Meet University of Waterloo's Ambassador Ilona Manda
As one of six siblings born to Romanian immigrants, Ilona Manda didn’t hear much talk about anxiety and mental health in her Kitchener family home.
In fact, the subject wasn’t broached at all – a byproduct of a European culture where “mental health isn’t really a thing.” For Ilona, who struggled with anxiety, out-of-sight-out-of-mind was difficult, but she carried on, resigned to the fact that she had to “deal with it” on her own. She wasn’t, and isn’t, resentful. That was just the way it was.
Fast forward to August 2021. About to enter her second year at the University of Waterloo, Ilona stumbled upon Cam’s Kids when searching for mental health resources she could use for help. Impressed by what she read and heard, the Health Sciences student took the plunge, signing on as an Ambassador and joining what was then a relatively small team.
As things unfolded, Ilona found herself immersed in a universe where anxiety and mental health is very much talked about, and this was also a world where she was doing a lot of the talking.
Now, just recently having assumed a Team Lead position that she shares with three others, Ilona continues to derive as many benefits from her involvement as those she’s wholly committed to helping.
“I remember a constant feeling of isolation and worry, and not really having anyone to turn to or be comfortable talking about it with because I thought it was something unique that was wrong with me,” reflects Ilona.
“I joined Cam's Kids to have the opportunity to have a peer support network at my university and as a way to meet others who would understand anxiety and be passionate about mental health and wellness.”
Noting her Cam’s Kids’ involvement gives her “a lot of peace and satisfaction,” Ilona is on the front lines of the foundation’s work at her school. With the team having grown impressively to more than 30 ambassadors, she has taken the lead on social media outreach. This particular part of the team, where positive messaging forms the heart of posts shared under the banners of Mindful Mondays, Wellness Wednesdays and Feel-Good Fridays.
“My goal is to be that person that students feel comfortable reaching out; to create a safe place for students to come to about their anxiety or mental health struggles and know that they are welcomed and accepted,” says Ilona.
“I love being someone that can cheer up others. I know how it feels to be isolated in a place (university) where you don't know a lot of people.”
Mission accomplished. Better still, it’s a mission that continues as she plans to soon debut Wellness Walks With Ilona, an early-in-the-school week initiative open to all students as an opportunity to de-stress and refresh while walking the campus and connecting trails.
As she has helped others, Ilona has been helped. While that’s not a benefit exclusive to her as a Cam’s Kids representative, it is one that she’s as cognizant of as she is grateful for.
“Anxiety doesn’t go away, but I have been given the opportunity to have a support network around me and access to resources 24-7. My involvement made me passionate about being an advocate for anxiety and mental health and wanting to support and share our multitude of resources with other students.”
“My passion for helping people has really grown. I want to be that person that people are comfortable going to. I wasn’t that person before. I was shy. I wasn’t outspoken. I wouldn’t say I’m an extrovert now, but I’m definitely more empathetic. I’ve grown to learn how people have different kinds of anxiety depending on how they grew up.”
And like many before her who have walked the Cam’s Kids’ walk, and no doubt the many who will, Ilona remains inspired by the Hicks family’s courage and determination in creating and nurturing something positive from the darkness of personal loss.
“Their story is what made me want to apply to become an ambassador,” she says.
“I was very moved by the power their tragedy had in making a significant positive impact and how it continues to have that impact on students nationwide. I could see myself being a part of that.”
While she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers for those struggling with anxiety and associated mental health challenges, Ilona can and does speak from experience. That has value, and she brings it to the table daily to the benefit of all she meets.
“Remember that your younger self had to face challenges and uncertainties, just like you do now, and that it's OK to feel anxious. By acknowledging that and treating yourself with kindness, you build resilience and find greater peace of mind.”
“I imagine myself as a child navigating through life. If I were to talk to her today, would I be harsh and critical, or would I be gentle and supportive? By extending the same compassion to ourselves in the present, maybe we can ease the burden of anxiety and work towards nurturing self-love and acceptance.”