Category Archives: Guest Stories

All in the Family

You know that satisfying moment in Clue when you find out it was Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with the candlestick? When the mystery that has been dogging the players throughout the entire board game is finally cleared up? For Florence Heene of Belgium, her whole life has been a sort of game of Clue. And last week she finally solved the mystery.

It was Herbert Hellyer, in Ghent, with Florence’s mother.

Florence knows now that she is the daughter of Herbert Hellyer. But for the first 71 years of her life, she had no idea who her dad was. All she knew was that he was a Canadian soldier who’d been temporarily stationed in Ghent, Belgium, during World War II. She thought his first name was Herbert. Her mother got married to someone else when Florence was a baby, and in fact Florence didn’t even know the man raising her wasn’t her biological father until she found the marriage certificate and did the math.

Her mom was unwilling to tell her much. But Florence always yearned to know the truth about her roots.

This past January, she decided to spread the word as far as she could using social media, posting a couple of photos on Facebook along with what little information she had about her birth father. “It is my greatest wish to find out more about Herbert, my biological father: is he still alive or how and when did he die?” she wrote (in Flemish). “Do I have any other (half) brothers or sisters?”

As she was to discover, she has several.

After media picked up the story and circulated the photos worldwide, Herbert’s great-granddaughter in Canada recognized him. She found the matching photo in her mom’s stash of old pictures, and knew without a doubt it was the one-and-same Herbert.

The two families have now been in touch. Herbert, now deceased, had five other children besides Florence, and three of them are still alive. There are also other descendants, and they’ve been completely thrilled to hear about their newfound relative, and exchange messages with her. “It’s amazing, truly amazing,” a granddaughter told CBC news. “We hope to get to meet Florence some day… and try to give her as much information as we can, and welcome her into our family.”

Florence herself posted a note of thanks of Facebook, indicating that she’d received hundreds of messages from folks trying to help. She calls them all “lovely people.”

“We’re very excited. We’re all very happy,” says the granddaughter.


Herbert sent this photo to his Canadian kids while serving overseas, writing on it: “Love from Daddy, XXXXXX.” (Facebook Photo)

What You Read in 2016

Happy January. And welcome back to reality if, like me, you’re just coming off some vacation days, and still blinking the sleep out of your eyes.

Here at 50 Good Deeds, this is the time of the year when we ponder the most popular posts of the previous year (sorry if I accidentally spit in your eye with that highly alliterative sentence). Then we consider the broader meaning, what it says about our world today, and where we’re headed. We spend at least four minutes on that.

The two top stories of 2016 were favoured for, I think, very different reasons. The most-read tale, “Stem Cell Saviour,” told of saving a life with a transplant. The stem-cell donor from Germany and the transplant recipient from Canada seized an opportunity to meet on common ground, and had a fun-filled, joyful visit. It didn’t hurt that the two stars of the story both happened to be highly photogenic. The bloom of good health will do that to you.

The second-most-read post, on the other hand, was bittersweet. “Send Hugs. They Help” shared new research showing that when we share our problems on social media, it tends to elicit supportive, emotional, lengthy comments and messages from our friends – a lot more so than if we’re posting about, say, our recent success in finding the perfect off-off-white paint colour to complement our off-off-off-white upholstery. These messages of support can be a great comfort, surrounding us with care.

I call this story bittersweet because it was dedicated to a little boy whose precious life was abruptly, tragically lost after someone made a sloppy mistake. His family was shattered, but his mom took the time to write: “Every text, [Facebook] message and phone call reminds you that there is light outside of the darkness that exists in our life at the moment.”

What do these two posts have in common – why did you find these both so engaging? The only connection I can draw is that, well, they were about connections. People reaching out to other people. Caring, giving, helping, rescuing. That’s what we do, isn’t it? It’s part of being human.

Let’s continue to be very human in 2017.


Photo by David Castillo Dominici (



Chronic Care

Stephen Wheeler lived with lung cancer for five years before he died. The manufacturing specialist in Rochester, New York, was not known as an extrovert. On the contrary, he was considered shy. But when his family contacted the administrators of his online cancer forum and notified them of Stephen’s death, they got a surprise: 1,000 pages of printouts from his many online discussions, which the administrators prepared for them. As the family learned, Stephen in fact had a lot to say (although he said it as “Ex Rocker,” his forum username).

As Stephen’s wife and two daughters read through the transcripts, they began to realize just what an impact he’d had on other people coping with cancer. His words gave insights, advice and even inspiration. He reached people, and he touched them. He’d had over 100 followers on the forum, plus direct contact from members who sought his guidance – or simply to meet him in person.

One of his fans posted this comment on Stephen’s obituary page: “Some of your words of wisdom will stay with me forever. Sometimes we never know what a difference we make in other people’s lives. I felt moved to write this so that your family and loved ones would know how very far your influence spread, and how you had changed lives.”

