On a recent Sunday, pedestrians walking along Commercial Drive witnessed a joyful sight.
Accompanied by a police escort, a musical “love train” travelled northward from Grandview Highway, through Little Italy, and along the rest of the street. Signs on the vehicle declared “Italian Day on the Drive for Courage”.
And a band on the attached trailer, fronted by singer Federico Fuoco, belted out everything from Italian classics to modern pop, much to the delight of passersby.
Then they returned on their way south before ending up at the Italian Cultural Centre on Grandview Highway.
Standing on the corner of Commercial Drive and East 3rd Avenue, the centre’s executive director, Mario Miceli, explained what was taking place.
He told the Straight that Italian Day on the Drive for Courage draws upon the bravery that Italians demonstrated in the midst of their COVID-19 crisis, singing from balconies to cheer each other up.
It showed the world that one of the best ways to heal people's hearts and boost their spirits is through song.
“This is a way to bring the community together and show some hope,” Miceli explained. “We at Il Centro are very happy to be a partner in this endeavour.”
Concerts help Coast Mental Health
It may not have matched the razzle-dazzle of the annual Italian Day that’s taken place in the past.
But it reflected the character of a community that has left a large imprint on Vancouver—and particularly the Commercial Drive area—dating back to the arrival of Italian pioneers in the 19th century.
This year, the Italian Day Festival Society and its partners have turned what was a one-day event into a series of concerts like this. And it’s all to raise funds for an exceptionally important cause: Coast Mental Health Foundation.
“We decided to provide music...just to encourage people to still stay courageous in light of what’s gone on,” Miceli said. “That’s the intention—to spread hope and courage, and to make sure that people are donating toward a very worthy cause.”
They can make donations through the Italian Day on the Drive website at ItalianDay.ca.
This wasn't the first concert. That took place at Vancouver City Hall on June 26.
Miceli revealed that there may be a similar love-train fundraising event in Burnaby's Italian district if it satisfies provincial health officials.
The executive director of Coast Mental Health, Isabela Zabava, appreciates how the Italian Day Festival Society has stepped up in what’s been a very difficult year.
Last year, Coast Mental Health raised $2.5 million by hosting the annual Courage to Come Back Awards. She said it will be difficult to match that this year, given that it cannot host a fundraising gala.
“They have been great partners for us,” Zabava said. “They were really inspired by our ‘Spread Courage, Not Fear’ campaign, and really wanted to expand the reach of it. And they have.”
Awards show triumph over adversity
This month, Coast Mental Health has announced four winners of Courage to Come Back Awards on each Thursday of July.
The first was former Vancouver Canucks goalie Corey Hirsch, who struggled with crippling obsessive compulsive disorder when playing in the National Hockey League. He nearly took his own life before seeking help. He's since gone on to become a prominent public speaker on mental-health issues.
In the addiction category, former addict Amanda Staller was honoured for her courageous comeback from an abusive past, which led her into cocaine, crystal meth, and heroin use.
Staller went into rehab, fell in love, and got her life back on track. But her husband and her both relapsed and she ended up in jail after being convicted of trafficking drugs. Staller then faced more abuse after coming out of jail.
Then miraculously, she received a package from her sister, along with a cellphone, and she escaped. Staller has since reunited with her family and rebuilt her life.
The physical rehabilitation category winner was Rumana Monzur, a former UBC student who was blinded and maimed by a relentlessly abusive husband in Bangladesh. She’s since become a vocal human-rights advocate.
In the youth category, the winner was Andrew Teel. He’s a former foster kid who endured abuse and signs of postraumatic stress disorder before finding a loving home. Teel has since created his own brand, Viere, which means “to overcome”, and launched a charity, Toonies for Teens, that has raised more than $60,000 to help at-risk youths.
The fifth winner in the medical category will be announced on Thursday (July 30).
“They’re extraordinary stories of triumph over extreme adversity, which people can related to now better than they would have at any time before,” Zabava said. “So we’re receiving a lot of positive feedback from people who are watching the stories and being inspired by them.”
Coast provides a helping hand
Coast Mental Health has 52 locations across the Lower Mainland, offering a range of services. There are divisions providing housing, support, employment and education services, including a culinary skills training program. Coast also has two social enterprises, Social Crust Cafe & Catering and Landscaping with Heart.
Services that were previously delivered through a clubhouse in Mount Pleasant are now being offered over the phone or through virtual means.
Zabava said that when it comes to community mental health, the most important consideration is housing.
“It’s very difficult to recover from mental illness or to maintain your mental health if you are homeless,” she stated.
She added the Courage to Come Back Award winners often received a helping hand from somebody at a critical point in their lives.
"It's a hard thing overcoming mental illness," Zabava said. "And you always need somebody to give you a little bit of help and support. And then you are able to reach your potential.
"That has always inspired me in doing all that we can to raise more funds to create more programs for people to give them a helping hand."