Hurricane Hazel, a Canadian marvel


Mayor Hazel McCallion; photo by Joey Coleman from Hamilton, Ontario, via Wikimedia Commons

When she was elected as mayor of  Canada’s sixth largest city, Hazel McCallion could not have known she would serve twelve terms. The Mississauga mayor was in that office from 1978 until 2014, and although officially retired she is actually serving as special advisor for strategic development at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Born in 1921, McCallion worked for Kellogg until 1967, when she left the corporate world for politics. That was the year she won her first election, as deputy reeve of Streetsville. (A reeve is the term used in some parts of Canada for the head of a town council.) The next year she was appointed reeve and never looked back.

By the time she was elected mayor of Mississauga in 1978, McCallion was well on her way to earning her nickname, “Hurricane Hazel”. She worked tirelessly on behalf of her constituents. Even at 93, her last year in office, she was rising every day at 5 a.m., doing her exercises, reading reports over breakfast, and starting her work day before most people even began their commute.

McCallion earned her stripes early in her mayoral career. She was barely into her first term in Mississauga when, in November 1979, a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed. In spite of an initial explosion visible 100 km away, quick acting on the part of the train’s brakeman avoided an even greater disaster. With fire still burning and the potential for the release of deadly chlorine gas from a ruptured tank, the city had to make a quick decision. Over 200,000 people were evacuated safely.

Mississaugans never forgot. Their leader had proven her mettle in a time of crisis. She kept reinforcing it throughout her long career. She also exhibited sound business sense, leaving behind a city completely debt free, with over $700 million in reserves.

People like Hazel McCallion are rare. They inspire us to live larger than we think we can.

Comedian Rick Mercer interviewed McCallion in 2009. Watch the video for a taste of her indomitable spirit. It will leave you smiling.


New York’s original good-news man

Steve Kraus, publisher of The New York Good News; photo clip from video below

Steve Kraus, publisher of The New York Good News; photo clip from video below

Steve Kraus began delivering the good news to New York’s East Village in 1962. The Polish Jew had escaped Europe during World War II. He had written for the U.S. Information Agency and knew his way around both writing and bad news.

When DNAinfo interviewed then 82-year-old Kraus in 2011, he told them:

“Quite a few years ago I came to the conclusion that the mass media – newspapers, television – concentrated on dire, bad, sad news. The good news happens all the time, but it’s usually buried in the back pages.”

Kraus decided to dig it out, do a paste-up of the clippings, and circulate it as The New York Good News. When DNAinfo interviewed him, he had acquired enough clippings to put together his 13th issue.

His intent with The New York Good News was always to give people a little hope, perhaps help them trust each other better. He figured they might even be inspired to do a little good themselves.

While he is compiling it, he is also volunteering around East Village, keeping tabs on the neighbourhood, and being the sort of community fixture people appreciate.

A dozen issues in more than 50 years is a small stone dropped in the waters of bad news, but anything dropped in water ripples outward. When Huffington Post added its “Good News” vertical (section) in 2012, they honoured Kraus for being “one of Gotham’s original purveyors of the life-affirming and upbeat”. And East Villagers who have come across this small publication or the man who publishes it have had their lives made just a bit brighter by his determination to find light in darkness.



Stray dogs come to funeral home to pay respects

Dogs saying farewell to an animal lover; photo from Patricia Urritia's Facebook page (click on the image to see others)

Dogs saying farewell to an animal lover; photo from Patricia Urritia’s Facebook page (click on the image to see others)

Every day for 20 years Margarita Suarez fed the stray dogs and cats in her neighbourhood in Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico. When she died, they paid their respects.

The story went viral thanks to her daughter, Patricia Urritia, who shared the astonishing story on her Facebook page. She said when her mother’s casket arrived at the funeral chapel for the wake, a contingent of dogs followed it inside and kept vigil throughout the night. They left in the morning but returned shortly before Margarita Suarez was cremated.

One of the curious aspects of the story is that the animals Suarez fed were in Merida Yucatan, where she lived. She had only come to Cuernavaca when she became too ill to remain in her own home. Well over a thousand kilometers separate the two communities so the canine honour guard was made up of dogs who were strangers to Suarez.

