Following a bicycling accident, Toronto woman established Canada's first trauma support group
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.
“I felt very alone and frightened.”
She learned about a support group for trauma victims in the United States at The American Trauma Society partnered with John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
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.
For more information about My BeST, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Canadian artist Niam Jain with his mother, Nina Jain
TORONTO TEEN WITH AUTISM TAKES THE ART WORLD BY STORM
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 Gallery in 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.”
To see the art of Niam Jain, visit www.niamjain.com
The first painting sold by Niam Jain called, Waves (2015)
The artist's signature
OTTAWA DRIVER BALANCES WORK IN OTTAWA AND DUBAI TO PROVIDE FOR FAMILY
Sultan is a taxi driver in Ottawa.
I hopped into his blue and white cab upon my arrival to Canada’s capital city.
Neither of us spoke as I rode in the backseat, Arabic music playing on the radio.
I asked him where he was from.
“Lebanon,” he answered with a smile in the rear view mirror.
Like many immigrants, he explained that he came to Canada in search of a better life.
“From Lebanon, my family moved to Dubai where my wife and two young children are living,” he said.
While there he was gainfully employed as a foreman. He continues to do this type of work when he goes back.
“It was easier for me to find work there with my Arabic language."
Sultan came to Canada with hopes of applying his skills in the same profession, and bringing his family over to live together. But the language barrier and lack of connections prevented it.
“If I spoke Italian or Portugese I could get a job,” he said. “I knew someone in Toronto and heard about another in Montreal but I don’t know anyone in Ottawa. Its easier when you have connections.”
To provide for his family he will continue driving his cab and making the 20-hour trip back to Dubai twice a year to do construction work.
“It’s very hard being so far away,” he said while nodding his head.
“My wife won’t do it anymore so I go back and forth. I hope this will be temporary for me and that I will go back to live with them.”
MAN BUILDS A VILLAGE FOR VIETNAMESE REFUGEES IN PHILIPPINES
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.
JEWISH TRADE SCHOOLS HELP STUDENTS BUILD A FUTURE
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 with Pablo Reich
MOTHERHOOD AND LETTING GO
Yesterday, I left my Hannah Bea far away to be an adult in a different province again.
Too far away to draw on her back when she can't sleep, give her hugs when she needs her daily dose and cook for her when she is too lazy. All normal mom things that I engaged in for the vast majority of my own adult life.
Last year was her first year away and was incredibly hard. I lost 2 of my babies at once, as Lily Michaela Tova went in the opposite direction to start her new adult life at school, in an apartment with strangers who have since become her new family.
This is what I wanted: happy, excited, confident, resilient kids who have become happy, excited, confident, resilient young adults.
Who now know the merits of taking the garbage out themselves, paying a little more on quality paper towels, checking the price tags on groceries before buying staples and knowing the great pleasure of indulging a little on some days and gifting themselves a treat.
And yet, yesterday as I left Montreal, I was so sad and didn't stop crying until at least Cornwall.
"Oh mom, you're so dramatic", Hannah said when she called to check on me.
Raising kids for 20 years and leaving them to be their own real-life standalone individuals in charge of their own hydro bills and expiration dates IS dramatic. It's not just a very important transition for them but, in its second year, it has a finality about it that is both sad and incredibly liberating.
I did it, I raised kids who can survive if left to their own devices. Granted, UberEats might be part of their survival strategy, but so be it. Times have changed. Just not on my card, please.
The problem with sometimes struggling with depression is that you second guess your own responses to normal life experiences. Is my sadness warranted and normal, or is it a foreboding of the uncontrollable darkness that can sometimes descend for no reason and no clear endpoint?
But, yes, I cried and I might cry again today and tomorrow and maybe a few specific moments next month when I miss you, baby Hannah, and my Lily Bean. And confront parenting a wanna-be 16 year old rapper who merely grunts at me most of the time in the absence of his sister-allies.
This IS normal sadness and happiness and all the feelings that fall between. It is a good sign -- one of a mom who was connected and committed to being a mom and who is happy/sad to see their successes and my own.
Successes that mean they move away from me and onto their own lives and I become a little more of a peripheral player.
So to that, I proudly raise my tear-stained face, take a deep breath and continue to work on my happy, excited, confident, resilient self I forgot about whilst raising my kids.
Happy/sad back to school to all the parents sending off their kids. You done good.
Written by: Alana Salsberg
ELLY GOTZ LEARNED TO GIVE UP HATE TO FIND HAPPINESS AFTER THE HOLOCAUST
When I meet Elly Gotz at a café close to his home, it doesn’t take long for him to tell me a joke.
“A priest, a minister and a rabbi discuss when life begins.”
It’s a joke from a bygone era but it immediately sets the tone for our chat.
At 90 years old, Elly is a tall handsome man, with thick white hair and a wide welcoming smile.
“I love to tell jokes,” he says.
It’s the perfect paradox to our serious discussion about his teen years before and after the Second World War. His time in the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania, later separated from his mother and barely surviving with his father in the Dachau concentration camp.
Growing up in Lithuania, Elly experienced the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand.
“I was 17 years old when I came out of Dachau,” says Elly. “When we were freed I spent six months in hospital” gaining weight back and rebuilding his strength.
Even though he was later deemed physically well, he admits that emotionally he was not and sought revenge on all Germans.
