help others. Then again as Rotarians we should all know that, after all isn’t that the secret of Service Above Self! “
I asked Neil how did it feel when you finally finished? “That again was unexpected, there was a rush of emotions from euphoria of completing a monumental task and the relief of finishing. There was the pride of my accomplishment but also a great deal of humility as I approached Parliament Hill and saw that some 25 to 30 people had driven 5 plus hours to see me finish. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I shed a tear or two and to see Cody’s dad there and his pride and appreciation well that was emotional. Cody was with me in mind and spirit every step of the way!”
What’s next? “Well I don’t think I will ever do anything like this again but I am not done with Steps to Stop the Silence. This walk was just the first step of many, the next steps belong to all of us. I have learned the power of reaching out both from the receiving side and the reaching side. I encourage all Rotarians to reach out to someone in your life or your club. Maybe it’s someone who has stopped showing up to meetings or who left the club altogether. Reach out you don’t need to fix them or the situation just check on them and talk. Trust me it helps more than you think.
Next look around at family and friends and see who is struggling, we all know someone who is or we think are. Your reaching out is an act that creates a life line to this world! It may just be the act as random as it may seem that keeps them here. Most of us don’t do that because we are afraid of what to say or we may say the wrong thing so we don’t. It’s more important that you try, don’t worry about what to say, talk sports or the weather anything it’s the connection that makes the difference.
Finally, if you are struggling please reach out, pick up the phone and call your local crisis line there are people here waiting to help. Just reach out your life is worth!
Neil raised over $17000.00 for The Cody Shepperd Project in support of Mental Health and Suicide Awareness in his community. If you would like to contribute you can do so at or you can make a donation to your local mental health organizations.