GRAND FALLS-WINDSOR, NL – This Saturday coming, dozens of snowmobilers will hit the trails in and around Grand Falls-Windsor.
That alone is fairly typical as long as the weather holds, but this weekend is special. It marks the fourth annual Nolan Smith Memorial Ride, an event dedicated to a young man who lost his life to suicide in 2014.
“He was always surrounding everyone else with joy,” event co-organizer Danielle Cole – whose brother was Nolan’s best friend – told the Advertiser.
“He was always the one who was smiling and trying to make everyone else happy.”
On Feb. 24, at least 60 riders will gather at St. Joseph’s Parish Hall and head west on the trails. That number is down from the 90 or so riders that participated in the first year, but Cole said this was to be expected, adding more people typically register on the day of the event if the weather is nice.
Either way, she said, it’s all about coming together and enjoying one of Nolan’s favourite things.
Nolan’s love for the outdoors was evident from an early age. Encouraged by his father, Gord Smith, he got his first machine at four years old.
At 18, he entered the Race On The Rock competition at Marble Mountain Resort and won his class.
The Western Sno-Riders club, which organizes the event, has since named the class in his honour and an award is given to the racer to come in first.
“It means a lot to us as a family to have all this,” Gord said. “We want to keep his memory and his legacy alive.”
While rooted in the outdoor pursuits that Nolan loved, his legacy is not limited to them. The memorial ride is also a fundraiser for two annual scholarships for high school students.
Unlike most such awards, however, these are destined to help students who have previously quit school and made the decision to return to finish their education. Cole said that Nolan had himself left his studies and was just coming around to going back to complete them when he died.
Two students each year, ideally one male and one female, receive $1,000.
“When you come back, you have to have that drive,” Cole said, adding that the winning students are picked by the school. “There has to be consistent attendance, they have to want to finish.”
Gord explained that money raised from the ride has also contributed to other groups in the community over and above the scholarships, including the Corduroy Brook Trail Enhancement Association and the Exploits Search and Rescue team.
As if this weren’t enough, the event itself is an important time for family and friends to come together and talk about a young man who meant so much to them all.
Gord said while overall numbers of participants are decreasing, the same core of family and friends remains year after year.
“We have this event to remember and celebrate Nolan’s life,” he said. “It’s a combination of happiness and sadness…. It helps a lot with the healing.”
Part of that healing is trying to prevent similar tragedies from befalling other families. The reception at St. Joseph’s Parish Hall also plays host to guest speakers, including Gord himself, on the subject of mental health.
Cole said that since Nolan passed, she has begun to see the cracks in the way society teaches people, especially men and boys, that they should keep their feelings to themselves.
“I know this has been said 10,000 times, but just talk to somebody,” she said. “I think society in general thinks men and boys aren’t supposed to show emotion. Don’t be afraid to feel how you feel.”
Gord knew his son to be a vibrant, popular and well-liked man, but it was only after his death that people – mothers in particular – started approaching him with stories about how Nolan helped their children through a tough spot or feelings of depression.
“Most people battle in silence, like Nolan did,” Gord said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to us to identify mental illness. If we can help one person, then I think we’ve done a lot.”
Looking for someone to talk to?
Provincial Mental Health Crisis Line:
Toll Free: 1-888-737-4668
Local: (709) 737-4668
Not in a crisis but still looking for help? More mental wellness services can be found here.
Or, if you're near Gander or Grand Falls-Windsor, check out Doorways, a walk-in clinic for same-day mental health attention.