Paying it forward: A&S alumna Katrina Florendo on mental health and giving back

February 24, 2020 by Sarah MacFarlane - A&S News

Katrina Florendo has overcome tremendous adversity in her life, including abuse and financial hardship. She enrolled in the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto not only to pursue her academic interests but also to pave the way for a better life for herself and her two children, Auguste and Jeremy. Her studies were just the beginning of her involvement at U of T, though — right after graduation, she became a donor.

“It was the only logical thing to do,” she explains. “About 85 per cent of my degree was paid for by funding. I wouldn't be where I am today without that help.”

As a student, Florendo was the recipient of numerous financial needs-based and merit-based scholarships and bursaries, several of which were made possible by philanthropic gifts. Along with help from her ex-husband and godmother, who looked after her children while she was at school, Florendo says the support she received from donors was pivotal to her success. It allowed her to dedicate more time and energy to raising her children and focusing on her studies.

“To me, it wasn't theoretical,” she says. “I lived it. It actually does change people’s lives. I could not have otherwise focused on school. These are people who don’t know me, don't know my kids, but they have invested in my future and my kids’ futures.”

Florendo, a member of St. Michael’s College, completed an honours bachelor of science degree with a double major in psychology and sociology, graduating with high distinction in 2012. She says her area of study also influenced her decision to become a donor.

“Looking at the research, people get a far more positive experience from contributing to meaningful things, unlike buying a designer purse with the same amount of money,” she explains.

Unsurprisingly, U of T is only one of the organizations Florendo supports. She also donates her hair to make wigs for cancer survivors and has registered to be an organ donor. “I’m all about efficiency and doing things that I find meaningful,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I started tackling zero waste living over the past year and I feel like I’m failing. There’s still a ton that I could be doing, but I feel like I’m donating and volunteering in the ways that make sense right now.”

Since graduating, Florendo has worked in health care, higher education, government and now, finance. But a busy career hasn’t stopped her from giving back. Mental health support and wellness is a cause that’s near and dear to her heart, and she’s been a call centre volunteer with Distress Centres of Greater Toronto for over six years — a position she sought out after a loved one attempted suicide. “Every call should be answered, and nobody should feel alone,” she says. “That’s the mission statement.”

The centre receives many calls from students who say they are overwhelmed by their studies — a feeling Florendo remembers from her own time as a student. “There’s so much pressure to be successful. The beauty of U of T is that you have some of the best minds in the world. You have access to an amazing education. But we’re people. You’re going to do your best. Sometimes things go in your favour and sometimes they don’t, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure.”

Florendo says she placed a lot of pressure on herself as a student to achieve high grades. “I don’t regret the strategy I took because at the time, marks were important. But now I’m working and nobody’s asked to see my transcript. It was a challenge that I put on myself, and I missed out on a lot of living.”

She remembers being too busy as a student to exercise, see friends or attend family gatherings. Later, she learned how to prioritize her own wellbeing and study smarter instead of harder. “You need to have a balanced life — not just as a student, but at every stage in life.”

When Florendo receives calls at the distress centre from students in need of support, she urges them to visit their school’s counselling centre as soon as possible. “A lot of times, they don’t want to look weak,” she says. “Mental health has a huge stigma, but I don’t think that helps anyone. As a student, you’re part of this community for a reason and during those times, you need that support.”

It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, Florendo says, but at the end of the day, a 4.0 grade point average is not the most important thing. “As long as you can look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a good person. I’m doing my best. I’m kind to everyone,’ then that’s enough.”