He came to the self-realization that it was unproductive to hold on to his anger.
“You can’t accuse a whole nation of being murderers,” he says. “I had to give up hate.”
By coming to terms with his past, Elly was able to build a future for himself and his family.
From childhood he dreamed of becoming an engineer and a pilot. During his time in the ghetto, he received skilled trades training from a worldwide organization called ORT and later attended university to earn a degree as a professional engineer.
In Canada he fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot and flying his own plane.
He coined the phrase, ‘to do something well has healing properties’. The skills he learned in the ghetto gave him the opportunities that would build him a life.
Having run several successful businesses, he now volunteers for numerous charities including ORT Toronto, as well as Miles For Millions and his synagogue.
In addition, Elly continues to speak to over 100 schools a year about the Holocaust and the power of giving up hate and following your dreams.
“Its a good life. Don’t feel too bitter about difficulties, just deal with them the best you can.”
Elly Gotz (center), age 15, teaching metalwork at ORT school in Lithuania
WOMAN BECOMES HIV & AIDS ACTIVIST FOLLOWING HUSBAND'S DEATH
Susan Mintz has led a life that seems like a Hollywood movie.
She fell in love with her best friend, got pregnant, married and miscarried their only child. Later she discovered that her husband was homosexual with multiple partners, and ultimately died of AIDS.
I met Susan when she reached out to me on Twitter. Her story was so unique that I had to learn where she found her resilience.
Susan and her husband Jeffrey met in Grade 5. Their close friendship turned into a love that would last a lifetime.
“I always say that I had a friendship from heaven and a marriage from hell,” she tells me over the phone from Florida.
She compared their partnership to Bill and Hillary Clinton, as they were always a team and there for each other.
When Jeffrey came out as being gay, she said that God spoke to her to keep her vow “till death do us part.” She never considered leaving him.
In 1981 Susan was watching the news when a story came on about a disease that was killing gay men. In 1991 Jeffrey showed symptoms of having HIV.
He was hospitalized for pneumonia in 1992 and at that point Susan hit rock bottom. With the stigma associated with AIDS at the time, Jeffrey was put in isolation.
To help herself cope she kept a journal, filling 15 books. Twenty-four years ago Jeffrey passed away. Since his death, Susan hasn’t stopped campaigning for HIV and AIDS testing.
“Jewish people love to tell stories,” she says. “I am a storyteller.” She published a book titled, “Committed To Love”.
At 72 years of age she shows no signs of slowing down.
She is a tireless advocate for HIV and AIDS awareness as well as hospice care, has written two books, runs a website, campaigns for her story to be made into a movie, and speaks to groups regularly on the importance of early detection, knowing your status and treatment options.
“Adversity pushes you to purpose and makes you determined,” she says as we wrap up. “I have lived by the message of triumph over tragedy. You can’t escape the tragedy, but it’s what you do with it.”
FOUNDER OF HAPPY SOUL PROJECT HAS FORMED A WORLDWIDE COMMUNITY OF LOVE
Tara McCallan is the founder of The Happy Soul Project.
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.”
Photography: Genevieve Simon
THE PERIOD PURSE OFFERS MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS TO HOMELESS PEOPLE IN TORONTO
Jana Girdauskas is a teacher, a mother and the creator of a successful non-for-profit group called, The Period Purse.
She provides a solution to the challenges that the homeless face, when they get their period.
With her army of volunteers, they collect tampons and pads along with wellness items, packed in purses, and deliver them to homeless shelters across Ontario.
The Period Purse started in a very organic and modern way.
In 2017 Jana had menstrual items that she wanted to donate to people experiencing homelessness, but nothing to put them in. She posted a request to a local Facebook group looking for a purse.
Before she knew it, she had dozens dropped off on her back porch. By the end of the month, she collected over 300 purses.
With the attention she received on social media, only a week later she appeared on CBC Radio’s popular radio show, Metro Morning.
She never ran a business before and the rapid growth that The Period Purse received in a short amount of time was overwhelming to her.
“I didn’t think it would explode the way that it did,” she says.
It’s a massive effort, but with its overwhelming response and simple method of spreading kindness, she told me that it would be hard for her to stop now.
I met Jana at a west Toronto church where dozens of volunteers were sorting, organizing and stuffing purses.
A motivational note like this one, “You are strong, you are powerful. What you are going through today doesn’t have to be your forever” is included in each bag.
Jana did not plan on The Period Purse becoming a full-time operation, on top of her career as a teacher. Currently there are 8 chapters across Ontario and in Toronto alone she helps 12 shelters, servicing 530 women and transgender men.
Running it involves managing donations, recruiting and organizing volunteers including school groups, maintaining the website, posting to social media, corresponding with the chapters, as well as storing and delivering product.
“There were things like governance and accounting that I did not know and had to learn quickly,” she says. “I asked a lot of questions, set-up a Board of Directors and struck a partnership with some large corporations.”
Even with a lack of staff and only so many hours in a day, Jana is focused on growth and helping more individuals so that no one is left behind.
“It’s important for people to know that someone is listening to them and cares.”
Her advice for anyone looking to start something similar would be to, “delegate, take breaks and holidays, and take all of the help that you can get.”
The Period Purse has launched the Support A Menstruator program. To find out more, visit www.theperiodpurse.com
photo: Emily D Photography