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BC Children’s patient and fashion model honoured for being mental health role model

Amaya Cruz has won a City of Richmond U-ROC Outstanding Youth Award for her advocacy in mental health. The teen has overcome her mental-health challenges to rock runways in New York and she mentors others with similar struggles.
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​Amaya is just 14 years old, but already has a list of accomplishments any adult would be proud of. 

The Richmond resident has walked the catwalk during New York Fashion Week, mentored other teens with mental health challenges and won an award for the contribution she has made to her community.

At a ceremony in Richmond last night, the BC Children’s Hospital patient took home the “Outstanding Youth” U-ROC award. It is given to youth who display exceptional qualities, make the city a better place and overcome barriers towards their personal success in mentorship, resiliency and leadership.

“I just want to share my story and show people with mental health concerns that they can make it. It’s going to be OK,” says Amaya. “People can get so caught up in unrealistic standards. I want to be true to myself and be as real as I can be.”

Amaya has taken part in a mindful group at Touchstone in Richmond, where she has been mentoring other teens with similar mental health concerns.

“It makes me feel good to know that I’m capable of helping someone with issues they’re struggling with,” she says. 

The first signs

Amaya first developed anxiety when she was eight years old, after receiving two major concussions while practicing competitive cheerleading. She was in and out of school for a year and worried about falling behind in school work.

“The first sign of anxiety I saw was Amaya wanting to come home from school because of tummy aches or headaches,” says mom Pamela Abarca. Pam works at BC Children’s as a projects and executive administrative support coordinator. “I had worked in mental health for years helping families, but this was a very big shock. Amaya was generally a kid who wanted to go to school and was very social.”

Amaya, who consented to sharing her story with us, started seeing BC Children’s Psychiatrist Dr. Tamara Salih when COVID-19 hit and she developed severe depression. 

“COVID-19 seemed to have a bigger impact than any of us have really understood,” says Tamara. “Kids lost structure to their day when they didn’t go to school and they lost that socialization. They were also given more access to electronics. Getting back to being fully social for many kids has taken a lot more time than one would think. It takes practise. Amaya has learned to talk about what is happening for her. Both Amaya and her mom have shown great courage.”

Crucial care at BC Children’s

Pam says the care Amaya received at BC Children’s made a huge impact.

“Tamara saved Amaya’s life,” she says. “Amaya went from the most difficult time of her life to walking in New York Fashion Week this past September. Tamara also helped me, as a parent. You can feel very lost when your child is experiencing depression and not know what to do or say.”

When Amaya was feeling low one day during the pandemic, Pam sat Amaya down and asked what her goals were. The first thing out of Amaya’s mouth was modelling.

“I’m not going to lie. I’m glad she didn’t ask for a horse or something impossible like that,” laughs Pam. “I said, ‘OK, we can build on that. Your dreams are important and you can accomplish them. As soon as we get better and you can put your mind to it, we’ll book your headshots.’”

Making it happen

That was December 2020 and, a month later, Amaya was going to school and playing basketball (she’s also an avid softball player), so her mom booked headshots and contacted a modelling agency. By February 2021, she was in her first fashion show. Amaya took part in 16 shows that year and developed a relationship with designer Kayzie Couture. Amaya’s next fashion show is at GlamZ Gala at the University of BC in early June.

“I’ve done a lot of runway shows now,” says Amaya. “Being in New York Fashion Week was the best and I just loved the city.” 

Pam couldn’t be prouder to of her daughter’s new outlook on life.

“She is one of the strongest people I know,” says Pam. “It’s really cool to see her shine. I know she’s going to have struggles, but I’m really happy to see where she’s at right now.”

Mental health resources

If you or your child has mental health concerns, resources include:

  • MyHEARTSMAP, a digital tool that will help families, children and youth self-assess their mental health needs;
  • the book Talking Back to OCD has principles that can be applied to different anxiety disorders;
  • the Breathr app for mindfulness and the Calm app; and
  • Kelty Mental Health, Foundry or Anxiety Canada websites can also help find assistance
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