A Pembroke man puts on his running shoes to raise money for a local charity and to honor his daughter, who died of an accidental drug overdose last year.
Steve Wood, who is running a half marathon this weekend as part of Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, is raising money for the Robbie Dean Center, a charity with locations in Pembroke and Renfrew that provides counseling and assistance to families struggling with mental health disorders and addiction.
It’s a matter close to Wood’s heart. His own father died by suicide and he knows what it’s like to struggle with depression. Running was an outlet for him to clear his head, and in 2020 Wood started raising money for the Robbie Dean Center when COVID-19 interrupted the center’s fundraising activities. Since then, he’s kept up the tradition, but this year his run has taken on an extra layer of meaning.
Taylor Wood, Steve’s daughter, was 29 when she died. Her life, and her death, reflect issues of mental illness, addiction and a toxic drug supply that is wreaking havoc on families across Ontario.
“Taylor was a great kid,” Wood said in an interview on Saturday. “She was full of life. She was fun and loved to laugh.”
Steve and Taylor shared a love of heavy metal music and she lived a normal teenage life, he said, until grade 8, when bullying at school sent her into a spiral of depression and anxiety.
She dropped out of school, had a part-time job for a while, then moved to Oshawa, where her depression seemed to be worsening.
“She never got any help,” Steve said. “It got worse and worse every year. I love my daughter, but there were times when we couldn’t really talk on the phone because I couldn’t relate to the life she was leading. You try to understand, but you just can’t. I could never understand how you just couldn’t go to school. It really took me to look at the mental health side – it wasn’t her fault. She just couldn’t physically go to school. She was so scared she couldn’t go. I understand that now, but not years ago.”
Taylor also got into an abusive relationship, Steve said, and was urged to try cocaine, which, unknown to her, was laced with fentanyl, causing a fatal overdose.
Fentanyl is a potent opioid, and proponents have warned that it is increasingly making its way into drugs in Ottawa and across Canada. Opioid overdoses were directly responsible for at least 127 deaths in Ottawa last year, Ottawa Public Health said. Ontario’s COVID-19 Advisory Chart noted a significant increase in opioid-related harms, especially fatal overdoses, during the pandemic. The table said Ontarians needed wider access to substance abuse, mental health and harm reduction services to fight the crisis.
The Robbie Dean Center was established to fill such gaps in areas where resources were not always available. Monique Yashinskie founded the center after her son, after whom the center is named, died by suicide in 2011. She was frustrated with the lack of support in Renfrew County.
The center offers counseling and a variety of support groups.
Last year, Wood raised more than $6,000. This year he hoped to raise more, but said he was overwhelmed with the support he’d received so far. Using social media, he has already raised more than $10,000, a new record for him.
“People I’ve never met in my life are transferring money,” he said, “and then I hit $10,000. I literally got goosebumps and cried a few tears because I just couldn’t believe it… People have here responded in such a great way.”
Wood recently toured the Robbie Dean Center and gained an insight into where the money was going and how it would be spent.
“It kind of started a bigger fire under me to make sure that place stayed open,” he said.
More than for money reasons, Wood says he also runs to spread awareness. He wants families to know that the center exists and that they should seek help if they need it. He also wants to help fight the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
“I want people to know, yes, my daughter died of an accidental overdose, but she didn’t mean to die,” he said. “This can happen to any family. There’s that stigma on mental health. She was a normal teenager up to this point. People just really need to know that it can happen to anyone.”
Wood will put on his running shoes to run what he calls the Taylor Wood mental health memorial run over the Ottawa Race Weekend. He accepts email transfers or Paypal donations through his email address at email@example.com.