Working wonders together

Author and her co-workers at United Way kick-off
On my morning drive this week, I saw this sign on a local church: “Not one person can do everything, but every person can do something.”

In a few days, my company will kick off our annual United Way campaign. Our theme this year is #WorkingWondersTogether.

I’ve always been a huge supporter of United Way, but this year, the campaign has touched me on a deeper level than ever before.

It started in June when Dave and I spent a week in Vancouver. We hit all the normal touristy places–Stanley Park, Granville Island, and the seashore parks. One day as we were walking around Chinatown, we ventured into an area bordering Gastown that had the highest concentration of homeless people I’ve ever seen. It was devastating.

In Vancouver, the services for people “sleeping in the rough” and who are struggling with addictions are all within a city block, causing people in need to congregate close to where the services are provided. While the need is just as real in other cities, services are spread out, so the stark reality of the plight of homeless people can be more hidden.

I couldn’t fathom how a city so rich in wealth, dripping with million dollar homes on every street corner, could allow such poverty to exist.

A few months later, my friends Jill and David, who lives in Australia visited and stayed overnight. After a sumptuous dinner, over a glass of wine in my comfortable home, we were talking about homelessness. David has some knowledge in this area. I asked him questions about people he knew, how they came to be homeless and the burning question, what can we do to give people a hand up and help them on a healthy path?

His insights helped me better understand the terrible cycle of addiction, mental health, and poverty. He shared with me this article, How I went from corporate lawyer to sleeping rough. Read it.

I now look at people “sleeping in the rough” differently. Now, when I see someone outside a grocery store in need, I ask them if I can buy them some food. While I still feel helpless to change their situation, I’m compelled to do something.

This week’s #HappyAct is to #WorkWondersTogether. Every one of us can do something to effect change. For every day of our campaign, I am going to do one small thing to make this world a more wonderful place. Join me, and give what you can.

Ed. note: This picture is of me and my amazing friends and Empire Life co-workers Dale Mainville and Jessica Schonewille who do so much to make the world a more wonderful place at our United Way BBQ on Friday. And no, I haven’t gained weight, it was so cold we had three layers on!

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Witness a strong team in action

Empire Life co-chairs Ian Alexander and Karen Swain reveal the thermometer surpassing our goal

There’s a saying in sports. There’s no “I” in the word team.

Watching a team come together and work magic is…well, in a word, magical.

This past week, our Empire Life United Way committee and team wrapped up its annual United Way campaign. Our goal was $240,000 and we blew it out of the water, raising more than $260,000. The money is still coming in.

Those of us who have been involved in our United Way campaign for many years have been asking ourselves, what did we do right? What was the magic formula and how do we replicate it next year?

While I think there were many things that made this year’s campaign a success, having a strong team in place was key.

It’s always interesting working with teams and volunteers. Some people prefer to work diligently behind the scenes on a specific task; others are happy to pitch in where needed, while others are more comfortable taking a leadership role.

When teams start working together, there’s always that initial adjustment period when people are trying to figure out the plan, who’s taking the lead, who will do what and the personalities of the players.

And then a magical moment happens when the team just clicks. The plan is in place. Everyone knows what they need to do and they do it.

That’s what happened with our team this year, and they did a magnificent job.

A big kudos to our campaign co-chairs this year Karen Swain and Ian Alexander who built a strong team and whose positive support and leadership guided them to their goal.

And a big shout out to Jessica Schonewille on my team who is one of the hardest working volunteers and supporters of the campaign I know, and who came in every day this week despite having bronchitis to do her part. You’re the best. 

Final notes

  • To learn more about the important work United Way does in your community to change lives locally, visit your local United Way website. If you haven’t given to this year’s campaign yet, give now.
Aaron Lutz is one of our behind the scenes workers
My friend Aaron Lutz is one of those guys who works hard behind the scenes but prefers not to be in the spotlight, so this time Aaron I’m putting you in the spotlight!
Jessica Schonewille
Jessica Schonewille came in every day this past week despite having bronchitis–that’s how dedicated this team was

Know where you belong

sign that says happiness is knowing where you belongI’ve spent the last four days in Toronto. It struck me more than ever, that even though I was born there, I don’t belong there.

Toronto is an amazing city, but like with any large city, there is the good, the bad and the ugly.

Toronto the good

Stunning skyscrapers, lakefront paths and parks, festivals and events, fine dining and shopping, and people of every faith, race, culture living for the most part in respectful harmony.

Toronto the bad

Relentless traffic, air pollution, soaring housing prices, long commutes and endangered greenspace from concrete sprawl.

Toronto the ugly

Poverty, homelessness, and indifference. Both days, walking the few blocks to my course in the financial district, I walked past at least a dozen people sleeping on the street. One man was lying in the middle of the sidewalk sideways and was so still, he could have been dead. Everyone, EVERYONE including me stepped around him and walked by. I’m still ashamed.