Seeing the dogs follow her mother into the chapel, Urritia asked staff if that was normal. It was not. Urritia has no doubt they were there to honour her mother, somehow drawn to this woman who cared so deeply for animals. Perhaps they sensed the loving energy of Urritia, whose Facebook page shows her own compassion for animals. Whatever the case, the story is touching.



Love those imperfect bodies

Shanti and Liz, co-creators of Perfect Imperfection; photo clip from video below

Shanti and Liz, co-creators of Perfect Imperfection; photo clip from video below

Media images of perfection aside, the people walking around our neighbourhoods represent all the variations of body types and insecurities. “I’m not good enough” is a phrase running on a loop through our minds.

Photographers Liz LaVorgna and Shanta Crowley of Brattleboro, Vermont want to break that loop with Perfect Imperfection, a photography and spoken word project they hope will start a movement. Defying societal pressures to be flawless physically and emotionally, they collaborated on a journey of discovery and acceptance.

According to the Brattleboro Reformer, the project began when the two friends were discussing liposuction. That led to their seeking volunteers willing to admit their own imperfections and allow Liz and Shanta to portray them photographically. Their first subjects were each other, being willing to share the kinds of insecurities we normally do our best to hide.

The photographs they took of volunteers were accompanied by the stories they were willing to share publicly. Each photograph was carefully planned, in collaboration with the subject. Figuring out how to portray deeply held insecurities, painful emotions and physical imperfections called on all the creativity both photographers and volunteers could bring to the project.

They took the results to Brattleboro’s 2014 Gallery Walk and brought it back in 2015. Visitors were deeply touched by the honesty and vulnerability of the photographs.

Their work deserves an audience well beyond their Vermont community. Check them out. Share their project, and be inspired to love your own imperfections.

You can see each of the photographer’s interpretations on their websites: Liz‘s and Shanta‘s.


She did on one leg what most people can’t on two

Arumina Sinha

Arunima Sinha, winner of Dr. Patra’s Positive Health Awards 2014; clip from video below

When thieves attacked Arunima Sinha, one of India’s volleyball champions, in April 2011 she fought back. No one on the crowded train stepped forward to help her so they threw her out of the train. An oncoming train ran over her leg, crushing it below the knee.

As she described it in her INK Talk, she lay on the railroad bed, screaming for help, determined to live. Hours later villagers took her to the district hospital. No blood or anesthesia was available, but the gritty young woman insisted they amputate the crushed limb. Impressed by her courage, both the doctor and the pharmacist donated blood for her. Without pain killers, they removed the crushed limb.

She told police about the assault. Instead of believing her and going after the criminals, they accused her of attempting suicide or trying to avoid paying the fare. Once again she fought back, this time against the police. The high court believed her and ordered Indian Railways to pay her a settlement.

The Sports Ministry came to her aid while she was in the village hospital. She was transferred from Lucknow to the AIIMS Trauma Centre in Delhi.

Lying in her hospital bed, with no assurance she would ever walk again, she made a decision. Not only would she walk, she would climb Mount Everest. Most people were skeptical, but her family believed in her and took her to meet Bachendri Pal, the first Indian Woman to climb that peak. Pal encouraged her to go after her dream.

With an artificial limb and a determined heart, Arunima Sinha began training at Pal’s adventure foundation. After a year’s arduous training, she began a climb that took 52 days and steely will. On May 21, 2013, she stood on the 29,000 foot summit of Mount Everest.

But she was not done. Since then she has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Elbrus. She has set her sights on four more peaks and plans to become the first Indian amputee to climb all seven.

She believed she could do it. She prepared herself. She did it.

And so can we all.

You can follow Arunima Sinha on Facebook and Twitter and read her book, Born Again on the Mountain: How I Lost Everything and Found It Back


Would you hug a strange Muslim?

"Big hug!" by Richard Lewis, via Flickr Creative Commons

“Big hug!” by Richard Lewis, via Flickr Creative Commons

That is what the Blind Trust Project set out to discover. If a blindfolded Muslim stranger stood on the street, arms outstretched, would you hug him? What if he had two signs explaining himself? One would read, “I am  Muslim. I am labelled as a terrorist.” The other would carry this simple message, “I trust you. Do you trust me? Give me a hug.”

