Compassion and community

June 15, 2015

A past Distinguished Alumni recipient talks to her 2015 successors about converting passion into potential

By Megan Dart (Originally appeared in M Alumni NewsSummer 2015)

There is no single recipe for success. If anything, success is often realized as a result of mistakes made in the kitchen of great ideas: a forgotten ingredient, too much of one, not enough of the other, the tea towel that catches fire when you’ve turned your back for one quick second.

While wildly different in their approaches, there is a common ingredient each of the 2015 Distinguished Alumni share: passion.

Passion for their community. For giving back. For challenging the norm. For seeing potential in themselves, their ideas and the people around them.

They are the movers, the shakers, the doers, the believers, the inspiringly spirited who tirelessly dedicate themselves to creating change.

They, like the alumni before them and surely the alumni to come after, are the heart of their community, the heart of MacEwan.

IMAGE_STORY_Sandra_WoitasSandra Woitas

A guide to blazing trails while wearing sensible shoes

It’s a sunny spring afternoon, one of those rare warm April days in Edmonton’s early green season, the breath of winter still clinging on the breeze outside my living room window.

We’ve been talking for only two minutes, but already I have a page full of notes, my scribbles a list of inspiring nuggets of wisdom from the mouth of a firecracker who blasts contagiously positive energy, even over the phone.

“Listen. All you need to know is this: I’m a woman who wears very sensible shoes. I’m of average intelligence with a great work ethic. And I surround myself with people who are smarter than I am.”

Sandra Woitas (Advertising and Public Relations, 1975) does not believe in “aha moments.” She does believe, however, in hard work, great company and, what she calls, lollipops.

“A friend coined the term,” says Sandra. “And I just love it. Lollipops. It’s about so much more than a single aha moment—it’s the sweet stuff.”

And sweet it is, the saccharine stuff of game-changing, life-affirming success.

With her long list of accolades—the Alberta Centennial Medal, Advocate for Young Children Award, an honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Alberta, Woman of Vision—Sandra marks her time at MacEwan as one of her life’s great lollipops.

“I had a misspent youth. I enjoyed school, just not the academic part — I was a social butterfly. And then I found MacEwan,” she explains. “There, I learned how to be a student, how to study, how to write a paper. I made lifelong friends. My experience there set the tone for everything that was to come.”

A trailblazing volunteer and avid community activist, Sandra’s is a story of countless sweet returns.

Perhaps best known as a champion for disadvantaged children, she was the inaugural principal at Norwood Elementary, an inner-city Edmonton school where she introduced Partners for Kids, a school-based mentorship program that now serves more than 3,700 students in 14 of the city’s schools.

“My time at Norwood taught me never to judge,” she says. “Be kinder than necessary—you don’t know the battles people are fighting. I was surrounded by terrific people—from support staff to administrators to teachers—who came to work every day committed to doing what was best for the kids. Our focus was on changing ‘me’ to ‘we.’”

Whether she’s travelling the province to educate schools and agencies on bullying, or working with the Mental Health Board to build 38 capacity projects, Sandra strongly believes in the spirit of community.

“When people share a common vision, there is no limit to what they can do.”

Though she has since dialled back the 70-plus-hour work weeks that built her storied career, Sandra is still on the hunt for her next great adventure. Her advice?

“Change jobs every five years. Leave at the peak of your performance. Make room for someone else to come in and build on what you’ve started. Make peace with your past. Always be helpful. Do what makes you uncomfortable. And wear sensible shoes.”

IMAGE_STORY_Sorin_MihailoviciSorin Mihailovici

Impossible is nothing: the art of taking risks

Two friends. A map. A dart. The start of something unbelievable.

The grand adventure began with a simple question: what is your idea of a successful life?

Television producer and journalist Sorin Mihailovici (Design Studies, 2008) radiates an exuberance for life. He is a risk taker and an inventor, a man with a million ideas and the heart, drive and willingness to see each—regardless how big, bold and seemingly unattainable—come to life.