This week’s #HappyAct is know where you belong. United Ways across the country are kicking off their campaigns. Get involved, give and help change lives locally where you belong.

Make an inspiration wall

inspiration-wall
Grace’s inspiration wall

What inspires you? That’s the question we’ve been asking our employees during this year’s United Way campaign. Once again, the employees at Empire Life have blown me away by their generosity and willingness to be inspired by the incredible work United Way agencies do in our community and to make a difference.

There is so much in the world that is uninspiring today. It is rare to find something that compels you to feel or do something to create change in our society or something unique or beautiful.

I get my inspiration from my children, my friends and co-workers, and the natural surroundings of where I live.

The other day, Clare told me she wanted to start a new project: to create an inspiration wall. She started looking up inspirational sayings online. Her plan was to print them out and post them around her room. (Her teacher said she couldn’t do this at school if you can believe it). Grace created a similar inspiration wall a few years ago.

We need to be inspired at work, at home and in our community.

This week’s #HappyAct is to create your own Inspiration Wall. Here are some of the sayings Clare planned to use on her wall. Leave a comment. What inspires you?

“Happiness is found when you stop comparing yourself to other people.”

“When we get to the end of our lives together; the house we had, the cars we drove, the things we possessed won’t matter. What will matter is that I had you by my side.”

“You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

“When it rains, look for rainbows. When it’s dark, look for stars.”

“If plan A didn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters.”

uw-inspiration-wall
An inspiration wall created by Empire Life customer service teams who adopted the Kingston Youth Shelter for this year’s campaign–there were posters like this all over the floor to encourage people to bring in donations for what the shelter needs.

Play tourist in your own town

Newspaper clipping of huge fish caughtOne of the things I love about living in Eastern Ontario is how easy it is to play tourist in your own town.

Yesterday, we took Clare and her friends to Eastern Ontario’s newest tourist attraction—The Aquatarium at Tall Ships Landing in Brockville. This was probably one of the most interactive, engaging tourist attractions I’ve visited and it was a definite hit with all ages.

Here’s our top 10 list of favourite things we did during our three-hour visit.

  1. Getting our picture taken with a huge mackerel and otter
  2. Broadcasting the weather live on Aquatarium News Network
  3. Rowing a skull in a virtual race
  4. Watching the otters at feeding time
  5. Racing sailboats in the wind tunnel
  6. Doing a ropes course of barrels, masts and planks
  7. Learning about water and how locks work
  8. Gazing at fish through portholes and glass tunnels
  9. Touching starfish and crabs in the touch tank
  10. Discovering the secret passage in the captain’s lounge

Sound like fun? Aye captain. This week’s #HappyAct is to play tourist in your own town this month.

Kingston friends: Next weekend, there’s three premier events you won’t want to miss in our own backyard—the Tall Ships are sailing into Brockville, the 180th Kingston Fall Fair takes over the Memorial grounds, and the North American police equestrian championships are taking place at Kingston Penitentiary with proceeds to United Way.

Aquatarium at Tall Ships Landing

Girls looking at fish from a porthole

Step right up and make a change

United Way volunteers
Co-workers Elaine Peterson, Jordan Grundy and Jessica Schonewille at the United Way breakfast

This week I attended the kick-off breakfast for the 2014 Kingston, Lennox, Frontenac and Addington United Way Campaign. The room was packed with more than 500 community leaders and volunteers who run campaigns in their workplace. This year, the goal for our region is $3,481,000.

Our company, Empire Life is a huge supporter of United Way and always runs a fantastic campaign. This year our theme is “Step right up and make a change”, and we’ll be planning lots of fun events based on a carnival theme to raise almost $300,000. That’s a lot of change.

Over the years, United Way has become a charity of choice for me. I’m personally invested for two main reasons. One, it is the one charity where my money goes directly back into my own community and is distributed across many agencies and areas of need to help my neighbours, my colleagues, my friends.

The other reason is I’ve seen first-hand the incredible work United Way agencies do. I’ve been on the Board of Kingston Literacy and Skills, volunteered with CNIB, have worked for the day at places like Kingston Interval House and Kingston Youth Shelter as part of the Day of Caring, and visited other agencies through the United Way Seeing is Believing tour.

There is a third reason, knowing some day that could be me. We are all one pink slip, one medical crisis away from our lives changing inexorably. Life is fragile. In a flash, everything you hold dear can change, as we heard firsthand at the breakfast when 15-year old Oscar Evans described how his life changed after a chemical accident at the age of 13 when he became blind. We may all need help some day. I, for one, am grateful the United Way is there when that day comes.

This week’s #HappyAct is to step up and make a change by giving to United Way. If you live in a community where you aren’t as aware of the incredible work United Way does, make it a point of finding out. Volunteer for an agency or ask about a Seeing is Believing tour in your community (there is one in Kingston on September 23, find more details here.) Special thanks to the Empire Life team who braved the miserable rain yesterday at our 6th annual Community Garage Sale for United Way. You guys are amazing!