If there’s a uniting thread that runs through Juanita Gnanapragasam’s endeavours, it’s a desire to take people from a state of surviving to one of thriving.
Her day job is as an occupational therapist with Alberta Health Services. She works in a community day program with adults who have diagnosed mental health conditions. She helps them identify and strive towards goals in education, employment, recreation and leisure, and to live more fully in the community.
“Their identities can get wrapped up in being a patient,” she says. “This helps them understand they are more than their diagnosis.”
Her second, part-time role is one she created for herself at the Edmonton Federation for Community Leagues (EFCL). She was in the middle of training to be an occupational therapist when COVID struck. With placements on hold, she took a three-month contract role with EFCL in which she helped leagues understand and adapt to the pandemic and the accompanying restrictions.
But her role grew from there. “During that period, we had the George Floyd protests and there was a shift to being intentional around inclusion and allyship,” she says.
In response, she developed a course called Supporting Inclusive Communities and, in September 2020, took on the role of Community Inclusion Advisor with EFCL. She founded the Community Inclusion Café, which brings people from underrepresented communities in to talk to leagues on topics like celebrating Pride Week, being a better ally to Muslims and engaging in reconciliation efforts.
Finally, she continues to volunteer with Converse and Cook, a non-profit organization she founded while at the University of Alberta. She says as a child of immigrant parents, food was always a big deal.
“It was that last link to culture and community and identity,” she says. So she created social spaces where people get together to cook and eat. “People can feel empowered to connect to community and identity using food,” she says.