Assam Galuta (Asoomii Jay) tested Canadians’ responses in a social media experiment on a busy Toronto street. With the help of Mustafa Mawla from TimeVision, they set things up and filmed the results. They were curious to see how Canadians would react. Their hope was to make people more aware of Islamophobia and allay fears.

The results were heartening. One after another, men and women of all ages and cultures walked up to the blindfolded Mawla, arms outstretched, and wrapped him in a hug.

A New York actor, Karim Metwaly learned of the experiment and decided to try it in New York. The passersby ignored him at first, but gradually one after another stepped into his arms and gave him a hug.

Jay was surprised to learn of the New York experiment, but she was also pleased. She told the CBC:

“It is a first step in helping educate people that not all Muslims are ‘bad people’ and a reminder for radical Muslims as well that if we want to defend Islam, we should do so in a way Islam teaches, not with acts of violence [which are] forbidden in Islam.”


These neighbours are not just bystanders

Being neighbourly in Strathcona; photo by Leeann Cafferata, via Flickr Creative Commons

Being neighbourly in Strathcona; photo by Leeann Cafferata, via Flickr Creative Commons

The Strathcona neighbourhood in Vancouver, B.C. is the city’s oldest residential community. A mix of ages, cultures and incomes, it normally feels like a safe place to live, according to residents who spoke to CBC after a horrific rape occurred.

On March 26, 2015 that sense of safety was shattered. Shortly after noon that day a 25-year-old man barged into a young woman’s home, tied her up and began brutally assaulting her. She tried to fight him off, but he overpowered her.

This is where a bit of light begins to open in a harrowing story. A passerby heard the woman’s screams and ran to help her. As he fought off the attacker, others rushed to help. They held the rapist until the police arrived.

The victim was hospitalized with serious injuries. Her body will recover. Her sense of safety will take a longer time to heal. That she survived an attack by such a violent man may be due to her neighbours’ intervention.

Their concern, and their neighbourliness, did not stop there. One of her neighbours launched a GoFundMe campaign to show the victim how much her neighbourhood cares about her and to help fund her recovery. Within two days people had pitched in nearly the full $35,000 that was the goal of the fundraiser.

No one should have to endure what this woman has. What makes this story different from so many similar ones is how the neighbourhood responded. Strathcona has put monsters like this attacker on notice. They have also declared they will rally around in support of one of their own.

The “bystander effect” is well known and frequently researched. In Strathcona a group of neighbours refused to be bystanders, daring to intercede in spite of the danger, willing to pitch in to help in the aftermath.

As ugly as this story is on many levels, it is also a story of hope. We are each other’s keepers. What happens to you affects all of us. So let’s add another effect, the Strathcona effect, people who care enough about those who share their community they will step forward in time of danger or need.


The woman who faced the Ku Klux Klan and won

"FIRE!!" - photo by Thomas's Pics, via Flickr Creative Commons

“FIRE!!” – photo by Thomas’s Pics, via Flickr Creative Commons


Michael Donald left home the evening of 1981 and never returned. He just wanted a pack of cigarettes. What his murderers wanted was ugly and complex.

The young Donald was 19 years old, youngest son of Beulah Mae Donald. He bought his cigarettes at a convenience store, then started for home.

That same night, two young Klansmen went on the prowl, blood lust in their hearts. They were angry because a black man had not been convicted of shooting a white policeman.

Henry Hays was 26. His accomplice, James Lewellyn Knowles, was 17. They drove around looking for a victim and happened upon Michael Donald, though any black man would have been just fine. They kidnapped him, took him out to the woods, brutally beat him, slit his throat, and strangled him.

When they were sure he was dead, they brought his mangled body home and hung it from a tree across the street from their Mobile, Alabama, home. Maybe people were too slow discovering it. They called the local television station to film their victim and likely laughed when the cameras arrived before the police.

Hays’s daddy must have been proud. Bernie Hays was second in command of the Alabama Klans. Big Daddy and his Klan brothers gathered on the front porch and jeered the police.

The district attorney bought the story made up by white folks and called the murder a drug deal gone bad. Some figured Michael Donald must have been dating a white girl and deserved what he got.

