CLARENVILLE, N.L. — While you may know Donna Hancock as the individual who organized the “A Mile in His Shoes” walk to remember the late RCMP Cpl. Trevor O’Keefe — and she has previously stated the profound effect O’Keefe had on her life — she hasn’t been specific about what he meant to her.
Hancock, 46, told The Packet she wants to tell her story to let people know exactly why she has come forth as a mental health advocate and how first responders like O’Keefe, who died by suicide last September, shouldn’t have to suffer.
‘I came from a very dark place’
Hancock was raised in a single parent home. To this day, she has never known who her father is.
The tears welled up in her eyes as soon as she began to tell the story of what she has gone through.
“I suffered sexual abuse as a child from a family member. There was never anybody to lift me up, to let me know that I was a person. I was always put down my whole life … told I’d be nothing.”
Hancock has been in and out of foster homes since before she can remember. At 14 years old, she was taken in by her mother’s sister for several years.
“When I met my first husband I thought, ‘Gee, I hit the jackpot!’
“But that turned out to be a nightmare in itself. I was mentally and physically abused on an everyday basis.”
She says she was even confined to the house for days by her husband at the time — not allowed to leave.
“I still live with that every day. The bruises heal but the scars in your mind never go away,” she says through tears.
Hancock said he engrained in her the thoughts that she was totally reliant on him and no one else.
During her time in this abusive relationship, her mother and sister both died within six months of each other. Her mother was 49 and her sister was only 25.
Her ex-husband told her she wasn’t even allowed to cry.
“I was told ‘What are you crying for? They’re dead and gone and there’s nothing you can do about it.’
“People used to say to me, ‘Donna you’re some strong.’… But, inside, I was dying.”
She lived in this environment for 17 years, raising her kids.
‘You’re never alone, no matter what situation you’re in’
Hancock finally went to the RCMP for assistance.
It was then that Cpl. Trevor O’Keefe, along with many other officers in the area, began checking on her and helping her.
“It was like I had a band of brothers behind me. That’s what it was like,” she recalls.
She always thought it was coincidence that O’Keefe happened to be there when she needed him most.
“Looking back on it now, they were ‘accidently on purpose visits.’”
Hancock went through untold difficulties in her time with her ex-husband and afterwards. She worked two jobs, raising three children and depended on services like the Salvation Army Food Bank.
All the while, O’Keefe supported and encouraged Hancock.
“One thing Trevor taught me is, that no matter what I went through, it wasn’t my fault,” she says. “I had no reason to feel ashamed or embarrassed.”
Hancock did what she had to do to survive and help her family, with O’Keefe and the RCMP helping as well — telling her to set goals and work towards them.
“Trevor was more than gift cards for Christmas … If I didn’t get out when I did, I wouldn’t be here today.”
She has O’Keefe and the rest of the RCMP to thank, Hancock adds.
She says the main reason behind telling her story is because people need to know what he’s done for people like her. She says that thanks to people like him, anyone suffering never has to be alone.
“I always say the Clarenville RCMP gave me my independence, but Trevor O’Keefe saved my life.”
‘I’ll never live like it again’
Now, in a happy and fulfilling marriage with her husband Tony, Hancock says her husband is her lifeline and one of her biggest supporters.
“He, too, is so much like Trevor. My husband is my rock.”
She was hesitant at first due to her previously abusive experience. O’Keefe was even looking out for her when she began this new stage of her life.
She married Tony nine years ago.
Six years ago, she graduated with her high school diploma from the Discovery Centre in Clarenville and then completed the office administrative program at the College of the North Atlantic.
“I went from being scared, broken soul with no confidence, no self-esteem, to a high school graduate at age 40.”
Hancock is now a person who loves and is proud of herself, loves her job at Kent with amazing co-workers, and believes she deserves the best in life.
“I am truly blessed!”
She goes on to say the face of mental illness is changing. It’s not necessarily the people who are visibly suffering, they can be the ones who no one knows what is affecting them. Her story is everyone’s story, she’s felt and still feels the feelings of despair and now she’s proud of what she’s become.
This year’s walk
Hancock says with this walk, she’s inspired to keep trying to make a difference. She says one person can do that, noting O’Keefe was one person and he helped change her life so much for the better.
In an effort to help the walk continue to grow, Hancock is inviting first responders from all surrounding areas, in addition to any other residents who wish to participate, to take part this year.
She thanked everyone from last year’s walk and hopes they can continue to make a difference each year with A Mile in His Shoes.
“We are stronger than we think and it’s OK if you’re not OK. Don’t let fear of the unknown hold you back.
“I overcame a very dark past and face my new life, started over with nothing — but with the help of people like Trevor — we can conquer anything.”
She advises if you feel like you are struggling with your mental health, please get help.
The number for the 24-hour provincial mental health crisis line is 1-888-737-4668.
When and where is this year’s walk?
This year, there will be two A Mile in His Shoes walks, as part of Donna Hancock’s initiative to grow the event each year.
The first will be on Saturday, Sept. 15, in St. John’s at Quidi Vidi Lake. Walkers are asked to meet in the Legion parking lot at 9 a.m.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, the Clarenville walk begins at the Kent parking lot at 9 a.m.
This year’s event will support the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Clarenville Area Mental Wellness Warriors, as well as a special tree and bench dedication at Elizabeth Swan Park in memory of Victoria Best and O’Keefe.
The bench was donated by O’Keefe’s parents, the Grapevine donated the paint (Victoria’s colour), Kent donated the tree, Fine Things donated an engraved plate and the Town of Clarenville approved the placement at the park.
Soil will be used from favourite spots of both O’Keefe and Best.
Hancock is also looking for corporate sponsors for shirts, hoodies and hats.
Sponsorship forms are available at the Canadian Mental Health Association on Topsail Road or on the website, www.cmha.ca.
Contact Donna (709-766-1965) for sponsor sheets or to volunteer on the day of the walk, and if you want to contribute, she is accepting email transfers at firstname.lastname@example.org.