Stephen’s daughters are grateful to have this legacy of printouts. They say their dad’s voice shines through. It must feel as though they’ve kept a part of him alive.

“He didn’t feel like he did as much for humanity as he might have liked,” his wife commented in a Stat Magazine article. “If he’d seen the outpouring from people after he died, it’d have bowled him over completely.” Stephen wanted to leave the world a better place. It certainly appears that he did that, in spades.

DCF 1.0

The online follower ended his tribute with: “Rest in peace, Stephen Wheeler, Ex Rocker. And most of all, thank you.” ( / Marcin Farbotko)

Passing the Smell Test

If a guy pulling a pop can off the face of a skunk with his bare hands doesn’t attract attention, I don’t know what would. Sure enough, Ontario’s Mike MacMillan has been fielding dozens of media interviews since posting his skunk-rescue video, “The Bravest Thing I’ve Ever Done,” on YouTube last week. We all silently root for Mike as we watch him cautiously approach the poor skunk, murmuring, “Please don’t spray me… please don’t be upset,” filming with one hand while he reaches out with the other.

What you don’t know from watching the video is that he was smartly outfitted at the time. “I was on my way to meet the mayor of Barrie for a meeting,” says Mike, whose company makes secular, science-based animations and illustrations. “I was dressed in a suit, and not ready to wrestle a skunk!” But he couldn’t turn away, especially after he saw another car come close to running it over. “That’s not a dignified way to die,” says the animal lover. “I had to deal with it.”

Mike is scared of skunks – tell me, who isn’t? – but he valiantly crept close. Once he was able to grip the can, he and the animal worked together to pry it off. Then came the moment of truth. The skunk pulled free, and for a few seconds, he and Mike stared each other down. Would Mike get anointed for his efforts? When I pointed out that getting sprayed would have made it less of a feel-good story, Mike disagreed: “Actually, I think it would have been better! Either way, it was going to be entertaining.”

Was it awkward to assist a skunk and film a video at the same time? “A few people commented that I could have done a better job with a free hand,” Mike says, but confesses: “If I did have a free hand, I would have been using it to protect my face!”

It’s quite a story. But our stinky little friend is not the first of its kind to get its head caught in a can or a cup, nor is Mike the first person to film a rescue and put it up on YouTube. I found at least six more video clips, including a paramedic who puts on a biohazard suit before approaching the skunk, a man who hilariously plays instant frozen statue while the newly freed skunk sniffs his shoe, and a group of dauntless women who don’t give up even after the skunk sprays a little bit. You all have my deep respect. If you want, you can also have my soap.


This is the face of a brave man. (Photo courtesy of Mike MacMillan)


…And this is the face of a skunk: unobstructed, the way nature intended. ( Roberts)

And They Really Do Rock

You know how sometimes you get a warm feeling when you think about a loved one who lives far away? Maybe they’ve been through a personal trial recently and could use a little cheerleading, a sweet note or a gift, a simple gesture to show you’re thinking of them. Your heart swells, your thoughts go out to them… and you get an intense urge to ship them a lump of granite rock.

Or is it just me?

If a gift like that sounds cold to you, let me elaborate. These one-of-a-kind stones are dazzling. They’re all decorated by hand in a gorgeous assortment of colours, using a dot-painting technique that a Nova Scotia resident adapted from an Aboriginal Australian art form.

The self-taught artist behind this project is a schoolteacher named Ginger LeBoutillier. She calls these Travelling Kindness Rocks – and she’ll send them, for free, to those in need of kindness. Trust me, anyone would feel uplifted after receiving one of these in the mail. Especially since it comes with a touching letter explaining why the person is getting a crafty chunk of stone.

The idea was initially inspired by a project Ginger led in her grade 5 and 6 classroom. Eventually, it spilled over into the community. She’s only been at it since August, but to date the rocks have been mailed all over Canada and the United States, to several countries in Europe, and to places as far away as Argentina, Australia and China. This week Ginger is shipping her 200th rock.

Travelling Kindness Rocks have been cherished by individuals dealing with serious illnesses, coping with grief, even battling suicidal thoughts. Typically, people express extreme joy when they learn their loved one will receive a rock.

Ginger loves finding out, often through social media, that a Travelling Kindness Rock has brought someone comfort. She’s usually heard a bit of their difficult backstory. “I feel blessed that I’m welcomed into so many people’s lives, all around the world… I have felt humbled that something I’ve created could mean so much to people,” she says. She adds, “We are all connected, and the TKRs are a physical way of representing this.”

Donations to the project help cover mailing costs. There’s also a lovely pile of merch for sale on the Travelling Kindness Rocks website, with part of the profits going back into the project – so when you shop on the site, you’re paying for these rocks to keep on rolling.

