Submitted by Leanne Iravani
Fergus Elora Rotary Club member Neil Dunsmore took the first steps to stopping the silence around mental health and suicide by walking 531 km 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!”.
Neil continued…
"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 generate 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 the lives of his family and friends’ 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 our own story helps others realize that they are not alone. They find hope!”
Dunsmore is currently a Councilor in the Township of Centre Wellington. Prior to that, he was a Provincial Corrections Officer and a Crisis/Hostage Negotiator; he understands the power of connecting with people and 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 for them. It was a financial hit. I could have taken a job to help with our personal finances, but this was a burning need. 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 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 because she couldn’t get him to walk the dog! Other Rotarians helped with text messages of support and with donations. 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 our 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 people’s lives, Dunsmore became emotional:
"I had hoped it would, but I know it did in at least 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. 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 found he was a distant relative of mine. 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; I’ve 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 me towards the next road. She kept looking back to make sure she wasn’t being followed.  It took her awhile, but eventually I convinced her to reach out to a shelter and call for help. I waited with her until they picked her up at the next road. Our conversation convinced me that she may look back, but she’ll never go back again. Those two incidents alone made the walk worth it! Almost everyone I met out there, as well as the people in my community who shared their stories about how my walk affected them, are truly heartwarming."
When asked about how the walk affected him, Dunsmore shared the following:
"Wow! In ways I had never imagined. I always knew I was an extravert, but I didn’t 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’re 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, even though 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. My struggle was just a glimpse at what people go through on a daily basis, but it caught me by surprise. It taught me 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. 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 think 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. My weight has been all over the map. This walk showed me what I am capable of, and I’m 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. 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 that we don’t see what’s happening to others around us. 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 couldn’t 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 too busy, working or we are waiting for an important call, so we set it aside until later. I am glad I was there; helping to save a life is a true blessing. This walk reminded me that we grow the most 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 about how it felt when he had 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. 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!"
So, what’s next?
"Well I don’t think I will ever do anything like that again, but I’m 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 in 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’s struggling. We all know someone who is, or we think are. Reaching out is an act that creates a life-line to the 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’re afraid of what to say, or we’re afraid to say the wrong thing. 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 there waiting to help. Just reach out. Your life is worth it!"
Neil raised over $17,000 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 organization.