Mona Lam-Deslippe has experienced every mother’s nightmare.
In 2016, her son Nathan was brutally beaten to death by his long-time friend, William Joles. Nathan Deslippe was 27 years old.
Nathan was a handsome and funny young man with dark hair and eyes, a smirkish grin, and a love for yoga, wearing bowties and helping others.
As his mother puts it, “He was full of shenanigans, played many different instruments and could spot a flat note anywhere.”
Losing a child is the worst experience that a parent can face. It is magnified in the case of a murder because of the time spent in the criminal justice system with victims being thrust into the media spotlight.
“You know, it’s funny,” says Mona. “Everything leading up to the trial wasn’t about us because we were observers. When we had to deliver our victim impact statements, all of a sudden it was about us.”
Added challenges come in unexpected places.
Strangers will surprise Mona by mentioning Nathan’s name, a story will appear on the news, or “things come up, his picture comes up and Nathan pops up,” she says, “and all you can do is take a breath and think it was another difficult moment.”
Mona and her son worked together at a business she founded in 1989, the same year that Nathan was born.
The business is thriving but as she puts it, “I’ve had the usual ups and downs. His voice is on a project that we had started together,” and “it’s like a blessing and a curse.”
Mona, her husband, daughter and Nathan were a very close family.
The community has wrapped its arms around the Deslippes by hosting fundraising events, raising awareness and offering them support over the last couple of years. While Mona leads the charge, the community follows up to make these events happen. “Its almost like they’ve become our kids,” she says.
They are members of Nathan’s leadership team, co-workers, friends, event attendees and the business community.
“When things get tough, its one of the things that keeps us moving,” she says.
As we wrap-up our conversation, she says, “There have been so many things that have happened to my family and its up to us to decide our future and carry on.”
“People say one day at a time, but sometimes it’s an hour at a time, a minute at a time, or a breath at a time.”
“You never know, you just carry on to the next breath.”
To learn more about Nathan Deslippe including ways that his memory and spirit live on, visit www.nathantdeslippe.com
Mona Lam-Deslippe and her son, Nathan
From accident victim to establishing Canada's first Trauma Survivor's Network
Margaret Harvey loves riding her bike through the streets of Toronto.
Back in 2012, she was riding to work and stopped at a busy intersection in the downtown core. A garbage truck turned in-front of her, knocked her to the ground and ran her over with its back wheels. Margaret invited me to her home to learn more about that horrible day.
"I was conscious during the accident," she said from the comfort of her living room sofa. "The first thing I did was wiggle my toes to make sure I wasn't paralyzed."
She was bleeding to death and was rushed to the hospital where she underwent a blood transfusion. Margaret was intubated and suffered a fractured pelvis, lacerations to her groin and severe internal bleeding.
Three weeks at St. Michael's Hospital and four months of rehabilitation therapy, she returned to work only a short time after. Even without her full mobility, she thought that she was mentally and physically ready.
In reality, “I set myself up for failure.”
She quit her job and for the following four years she sunk into a deep depression.
Something like this did not exist in Toronto and she was determined to create it, so she approached St. Michael’s Hospital about starting a trauma support group.
One year later, along with the help of the hospital’s team of experts including social workers, psychiatrists and therapists, Margaret was able to launch the first Canadian Trauma Survivors' Network. It is called My BeST which stands for Beyond Surviving To Thriving.
My BeST provides support to patients, along with their families and caregivers, who have experienced any type of trauma-related injury including: car crash, gun shot wounds, vehicle accidents and work-related injury. The group meets monthly and has open discussions as well as presentations from experts on a variety of topics including: pain and sleep management and advocacy. “It has been so rewarding to make so many friends with the same experience as me,” said Margaret. "It has given me so much confidence."
Approximately four years after her accident, Margaret purchased a new pink bike. She rode it, taking the side streets home, and now takes it everywhere she goes -- including to St. Michael’s Hospital.