I’m in awe of this lady’s talents. Not only is she a creative teacher and artist, she’s also a mom to a five-year-old, she’s a violinist with her community orchestra, and she apparently has a reliable talent for producing a fresh apple pie. (Mmm… Ginger, do let me know when you’ve expanded to a line of Travelling Kindness Pies… I’ll wait right here.)


(Photo courtesy of Ginger LeBoutillier)

This is How He Scores

Here in Canada, we take our hockey seriously. If a kid is so passionate about the sport that he practises his goalie moves for hours on a patch of ice not much bigger than a welcome mat, well, he ought to play on a team. That’s how 14-year-old Bailey Monteith felt, anyhow, when he saw a Facebook video of Markus Stewart skating on a frozen puddle outside his home in Abbotsford, British Columbia. The 25-second video shows Markus guarding an invisible net and lunging to save imaginary pucks in very real, full-on goalie gear. By the time the CBC shared Markus’s story, his cutie clip had been watched more than 300,000 times. Four days later, it’s at well over half a million views.

The CBC interviewed Markus’s mom and reported that the family, which has five kids, found it a tad financially intimidating to sign everyone up for hockey. (A follow-up story explained that since Markus has epilepsy and has been advised to avoid full-contact sports, joining a hockey team would have meant shelling out for steep fees just to “sit on the bench and… play a little bit.”)

Bailey, who’s as smitten with hockey as Markus, felt driven to help. He started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for registration fees or even a session of goalie camp, noting: “Affordability shouldn’t stop a kid from his or her dreams.” Bailey, who lives in Kamloops, B.C., and has been playing on hockey teams since he was five, told the CBC he wanted Markus to have that same opportunity: “Markus hasn’t had a chance to feel that yet, and I want to give him a chance to feel it.”

The crowdfunding page reached half its $2,000 goal in just half a day, and almost topped $3,500 two days later. That should be more than enough to cover Markus’s ice time. “Thank you so much for your kindness and generosity!” Bailey wrote on the page yesterday. “This experience has been one we will never forget and hopefully inspires others to work hard, practise every chance you get and never abandon a dream.”


There’s no puck, no rink and no opponents, but if you dream big enough, your imagination will fill in the blanks. (Facebook)

Christmas Comes Early (Take That, Cancer)

At this moment I can’t think of anything more desperately poignant than a child close to the end of a short, precious life. But a family, along with the extraordinary townspeople of St. George, Ontario, found a special way to create meaning and hope in a dire situation.

Seven-year-old Evan Leversage has brain cancer, and isn’t expected to live another two months. His mom was determined that, no matter what else happened, Evan would not be denied one last Christmas celebration. So she decided the holiday would arrive two months – in her household, at least.

What she couldn’t have predicted were the lengths her community would go to bring her small son some big festive joy. Houses and storefronts throughout the town were decorated with holiday lights and evergreen boughs. Artificial snow was brought in. And this past Saturday, an unforgettable Santa Claus parade with more than two dozen floats made its way down the town’s main street. (Our little star got to ride with Santa in his sleigh.) St. George has a population of just over 3,000. Yet, somehow, more than twice that number showed up. Evan even received holiday greetings and gifts from people in far-flung places, and from celebrities like the Bieber family and Evan’s personal hero, SpongeBob SquarePants.

“To know there’s that many strangers out there that are sending you positive thoughts… is just mind-blowing,” his aunt told CBC News.

Did all these well-wishers manage to make a difference? Evan’s ear-to-ear smile, captured in images shared around the world, should answer that question. But the event meant more than that to Evan’s family, who had hoped to raise awareness of the needs of other children with cancer, not just their son. “The parade was for Evan, but in our family’s heart, we were thinking about all the other children in the same position,” his mom declared the day after the event. Thanks to the efforts of so many caring people, her hope most certainly will come true.

Ordinarily, I’d be fundamentally opposed to posting a Christmas-themed story in October. But one makes exceptions. (Photo courtesy of markuso /

Ordinarily, I’d be fundamentally opposed to posting a Christmas-themed story in October. But one makes exceptions. (Photo courtesy of markuso /

Kindraising the Stakes

Today I want to spotlight a Toronto-area student who’s already got herself a full-time career. Here’s what I assume Hannah Alper’s resume looks like. Job title: Eco-warrior. Special interest: Saving the environment. Activities: Motivational speaking, repping organizations like Me to We and Free the Children, spearheading Earth Hour activities, giving media interviews, and passionately blogging to raise awareness. She’s even served in her school parliament.

Unbelievably, Hannah is only 12. At this rate, by the time she’s 20, she’ll have the rainforests repopulated, the ozone layer repaired and the oceans fully restored to their natural equilibrium.