It's no surprise that when asked what his idea of a successful life might look like, he had an answer almost immediately.

"A successful life? That will be when I can wake up one morning, gather my family together, and say: 'Hey, where do you want to go this weekend? Let's throw a dart at the world map and travel wherever it lands. We will leave tomorrow.'"

Rather than wait for life to happen, Sorin and his good friend Matt Cook agreed to fulfill their vision of a successful life right then and there. They decided to throw a dart at a map and travel wherever it landed.

"We always say impossible is an opinion," says Sorin. "The light is green until it turns red—there are opportunities everywhere you look to make dreams come true."

And so, Travel by Dart was born. A combination of adventure travel, reality television and philanthropy, Travel by Dart offers charitable support to communities around the world, no matter where the dart lands.

"This is travel with a conscience," explains Sorin. "We are empowering and inspiring people to take action. We want to give back."

Though still in its infancy, Travel by Dart has taken the pair to unlikely locales, including the arctic wilderness of Svalbard, Norway to help save more than 2,700 dying polar bears, and Krasnodarskaya, Russia to bring resources to orphanages and help alleviate homelessness.

"It started with a dream," says Sorin. "We wanted to travel. We wanted to help people. We imagined creating something the community would get excited about. And our vision has seen great success already—the media wants to tell our story, sponsors and partners are willing to help, communities want to get involved. This is the start of something successful."

The Avenue Magazine Top 40 Under 40 alumnus is no stranger to success. In 2011, Sorin founded Scam Detector, an award-winning fraud prevention app cataloguing more than 8oo of the world's most notorious scams across multiple industries.

"It is still one of the most downloaded lifestyle apps in Canada," he says. "I started it because I wanted to help people. Because there was a need.''

Sorin is guided by inspiration. If there is a cause, there is a way. "If you believe in what you want to do, you will do it. The ones who raise the bar do so because of their passion. It is all about the passion. You have the power to make change," he says.

"If Matt had never asked me what my successful life is, I might not be here today. Life will just keep getting better. I know it. There will be something else. There is always something more I can do."

IMAGE_STORY_McManMcMan Youth Family and Community Services Association

Converting passion into potential

Imagine this: a class of Social Work students in the mid-1970s is tasked with designing a youth treatment plan in a home setting. Four classmates, and soon to be fast friends—John Meston (Youth Development, 1976), Norah Cantin (Youth Development, 1975), Rick Newcombe (Youth Development, 1976) and Jim Allers (Youth Development, 1975)—brainstorm ideas for how to innovate the child care scene.

On the last day of class, the four turn an idea into reality. Forty years later, Norah, John and Rick (sadly, Jim passed away several years ago) reflect on the inspiration behind that idea.

“We wanted to do something in the community dedicated to really helping people,” Rick explains. “It just clicked for us.”

Though each of the four MacEwan graduates brought to the table wildly different life experience, they shared one common vision: a passion for caring for youth.

“We all believed young people should be treated with respect,” says John. “Because of this passion, we were creative and innovative in our approach, and we were prepared to do what other organizations couldn’t.”

With little support and next to no funding, the founding four opened the first inner city youth home in Edmonton, a model that would quickly and organically grow to become the McMan Youth Family and Community Services Association, a now province-wide organization dedicated to helping youth and families in need.

“We didn’t take no for an answer,” explains Rick. “There was very little money available when we started. We were turned down for funding again and again. But for every no we heard, we found new ways to succeed. We were tenacious, stubborn and, to a point, naïve to the realities of what we were trying to achieve. We just believed we could do it, and that’s all that mattered.”

And do it they could. Though funding was scarce in the early days, the four had already established a great number of connections in the child care field.

“At the onset, we already had a great number of contacts in the industry thanks to our field placement work at MacEwan,” explains John. “We took our proposal to community leaders and asked: ‘How would you make this better? What would you do differently?’ With that feedback, we were able to fine tune what would become the blueprint for McMan.”

The philosophy of the organization – strongly reflected by a passionate staff that today number more than 1,200 and provides support in 30 communities across Alberta – centres on treating people with respect and dignity.