Beulah Mae Donald was having none of it. She would not let her son’s murder be swept under the rug of racism. She found allies and insisted her son’s case be resolved. The FBI became involved, albeit reluctantly. So did the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The FBI were able to link Knowles and Hays to the murder. Knowles testified against Hays to avoid the death penalty. Hays was executed in 1997. Knowles was imprisoned for life, as was Benjamin Cox, who was identified as a third accomplice.

Not since 1913 had a white-on-black crime ended in conviction. But this is not a story about retribution. It is a story about the mighty power of redemption and about one woman’s taking on power and winning.

At his trial in June 1983, James Knowles was a frightened, sorrowful young man. Before the trial went to jury, he asked the jury to convict him and begged Beulah Mae Donald to forgive him. She did not hesitate to offer him the forgiveness she had, in her heart, given him much earlier.

The grieving mother’s willingness to forgive would be enough to make this a story of hope, but she did something else. She bankrupted the Alabama Klan. She filed a civil suit against them and won a judgement of $7 million dollars.

They never recovered from the blow to their finances, nor should they have. Beulah Mae Donald stood up to endemic hatred, to vicious racism, and refused to bow down. Her resolve exposed the Klan publicly for the morally bankrupt, brutally ugly organization it was.

The case did not end racism in America, as the virulent anti-Obama tirades have shown. But it did strike a blow against it…and all because one loving mother would not allow her son’s memory to be despoiled by hate.


When the music plays, he has to dance

Peyton "Peanut" dancing for all he's got; photo clip from his aunt's video below

Peyton “Peanut” dancing for all he’s got; photo clip from his aunt’s video below

Forget dancing like nobody’s watching. Young Peyton “Peanut” Henderson clearly likes being watched. When he hears dancing music, he has to move to the beat.

At a Kentucky High School Basketball Tournament, Henderson heard Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” over the sound system and began dancing in the aisle between bleachers. That boy has talent. He was totally caught up in the moment, swaying with abandon, and cutting some moves that showed both a natural style and hours of practice.

His aunt, Angie Holleran, caught it on video. She also caught some of the sheer delight on the faces of those watching the boy. He was such a hit he was invited to dance right down on the basketball floor during a time out.

Peyton “Peanut” Henderson could teach us a thing or two about mindfulness. When music fills that boy’s body, he is one hundred percent in the middle of it.


Make No Small Plans

“The Open Road” photo by Adam Meek, via Flickr Creative Commons

“The Open Road” photo by Adam Meek, via Flickr Creative Commons

The dream of saying goodbye to jobs and fixed addresses sometimes seduces adventurous people to sell their worldly goods and take to the road. Most people just talk about doing it, of course. Others take the plunge.

Joei Carlton Hossack is one of the latter. She and her husband Paul were living in Toronto when the travel bug bit them so badly they sold their home, furniture, boat and vehicles. He left behind a high-profile job with Merrill Lynch. She closed her wool shop. In 1989 they traveled to England, bought a motorhome and traveled for the next two and a half years.

Anyone who makes such a dramatic shift can expect both skepticism and envy on the part of friends. A couple not yet in their fifties will likely be suspected of having completely given up all pretense of rational thought.

The Hossacks never looked back. From the U.K. they went on to Europe, Africa and North America. They were in northern Germany when, in 1992, Paul was out jogging. The 52-year-old had a heart attack and died. Joei kept on traveling.

Now 71, she is still traveling and has a condo in Surrey, B.C., for her at-home months. She is a prolific writer, whose books include memoirs, travel adventures, and what she calls “Mini Reads”. She publishes articles about her adventures and is frequently the subject of media stories. She is a popular speaker and workshop leader, teaching classes in memoir and travel writing.

It takes a lot of gumption to travel solo for more than 20 years and to build a life and a living out of a spirit of adventure. Joei Carlton Hossack has done it.

OK, take a deep breath and think about that dream you shelved because you had too many responsibilities, were afraid to jeopardize your pension, thought you would fail, or believed you were too old to start. Maybe you set it aside until some magical date when all the stars would align. Hossack is one of those strong lamps who light the dark path between dream and reality. Read her books. Be inspired. Follow your dream.