Two junior citizens recognized by Stoney Creek Chamber
By Laura Lennie, News Staff
Fiorella Villanueva-Heldmaier is certainly committed to assisting others in need.
The Cardinal Newman Catholic Secondary School Grade 12 student has devoted more than 2,800 hours to the cause.
“I feel like so many times people are looking to be known for something that they’ve done, but really you have to be known for who you are,” she said. “When I help other people, it feels like I can help them develop to who they are. It’s that effect, that I’ve changed the life of someone else that really keeps me going.”
Villanueva-Heldmaier is a leader among the CN Peer Mentors group, which consists of more than 60 students from grades nine to 12.
Students in grades 10 and up are involved in the delivery of the iMATTER: Taking Care of Teen Mental Health initiative. The initiative involves over 60 trained peer mentors delivering a series of three lessons on mental health and illness to all Grade 9 religion classes.
Villanueva-Heldmaier has been part of the group since Grade 9.
“My main job is delivering the lessons to the classes,” she said. “They revolve around the idea of stomping out stigma towards mental health and illness and replacing it with the facts. It’s such a big topic right now and one that really needs to be discussed.”
Villanueva-Heldmaier said one in five teens under the age of 19 is suffering from a mental health problem or illness.
“That’s a lot,” she said. “And that one in five can be applied to anyone; however, it’s never talked about and if it is, I’ve noticed that it’s usually with some negative connotation. Since it’s affecting so many people, it’s essential that we increase awareness of mental health problems and illness, decrease stigma associated with it and make it OK to talk about.”
In addition to the CN Peer Mentors group, Villanueva-Heldmaier is a member of the school’s Chaplaincy team, Run 4 Their Lives and Me to We groups and is a peer tutor.
Her efforts to make a difference also extend outside of the school.
Villanueva-Heldmaier is a member of the Hamilton Youth Advisory Committee and St. Francis Xavier Youth Ministry.
She also volunteers at the Good Shepherd Centre, Knights of Columbus and St. Agnes Catholic Elementary School, where she assists students with various subjects.
And Villanueva-Heldmaier juggles it all, while maintaining honour-roll status at school.
“She’s a force to be reckoned with and only in a positive way,” Peer Mentors Group teacher advisor Halina Salciccioli said. “She has energy and enthusiasm and she jumps on board with things. If she’s got an opinion, she wants to help the process and help things evolve and move forward.”
Salciccioli said she marvels over Villanueva-Heldmaier’s ability to balance her academics with her volunteer efforts.
“She excels at all of it and she does it all with a smile on her face,” she said. “She’s really gone beyond our expectations of what students can do. We are so excited and proud to have her as a role model for our students.”
Gurleen Dhaliwal is also doing her part to help others in need, while inspiring others along the way.
The Orchard Park Secondary School Grade 12 student has put in over 500 hours toward different causes, both inside and outside of school.
She leads the Students and Staff Helping Orchard Park Students and Society group, which supports students who are disadvantaged or in need via food drives, clothing and monetary donations and gifts for the holidays.
Dhaliwal is also a member of the school’s Best Buddy program, environmental group, Health Action team, multicultural group and student council.
When she’s not busy lending her hand to various initiatives at school, she’s volunteering her time to St. Joseph’s Healthcare, where she assists patients in the haemodialysis department.
Dhaliwal has also fundraised for the Heart and Stroke Foundation and taught Punjabi out of Our Lady of Peace Catholic Elementary School.
“I learned Punjabi at Our Lady of Peace when I was younger,” she said. “Going back and teaching the language at the school to other students was my way of giving back. It was a lot of fun.”
Dhaliwal has always had a desire to help others.
Her passion to make a difference was amplified when she was diagnosed with lupus in Grade 9.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease where the body's immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue. This results in symptoms, such as inflammation, swelling and damage to joints, skin, kidneys, blood, the heart and lungs.
Dhaliwal began experiencing symptoms in September 2010.
She spent months in the hospital undergoing invasive tests and treatments to identify the cause of her painful symptoms, before she was finally diagnosed with lupus and subsequently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
“I actually almost died and during that time, I realized that I could be doing so much more for society,” Dhaliwal said. “Now I live every day to the fullest. I do whatever I can, whenever I can to make a difference.”
Dhaliwal said she has her good days and bad days.
“There are days sometimes where I feel really weak because I have back pain, joint pain and everything else,” she said. “But I also feel like going through those struggles has made me stronger. Diseases like this can push you back, but that’s what motivates me to go forward instead.”
Orchard Park guidance counsellor Jennifer Murray said Dhaliwal is a passionate and committed student.
Dhaliwal pours her heart into causes that help people in need, she added.
“Her involvement both inside and outside of our school focuses on making a direct difference in the lives of others. Around Orchard Park, she spreads her positive perspective by encouraging her peers to be better Patriots and support local charities,” Murray said. “Outside of our building, she lends her empathetic shoulder to patients around St. Joe's and throughout our community. She also somehow finds time in her busy schedule to manage her strong academics with all her extensive extracurricular – and all with a smile and cheer.”
Villanueva-Heldmaier and Dhaliwal share a common desire to make life better for those around them.
That’s why both have been named Stoney Creek Chamber of Commerce 2013 Junior Citizens of the Year.
“It’s very shocking,” Villanueva-Heldmaier said of the honour. “It feels almost surreal, since there are so many people that I know that do the same good work or maybe even better. I’m really happy to receive the award, I’m very humbled.”
Dhaliwal said she’s also humbled by the honour.
“I really never expected it,” she said. “It is nice to be recognized and to be able to represent my school. Knowing that I am making a difference for someone in some way means everything.”