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Juanita Gnanapragasam (left) and SafeWalk volunteer Asha

Juanita Gnanapragasam (left) and SafeWalk volunteer Asha engage in conversation during a stroll in northeast Edmonton. Gnanapragasam is working with the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues to help pilot the SafeWalk program to tackle racism and Islamophobia at the neighbourhood level. (Photo: John Ulan)

Juanita Gnanapragasam isn’t the type to restrict herself to one interest, to study just one topic. She believes her varied passions and expertise will figure in her work toward her career and life goal – to build a community where everyone can thrive.

She knows now that she doesn’t have to limit herself, something she learned during her time as a teaching fellow at the University of Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Leadership College. “The big thing I realized was that I don’t have to silo my interests. They can all be related; I can be an interdisciplinary person.”

And she’s found the perfect field to do just that – occupational therapy.

Her interest in occupational therapy started when she was an undergraduate. She took a course mainly because the title intrigued her – Introduction to the Roads of Happiness, taught by Suzette Brémault-Phillips at the time.

“What really drew me to the field was this idea of asking people what matters to them and using that as a way to support them in their wellness,” says Gnanapragasam.

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She got a peek at what that support could look like when she got involved in the Undergraduate Research Initiative. For her capstone project, she studied how international students accessed culturally relevant and nutritious foods, and the barriers they faced. As her passion for the project grew, she put her occupational therapy goal on hold temporarily to pursue a master’s in public health, focusing her research on food sustainability and cultural sustainability through food.

She helped pilot a few wildly popular cooking classes with the Sustainability Council, an academic leadership organization that provides students with courses and experiential learning opportunities related to sustainability. Gnanapragasam wanted to keep the classes small to foster an intimate community atmosphere, and demand soon outstripped capacity. To reach people unable to attend, she co-released a University of Alberta cookbook that included stories from students and faculty so that more people could participate in making the dishes and learning about the personal stories behind them.

People wanted to know how they could participate in the friendly cooking classes after leaving the university, so Gnanapragasam teamed up with Mishma Mukith to co-found Converse and Cook, a non-profit organization whose goal is to build a community where people engage with food and each other.

The non-profit has grown as Gnanapragasam continued on her academic journey. This year, Gnanapragasam and Mukith are launching a new program with Kickstand (a provincewide initiative that helps youth access health and social services such as mindfulness and mental health support apps). It involves four weeks of virtual cooking classes to support youth recovering from mental illness. The two are also releasing a city-wide comfort food cookbook that includes stories of resilience from the pandemic.

“These partnerships have grown organically and show a need for programming that doesn’t just address food literacy, but also connection.”

Food has always been a way for Gnanapragasam, the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants, to connect with her culture. Her absolute favourite dish is crab curry with rice, prepared in the traditional Sri Lankan method that her mother makes every year for her birthday.

Food isn’t the only way she’s found to help people build connections and encourage wellness. She has also been involved with the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine’s FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL®) program for the past seven years, starting as a volunteer and eventually becoming a program lead.

The program serves children aged nine to 14 and brings them together, encouraging their interest in science and technology through hands-on learning. Participants of varying ages, diagnoses and abilities work together on projects, developing their STEM skills as they build connections with one another.

“The way the children make space for each other and accept each other’s abilities is beautiful to watch. The kids get so much out of it,” says Gnanapragasam. “I think it was one of the most meaningful things I did in my undergrad.”

Her belief in the importance of connection also led to her taking on a part-time role as a community inclusion adviser with the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, where she supports leagues in engaging under-represented community members through allyship. Currently, she’s helping pilot a league-wide SafeWalk program to help tackle racism and Islamophobia in Edmonton neighbourhoods.

“I don’t have all the answers,” says Gnanapragasam. “But what I’m very good at is finding people who do and making those connections and those relationships.”

Gnanapragasam is now putting her latest degree to use by working as an occupational therapist at a mental health community program, although she still draws on all her other academic experiences in her current role.

“I love how the diversity of my experiences has allowed me to see people beyond their diagnoses, to see people for who they really are beyond their interactions with the health system.”

Gnanapragasam is open to whatever the future holds, but her dream would be to run a community kitchen or a therapeutic greenhouse where she can empower people and help them cultivate meaning in their lives.

“I always wanted to see this thriving, animated community, and I realized that if you want that, you have to be a part of creating it,” she says. “And when you do, other people come on board and you’ll get that community you were seeking.”

| By Adrianna MacPherson

Adrianna is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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