Child activists are inspiring because they’re earnest, and focused. They’re exceedingly fair-minded and will go to great lengths to defend an underdog – in this case, poor old battered Mother Earth. And because they’re kids, they brim over with seemingly limitless energy. It means they get a lot of meaningful stuff done.

Hannah has invented a word for what she and other good-hearted children do. She calls it kindraising. Unlike fundraising, it doesn’t involve throwing money at a problem and imagining it will go away. Rather, it involves throwing acts of kindness at a problem, maybe even love and hugs, and waiting around to see what sticks.

You can learn more about Hannah, her work and her ideas here. And if and when kindness comes flying your way… take it from me, don’t duck.

It’s not all glamour. In her off hours – although I can’t imagine she has many of them – Hannah isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Here she is, picking up trash like a trouper. (Photo courtesy of the Alper family)

It’s not all glamour. In her off hours – although I can’t imagine she has many of them – Hannah isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Here she is, picking up trash like a trouper. (Photo courtesy of the Alper family)

The Snake Whisperer

When psychology student Marissa Bowsfield heard rumours of a ball python on the loose near her university campus, she felt driven to rescue it. Burnaby Mountain, British Columbia, isn’t exactly a native habitat for the cold-blooded creature, so the snake’s odds of surviving on its own were bleak. Get this: Marissa tracked the animal, without a haz-mat suit, found it on a mountain trail, by choice, and then, using her actual hands, carried it back to her residence on campus. She fed it water and warmed it up, with plans to bring it to an exotic-animal rescue organization.

Believe it or not, it’s the second time Marissa has saved a snake recently. She caught another python earlier in the summer. A local paper reports that four snakes have been found here so far, raising suspicion that they’ve all been let loose and abandoned by one individual. So there may be several more of these reptiles slithering around. (Why am I smiling right now? Because I don’t live anywhere near Burnaby Mountain. Currently, that fact pleases me.)

Marissa shrugged off her bravery. “If it was something else, like maybe a giant spider, I wouldn’t have acted the way I did, but snakes are okay,” she told CBC news. For me, it would be a toss-up. I might choose the giant spider.

Then again, I might choose to stay home.

Here’s hoping someone rounds up the rest of the pythons… for the snakes’ sake. Yeah, that’s it. Only thinking of the snakes. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Valks /

Here’s hoping someone rounds up the rest of the pythons… for the snakes’ sake. Yeah, that’s it. Only thinking of the snakes. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Valks /

A Light in the Heart

Meet Amber. She’s a reader here at 50 Good Deeds. Amber started paying attention to this blog because, in her words, “I wanted to hear about the good in this world, not just the bad that we gather from every news broadcast.” As we all know, there’s oodles of good to talk about. And now this young woman, a psychiatric nurse in Kitchener, Ontario, has her own story of kindness to share.

Amber was bustling between haircut appointment and social appointment, when she stopped to fuel up at a fast-food restaurant. She chatted and joked with the middle-aged server, a woman named Amelia, who eventually remarked: “I like how you are comfortable with who you are.” And Amelia proceeded to put sugar where her mouth was: she augmented Amber’s lunch with a cookie, on the house. Was that because she liked the new haircut, Amber wanted to know – it had come up in conversation, after all. “No,” Amelia responded. “It’s because I like your personality.”

That comment resonated with Amber, who received it as high praise. “I have never had a stranger give me such a warm, genuine compliment,” she told me. “It has stuck with me all week. Not just the compliment itself, but how she placed such value on the things that really matter in this world.”

Amber truly believes that recognizing a woman’s inner character is much more meaningful than any comment about her looks. She said as much in the letter she dropped off to Amelia a few days later, along with a gift to thank her for the “personality cookie,” as she calls it. “In a world that is constantly trying to convince women that the most important thing, the only important thing, is our outer appearance, it is so refreshing and meaningful that you appreciated my personality – ultimately, my sense of self,” she wrote in her note to Amelia. “Thank you again for being so friendly, warm, generous, and open with a stranger. Thank you even more for encouraging me to be the best version of myself and for giving me a sincerely genuine compliment.”

I’ve been thinking about Amber’s reaction and how much this interaction meant to her. I confess there’s not a lot I remember from my university days, but I do remember which dates called me “interesting” instead of pretty. They stood out. Clearly, it’s because what they said meant more to me. So I see Amber’s point. As Khalil Gibran wrote: “Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.” A light in the heart is a very fine thing to strive for.

Want some help coming up with compliments that have nothing to do with the way someone looks? Check out this post by journalist Rachel Hills, author of the new book The Sex Myth, with 27 different ideas to get you started.

Amber, you have exceptionally readable handwriting. That’s a true compliment.

Amber, you have exceptionally readable handwriting. That’s a true compliment.