Al Gilchrist lights up as he flips through his paper calendar. Almost every day is highlighted by his many volunteer commitments. Giving back to his community has given Al a sense of purpose and brought him a great deal of happiness and fulfillment in the years since he retired from policing. 

He and his wife, Sue, have lived in Innisfil for 47 years. They raised their family just a few blocks from Lake Simcoe. 

Al Gilchrist surveying the frigid waters pre-plunge at the Friday Harbour Polar Plunge.

As chair of the Innisfil Campaign Cabinet of the Keep Life Wild campaign, Al is enthusiastic about the work he and his team are doing to expand RVH and bring a healthcare facility to Innisfil. 

It’s a cause close to his heart. 

Al’s life was once defined by his career. He spent 38 years as a police officer, most of which as a respected detective with the Barrie Police Service, specializing in crisis negotiation. 

“In those days, when you were good at something, they tended to keep you there,” says Al.

He worked long hours in situations that are unimaginable to most people. 

“There was no debriefing after a bad one,” recalls Al. “Back then, guys would just go for drinks and that was their way of coping. I didn’t have that.”

He gave up alcohol in 1988. 

“In the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of drinking as part of the work we were doing,” he explains. “Old clothes, it was called. Not undercover but blending in. I stopped the drinking. I went to AA. I haven’t had a drink in 34 years.”

The stress of it all caught up to him eventually.

“I couldn’t sleep. Situations would replay over in my mind. I would be wide awake just thinking. I couldn’t turn it off.”

One night in April of 1998, Al walked down to the lake and tried to end his life. 

“I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I came back to the house soaking wet. It was about three am.”

“We called 911,” says Sue. “They took him by ambulance to RVH.”

“I don’t remember a lot of this,” says Al. “I know the psychiatrist at the hospital asked me if I consented to treatment. I said yes. I was admitted to the Mental Health Unit for 30 days.”

That event was a turning point for Al.

“I always felt respected at RVH,” he shares. “I took the medications they gave me and then I could finally sleep. When I was rested, I could function. Food started to taste good. I participated in group therapy and art therapy. I could have an afternoon nap. It was encouraged. So was talking and sharing. It was difficult, but the people were all wonderful.”

“You felt safe there, at RVH,” Sue reminds him.

“Yes,” he says. “I did. You can feel yourself getting better. You don’t recognize it at the time, but you are slowly getting better.” 

“I never pass up an opportunity to share what I know about the health centre coming to Innisfil, the more people who are aware of the impact this will have, the more support we can garner for this important project.”

Al Gilchrist, Innisfil Campaign Chair

Now, twenty-five years later, he still finds it hard to share his experience. 

“It’s not an easy thing to talk about,” he reveals. “I still get emotional, but I know it’s important to tell my story.”

Al’s work with the Innisfil Cabinet means that more people who need specialized care, including mental health support, will be able to access it closer to where they live. That’s a source of pride for him. 

“I never pass up an opportunity to share what I know about the health centre coming to Innisfil,” says Al. “The more people who are aware of the impact this will have, the more support we can garner for this important project.”

The new healthcare facility will focus on outpatient clinics, day surgery and diagnostics, as well as urgent care. Mental health crisis services, addiction treatment and ongoing therapy will also be available at the Innisfil site.

In March, Al joined his friend and fellow Keep Life Wild Innisfil Cabinet member, Anne Smith, in a polar plunge at Friday Harbour. 

“We raised close to $14,000 for RVH,” shares Al. “I’ve already signed us up for next year, and we’re going to raise even more money!”

Grabbing his calendar, his smile spreads. 

“I’m very proud of our team and this campaign. Bringing this facility to Innisfil will be a big accomplishment for our town. I’m honoured to be part of this. Our friends and neighbours deserve to have this care close to home.”

Join Al in the fight to keep life wild. Donate today, and your gift will help bring a new healthcare facility to Innisfil, so more patients like Al can get the care they need close to home to get back to living their wild lives sooner.