“The impact the four founders have had on the organization is tangible and lasting,” says Danica Frazer, the current executive director of McMan in Edmonton and Northern Alberta. “They really wanted to do things differently. Their philosophy was simple: they saw the potential in each and every person who came to McMan, and they never gave up on them.”

Much of McMan’s success, now 40 years strong, has to do with seeing people, particularly the difficult-to-serve youth the organization is dedicated to working with, for what they really are: untapped strength and potential.

“We practiced a humanistic, client-centred philosophy that was not unique, yet the manner in which we practiced it was,” explains Norah. “When we worked with youth, we found that they could not all go back into the homes or the care centres which we received them from for various reasons. So, we developed new programs to meet the gaps we saw in services—life-skills–based programs—and supported independent living programs.”

McMan’s trademark brand of tailor-made programming has seen immeasurable success through the youth and families they serve.

“Every day, we hear feedback from the people we work with, and the message is consistent: you didn’t give up on me, you are the only program that still believes in me, you said yes when no one else would,” explains Danica. “And it all began with the vision of our founders.”

“I’m always amazed at how the organization has continued to evolve,” reflects John. “Looking back, I realize we planted the roots for what would grow into a very successful model. And it all started because of the passion we shared for kids.”Heart. Resilience. Love. Compassion. The organization, its staff and the people it serves are living proof that a small group of committed, talented and brave people can convert passion into potential.

IMAGE_STORY_Kim_Wheeler_2Kim Wheeler

The heart of a community

If I don’t care enough about my community to write about it, who will?”

It’s a question award-winning journalist Kim Wheeler (Journalism, 1995) shot back at editors who, in the first decade of her career, cautioned her about “ghetto-izing” herself by writing only indigenous stories.

“I had to fight to get my editors to understand how the stories I wanted to write were actually stories,” says Kim. “A lot of them didn’t see the value in writing about the indigenous community back then. My reply remained the same: If I don’t care enough about my community to write about it, who will? Do you ask that question of sports and entertainment writers?”

An Edmonton Journal intern turned freelance writer, Kim committed to bringing positive indigenous stories to mainstream media at a time when coverage concerning First Nations often centred on crime, or “the first native student to graduate from...”

Though big media has begun to change dramatically over the last few years, Kim knows there is still more work to be done.

“The media is finally starting to pay attention to missing and murdered indigenous women and some, not all, are starting to treat these women as people and not as objects to be dehumanized by their jobs,” Kim explains.

Her unwavering love for and outspoken support of her community, whether in her past role as an editorial assistant with the Canadian Press, or as a writer with CBC, has brought much-needed attention to the countless important narratives intrinsically linked to Canada’s past, present and future.

“I have parlayed my love of my community into a very successful career covering all kinds of indigenous stories for CBC,” Kim says. So far, that successful career has included everything from winning a New York Festivals silver medal for her radio episode of ReVision Quest (“Will Truth Bring Reconciliation”) to creating and producing an indigenous music podcast for three seasons, to producing a newly announced regular network radio show called Unreserved.

As a champion of the indigenous community, Kim works alongside some of Edmonton and Canada’s most notable First Nations influencers.

“Many of my mentors are people who have helped guide me through the community and have taught me about respect and learning within the First Nations culture.”

Those mentors include Lewis Cardinal (also a MacEwan University distinguished alumnus), Jane Woodward (former chair of the MacEwan Native Communications program), and Muriel Stanley Venne, founder of the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women.

“They have all helped me along the path I am on. These three people are incredibly smart, insightful and passionate about their work, culture and community. I am very proud to know all of them.”

Combine their support with Kim’s own fiery innovation, and she is destined for great and inexhaustible success.

And while she continues to carve out her vision for professional success, Kim finds balance in manifesting the good life she shares with her husband and her three successful children.

“As long as they are happy doing what they do, I will feel like I succeeded in guiding them into that frame of mind. Choose to do what makes you happy.”


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