An Okotoks resident’s battle with drug addiction and mental health began before he was even a teenager but the now 20-year-old man’s commitment to helping at-risk youth has been recognized with a distinguished award.

On Wednesday, Cole WhalIey received the inaugural Donald Ethell Award from the Lieutena nt Governor’s Circle on Mental Health and Addiction honouring his dedication to students awhile attempting to remove the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health. The Lieutenant Governor presented Whalley with the award.

Whalley has overcome a $175 a day drug addiction, primarily crack cocaine, and will celebrate two years of sobriety this summer.

“It definitely encourages me to go out into my community and shed light on the topic of mental health and addiction to people who are hesitant in approaching the topic in conversation,” said Whalley.

As a 12-year-old, Whalley and his mother found the body of a family member who had suffered a fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“It’s around that age that you make that social transition from the innocence to the experimental phase,” said Whalley. “I think being subjected to a suicide at that young age definitely rocketed me into my addiction full force.”

While attempting to recover, a 16-year-old Whalley had to leave the country because local resources had little experience with handling severe cases involving a young patient.

“There definitely isn’t enough resources right now but we’re hoping to progress forward.”

Despite the tribulations he faced, the recovering addict has come to accept his decisions.

“The choices and the things I’ve done , from that point until now, made me the person that I am today.”

Whalley has volunteered with the Foothills School Division’s 180 program for several years.

“The 180 problem is just taking kids who are the most at risk out of the Foothills School Division and bringing  them together and meeting with them and eventually cycling them back into the school system.”

Self-confidence is a focus of the program and the group addresses the challenges adolescents face in this day-and-age.

Sarah Clark, Foothills School Division’s principal of divisional programs, nominated Whalley for the award citing his contributions to the 180 program for at-risk youth.

“What makes Cole so very unique is that he has had his own unique experiences with addiction and mental health,” explains Clark. “He uses those experiences for the better, for students that are younger than him.”

“He is so gifted at connecting with those students and mentoring them in such a positive way. He’s very honest and candid and genuine.”

Whalley’s personal experiences have prompted him to pursue a career as an addictions counsellor.