Elizabeth Verwey is taking risks.
I met Elizabeth at her home in Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood. It’s a warm and cozy apartment filled with lots of books and photos of family and friends.
With a head of brilliant curly grey hair and a splash of purple on the front fringe, she greeted me with a warm hug instead of a handshake.
Elizabeth’s life has been filled with a mixture of happiness and tragedy, which included: murder, suicide, rape, the end of her 36-year marriage, and the loss of her beloved brother when he was only 50.
During our talk, she told me about a book that helped her called, The Aladdin Factor.
“It tells you to make a list of the 100 things you want to do before you die.” Taking this as a cue to make significant changes to herself and her life she said, “I realized that I had a lot of fears holding me back.”
So when she turned 55 years old she made a list of the fears that no longer served her.
One was of living alone. Elizabeth met her husband when she was 17 years old and got married at 19.
She only knew domestic life with her ‘wusband’, as she comically refers to her ex-husband. But proving that she could move forward, she found an apartment as well as a new life within it.
Another fear Elizabeth had was of heights. To conquer this she flew to South Africa and went tandem paragliding.
And the last she told me of was sharks. To prove that she got over it, she played a video for me from that same trip to South Africa where she went shark cage diving and came face-to-face with the predators.
“By conquering my fears it felt that I was breaking free of my constraints,” said Elizabeth. “I was freeing myself.”
She is now 62 years old and lives life fully.
She even drove by herself from Toronto to Canada’s east coast. “Being at the wheel on my own, and making my own decisions on where to go, was amazing!”
By delving into her own challenges and triumphs, as well as being a natural people connector, Elizabeth created the speaker series, Spoken Lives. Each Spoken Lives event brings four women in front of other women to share their inspiring stories of challenges, adventure and triumph. The goal is for the audience to see themselves in the stories.
I ask her what she has learned from her own personal story and triumphs.
“I’ve learned that I’m more capable than I ever imagined.”
Margaret Ng and her father share something in common. Brain tumours.
I met Margaret at the annual Brain Tumour Foundation conference in Toronto. She had just delivered a keynote address that stunned the audience.
When she was 9 years old, Margaret’s father was experiencing severe headaches, nausea and vomiting. He was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour, which was eventually removed, leaving him with impaired eyesight.
Over the next eleven years, he underwent further surgeries and treatments related to the tumour’s regrowth, causing him to fall into deep depression, lose his eyesight and, at times, his will to survive. This was painful for the entire family.
Thirteen years after her father's treatments ended, Margaret began experiencing the same severe headaches and vomiting.
She too had a brain tumour. A decision was made to remove it quickly, and Margaret was faced with the grim news that it was a grade 3 oligoastrocytoma, a malignant type of brain cancer.
The prognosis was not good, with the doctors giving her 2-3 years to live.
She struggled with how this could be happening not once but twice within her family.
At that time, she was a newlywed, in a fantastic career and living a healthy life competing in many sports among them, Tough Mudder.
Upon learning her prognosis, she spent the day in complete sadness.
“At some point I decided that the sadness does not serve me,” she said. “This isn’t how I want to live the rest of my life, whether I have days, months, years or decades ahead of me.”
Along with using traditional medical treatments, she turned to evidence-based healing, developing a plan that incorporated nutrition, exercise, art therapy, sleep and stress management, as well as supplementation to help her heal.
“I am doing what I need to do to defy the stats. I am in control and confident.”
Margaret also leaned on her strong religious faith to give her strength and guidance.
Her religious beliefs helped her to accept the diagnosis and that everything happens for a reason.
“God has an intention for what happens in the world, so what can we take from this and learn from it?”
Five years since her diagnosis and 30 years since her father’s, they both continue to live full and healthy lives. Margaret has also become a mother to 2 beautiful girls.
She says, “this journey has been a transformational opportunity for me.” On Halloween 2013, “my unexpected guest reared its ugly head and has given me the opportunity to live my life with more gratitude, a sense of adventure, and do things to keep my mind and body in healthy balance.”
By embracing life’s positive and negative challenges, we can all learn and view them as opportunities to do something with our lives.
To follow Margaret Ng, visit www.nutritioustherapy.com
Mona Lam-Deslippe and her son Nathan, courtesy of Mona Lam-Deslippe
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 created the Nathan Deslippe Memorial Fund, with monies raised going to different causes.
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 making a donation to the memorial fund, www.nathantdeslippe.com
Run over by a garbage truck on her bike, Margaret Harvey establishes Canada's first Trauma Support 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 collision," she said from the comfort of her living room sofa in Toronto's leafy Riverdale neighbourhood. "The first thing I did was wiggle my toes to make sure I wasn't paralyzed."
She was bleeding to death and rushed to the hospital where she underwent the first of 38 blood transfusions. Margaret was also intubated and suffered a fractured pelvis, lacerations to her groin and severe internal bleeding.
Three weeks at St. Michael's Hospital in the city's downtown core, 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 went on a medical leave and suffered with 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."
Five years after her accident, Margaret purchased a new pink bike. She rode it home, taking the side streets. And now, at times, she'll even ride it all the way to St. Michael's Hospital.
Email My BeST for more information at: email@example.com
Canadian artist Niam Jain with his mother, Nina Jain
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
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.”
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.
World ORT alumni gather for first time in 2018
A group of World ORT alumni gathered at the Toronto home of Pablo Reich 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
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
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