Niam Jain is a typical 15 year-old teen from Toronto. He loves video games, pizza and idolizes his hometown music hero, Drake.
He is also a world-renowned artist living with Autism.
I was invited to his Scarborough studio where he was busy creating new pieces for his first major exhibition at The Abbozzo Galleryin downtown Toronto.
Any artist would dream of having a space like this one, with every imaginable colour splattered on every surface from the floors, walls and tabletops. It’s like Jackson Pollock came to decorate.
I ask Niam’s mother, Nina Jain, how they discovered his talent.
“When he was 12 years old, we were at home looking for activities for him to do so we bought some canvases and paints,” she recalls. “He finished a beautiful painting which I posted on Facebook and a friend shared it.”
Little did she expect that it would catch the interest of a collector in New York City who purchased it.
With the sale of this first piece, Nina realized that Niam found a focus and possibly a source of his own income.
Niam’s speech and comprehension are very limited. He picks-up on a few words and repeats them, but his art is a way for him to communicate to the world.
He uses different colours and layers to represent what he feels and makes the painting his dialogue.
Over time he has gained a following through social media and his website which are managed by his mother.
“He loves when his paintings are sold,” she says. “He feels good and realizes that people appreciate the work he’s put into it.”
He has found a passion and the art world has given him a fantastic response.
His mother has also channeled her energy into helping others manage autism through a website she developed called, Able2Learn. Visitors can download manuals, build a community, learn recipes and educate themselves on the many different aspects of autism.
As Nina puts it, “We’re showing the art world the potential of people with disabilities.”
Toronto man builds village for Vietnamese refugees
The first time I met Phung Nguyen he modestly said, “I don’t consider myself a resilient person.”
When I heard the story of how he helped build a village for refugees in the Philippines, I couldn’t disagree with him more.
Phung was born 73 years ago in Vietnam. In 1964 he came to Canada on a scholarship to study engineering at Montreal’s McGill University.
During this time, life back home became increasingly violent with the beginning of the Vietnam War followed by decades of civil unrest.
Many Vietnamese fled by sea in a harrowing escape with some making it to the shores of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. They were called, Boat People.
Eight of Phung’s family members were among those who escaped in search of freedom, but their journey would not have a happy ending. They all perished at sea.
In 1996 while operating his own consulting practice in Toronto, Phung learned of a large group of Vietnamese boat people who were living in a refugee camp on the tiny island of Palawan in the Philippines.
The Vietnamese community in Los Angeles and Australia raised $1 million to build a village for them. Phung and his wife made the decision to contribute something more personal by flying to the Philippines to help construct it.
That October a small team of both local and international labourers, construction managers, and members of The Church Of The Philippines joined them in Puerto Princesa. Aside from the mere size of this group, there would be massive challenges ahead like performing heavy labour in extreme heat for 18-hour days, lack of proper machinery and transportation, poor sleeping conditions, as well as no electricity, running water or roads.
But the vision for a better life for these displaced people motivated all of them to persevere and make the village a reality.
By March of the following year, 700 people were able to move into their new homes. It was a moment of pride for everyone.
“I didn’t get paid but the return was love,” said Phung. “I worked long hours but I did not suffer. That was more meaningful and worth more than money.’”
I asked him if it was important for him to help these people because of the horrible fate of his own family.
“I’m so lucky, not like my brothers and sisters,” he said. “We felt that we had the capabilities to help these people, we had freedom.”
In 1998 Phung returned to Puerto Princesa for an anniversary celebration and shared a yearbook he had created for them. He regards his experience in Palawan as the highest achievement in his life.
He recently wrote in an article, “I learned that money is not everything. The joys of life are behind sacrifices, endurance, giving and receiving love.”
Phung is an example of someone who was able to take his pain and turn it into something positive for others.
That definitely makes him resilient.
To learn more about his story, Phung has generously written a beautiful account of his experience in Palawan in an article found here.
