A Generous Spirit

By Jackie Byrn


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Dr. Geraldine Cunningham PhD exudes Irish humour, optimism and strength.

Her hallmark twinkling eyes and mischievous smile belie a life of hard work and unwavering dedication to the cause of mental illness and outreach through public education for families. In 2001, the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, the Governor General of Canada, decorated her with the meritorious service medal. The honour, bestowed for a lifetime of service, recognized unique and extraordinary contributions that led to the betterment of quality of life for all Canadian families touched by the tragedy of mental illness.

Dr. Cunningham’s work has helped people around the globe: Africa, Bermuda, Hungary, Mexico, Japan, Korea, China, Ireland, India, Greece and many parts of Russia. Funded by herself, her family and later by The William and Nona Heaslip Foundation based in Toronto, Dr. Cunningham’s efforts sprung from grief following the sudden 1981 passing of her daughter Sarah at the age of 22. Schizophrenia was named as the cause of death.

Using the foundation of a nursing degree, earned in 1952, Geri, as she likes to be called, took action following her daughter’s death. She returned to university where she earned a second degree - this one in the specialized field of psychiatry. She ultimately worked in the University of British Columbia Department of Psychiatry unit, which studied and researched “first psychotic breaks.”

Realizing there were serious gaps both in mental health services for families and communications protocols between medical professionals and families, Geri set about creating educational programs and a manual for families and consumers of medical services for the mentally ill. Her focus was to explain the biochemistry of mental illness, as well as the importance of medication when indicated to create balanced mental states. The creation of support groups for family members, as well as siblings, was also a feature of her agenda. “It was an idea whose time had come,” she says about her groundbreaking work.

Geri’s sound fundraising efforts centred on the Emerald Ball event, founded in 1988, in Vancouver and later held in Winnipeg and Toronto. The event, which continued for 18 years, resulted in the creation of a UBC Chair in Schizophrenia.

Not surprising is the recent honour bestowed on this energetic 70-something

Vancouver-based senior. Geri has been selected as one of 100 notable

Canadians of Irish lineage whose names will appear on the proposed Ireland

Monument. As a descendant of Patrick Cunningham, who came to Canada in 1768 from Sligo Ireland, Geri radiates what is known as “Irish Spirit.”

Focusing on a “healthier and greener way of life,”

Geri, along with her sons Peter and Spencer operate Bradley Organic Farms.

She plays “a spirited and devoted” role in the farm, which is named after Geri’s now deceased mother, who passed away at age 96.

Longevity through community building, friendship and connection seems to run in the family. With an active mother as role model, Geri forges on with regular fitness workouts at a nearby gym. A passion for freshly prepared inventive meals and good company spurs Geri on in the kitchen, which has always been a place of relaxation and fun. Whether the menu is an elegant chicken curry or just casseroles of peasant-style cabbage rolls, guests are always treated royally “Chez Geri.” One recent guest, dazzled by the prized meritorious service medal, asked and was granted the honour of wearing the splendid decoration as he enjoyed an elegant light supper at Geri’s table.

Geri completed her studies for a PhD in “Mental Health Management and the Importance of Early Intervention.” She is a member of the International Honour Society of Nursing and Lamba Phi sorority.

 

NOVEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND

 

 

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