Village built by Phung Nguyen and his team in Puerto Princesa
Jewish trade schools helped students build futures
This summer a group of World ORT alumni gathered together for the first time. From Argentina to Israel, Uruguay to Canada, they came together to reunite as graduates of ORT schools. Established in 1880 in St. Petersburg, Russia, ORT is the largest Jewish vocational and training organization. Currently ORT operates in 37 countries with approximately 300,000 students. Pablo Reich, himself a graduate of an ORT school in Argentina hosted the event at his home in north Toronto. He says, “Going to university wasn’t an option for many Jewish children so the ORT environment provided a technical education. Now ORT Argentina is a popular school offering STEM training to both Jewish and non-Jewish students.” Elly Gotz is a prominent Toronto businessman, ORT alumnus from Kovno, Lithuania and a Holocaust survivor. As Elly explains, there were no schools to attend in the ghetto. The Jewish management asked permission from the Nazis to start a trade school. He learned metalwork while others were trained in locksmithing, welding, cutting and drilling. “I loved it,” he says. “I didn’t have to think about how I was going to die, I was busy and at 15 years old I was made a teacher and training other students.” After the war, Elly attended an ORT school to learn electronics, which eventually led him to become an electrical engineer. He says that some of his fellow ORT students and classmates have gone on to illustrious careers including a professor, dental technician and acclaimed businessman. All credit ORT for their success. According to Lindy Meshwork, Executive Director of ORT Toronto, next steps for ORT in Canada are fundraising as well as raising awareness for their programs. On October 19 a Battle of the Air Bands will be held at the MOD Club in downtown Toronto, while in the spring of 2019 a large gala will be held to raise funds for ORT as well as Jewish day schools. For more information on ORT, please visit www.ort-toronto.org
Elly Gotz (centre) ORT graduate and alumni teaching metalwork in Kovno ghetto 1944
When she was was pregnant, she was like many expectant mothers today. She regularly posted photos about her pregnancy to social media, eagerly anticipating the birth of her baby. They would name her Reid, but call her by her nickname, Pip.
Within a few days of her daughter’s arrival, Tara and her husband got the news that Pip was born with Down Syndrome,congenital cataracts and numerous heart defects.
They were in total shock since there was no indication during her pregnancy.
Tara went dark on social media and from the world around her.
“I was grieving the child that she was supposed to be and who I thought I wanted her to be,” says Tara while speaking with me on the phone.
One night while laying Pip in her crib, Tara crouched down sobbing on the floor beside her.
“I couldn’t remember how long I was there, it could have been minutes or hours.”
She looked up to see a sign that she had painted and hung above the crib which read, ‘Life is more beautiful because you are here.’
Tara got up and returned to her computer to post her raw feelings through a blog, announcing that her daughter had Down Syndrome.
That same night, she received replies from around the world from other parents of special needs children.
The days and weeks that followed, Tara continued to post and gather a bigger circle of support around her. Social media had become her therapy and listening ear.
She named her page, The Happy Soul Project and it now has over 26,000 followers on Instagram, and over 32,000 on Facebook.
“I gathered an army to support us,” says Tara. “We’ve been uplifted by people worldwide.”
By creating the blog, Tara and her family learned to focus on the magic that is in Pip. At five years old, she has undergone 20 operations but does so with humour, grace and always a sense of playfulness.
Tara’s posts focus on their family life including videos of their morning routine, going for walks and talking with one another, bedtime stories and family outings.
All with the aim of making Pip front and centre while showing the normalcy and fun in raising a child with special needs.
Some of the other projects that Tara is spearheading include the #differentisbeautiful campaign featuring children with special needs. In addition, there is the Happy Soul Project shop which is managed by adults with special needs, a school program, a Queen’s University Club with hundreds of students and community events.
“I wanted to somehow make a dent in the universe,” she says. “Initially I did the blog for me, but now it’s become my purpose to help others.”