Category Archives: Guest Stories

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.

Road Test

All good deeds are important, and necessary, and celebrated. But saving a life is surely an act that ranks slightly above all the rest, sort of like the exquisite steam that rises above a really fine cup of coffee.

Lexi Shymanski saved two lives this summer. The tiny girl in Prince George, British Columbia, is only five years old, but here’s how it played out: Her mother got drowsy behind the wheel of the family’s SUV – that’s a road hazard associated with playing lullabies on the car stereo system – and their vehicle went suddenly off the road, down a long embankment and into a tree.

Lexi’s mom, Angela, was knocked out. Baby Peter was crying, and Lexi woke up from her nap wondering what the heck had just happened. She assessed the situation, figured out how to get out of her car seat (only the second time she’d ever performed that particular trick), and climbed 12 metres up to the main road to wave down a driver.

Angela is now recovering from multiple spinal fractures. Baby Peter had a small brain bleed, but luckily he’ll be fine. Lexi is struggling with nightmares. But the little girl is secure in the knowledge she was able to rescue her own family.

Her mom told CBC news that she asked Lexi how she’d known what to do. Lexi’s response: “I thought, what would Mommy say if she was awake… Mommy would say, go get help.”

Angela has always emphasized “teaching her independence and teaching her the difference between bad strangers and good people, good strangers.” I wonder if this mom ever had any inkling that her own life, and that of her children, might depend on these very lessons.

By the way, both parents have been off work as the family recovers. If you feel moved to support them, their fundraising page is here.

(Photo courtesy of seaskylab /

(Photo courtesy of seaskylab /

Morris, Who Works Like a Dog

It’s devastating to lose a loved one. People who are in the business of funeral arrangements understand that.

Dogs, on the other hand, don’t. Maybe that’s why Morris, a Polish-lowland-sheepdog-cum-funeral-director in Alberta, can get away with teasing a grin out of even his most distraught clients.

The rest of us, when confronted by someone who is grieving, might offer murmured words of condolence, perhaps a comforting hug. We’d be solemn.

Yet Morris doesn’t hesitate to capitalize on his own cuteness. At the Baker Funeral Chapel south of Edmonton, he eagerly trots over to the saddest visitors, offers up his shaggy sweet face and his large hazel eyes, and induces them to scratch his ears – and break into a smile.

All in a day’s work at the funeral home, co-owned by Jason and Allie Wombold.

The Wombolds adopted four-year-old Morris only a month ago. The family that had raised him since puppyhood were dealing with a busier lifestyle, and Morris needed more attention than they could give him. “We brought him home and immediately fell in love with him,” Jason told me.

The Wombolds probably weren’t sure what to expect when they brought their new pup into the workplace with them. But he got into his groove straight away. His unofficial new title could be Chief of Cheering Up. “He seems to know who to go to, and when to go,” Allie remarked in this news story.

“He provides an unconditional calmness to the grieving families,” Jason says. “He truly is a comfort dog… Morris doesn’t care what kind of day you’ve had, he just wants to be your friend.”

Meanwhile, Morris has turned into a bit of a local celebrity; his story has been covered in the paper, local TV news and on the radio. Jason joked to one reporter about putting Morris in a funeral-home-issue suit and tie, since they’re now bringing him to work every single day. “He’d probably love to wear that.”

And we’d love to see that. Wouldn’t we, readers? (I’m betting it would be even more charming than a cat in a shark suit riding a Roomba. But that’s just my opinion.)

Right now you’re smiling too, aren’t you? I rest my case.

Right now you’re smiling too, aren’t you? I rest my case.

A Bridge is Built

In February, I wrote about the brief 2002 encounter between Mark Henick and Mike Richey on a bridge in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Here’s the synopsis: Teenager Mark was preparing to end his life. Youth worker Mike saved it. They separated, but neither person ever forgot the other.

Over time, Mark healed, then went on to change other lives – and likely save a good many – through his work with the Canadian Mental Health Association.

It’s a ripple effect of unknowable proportions.

Twelve years after they met on a bridge, Mark and Mike reconnected over the Internet. Mark read a long, emotional emailed letter from Mike, then publicly shared a desire to reunite with his rescuer in person.

It finally happened. Earlier this month, the two men were face to face once again. This time, they were both smiling.

Mark used the word “closure” the describe what the reunion has meant to him. As for Mike, he was all about the hugging. “It wasn’t about words or anything like that,” he told a CBC reporter. “If I could have went back in time and given that young boy a hug when he needed it, that would have been awesome. But I still got to do it at the end of the day.”

Now that the two have found each other again, I have a feeling they’ll remain friends. After all, they share a common purpose in their professional lives. They’re both helping people in need. And even by spreading the story of their most personal moment 12 years ago on a bridge, they are surely making a difference. They’re sending a message.

Yes, it gets better.

There may be a hug in it for you, too.

Very Warm and Very Fuzzy

By the time she died, she had eight names. That alone should tell you she was pretty special.

Aileen Genevieve MacDougall Stewart Hilchey Alison Pyke Brown was my friend Judi’s beloved mom. She died a month ago. In her 98 years, she’d been given up for adoption, raised by a new family, and married twice… which accounts for all the names. She was known to be an extremely gifted knitter, quilter and seamstress, creating all kinds of beauty with her hands.

These were skills she made a point of passing down to Judi and her sister Heather as they were growing up. “Neither of us is as talented as she was,” Judi admits. But Judi says Heather in particular has invested a lot of time in working with and spinning wool, resulting in some strikingly lovely pieces.

As Aileen aged, her eyesight failed and she developed arthritis in her hands. Sadly, these changes marked the end of her knitting days. Because she also felt the cold more easily, she was constantly in need of a wrap or a shawl. But thanks to daughter Heather, Aileen was kept well supplied. “Heather would make her shawls from hand-woven yarns with different textures,” Judi says. “With the blindness, the feel of objects became extremely comforting to my mom. She loved the feel of soft, cuddly things.” Heather’s hand-made garments were particularly special: “The combination of yarns was chosen with care and love.”

Thus it was a stab to the heart when, after Aileen died last month, her most gorgeous, custom-created, hand-spun shawl was inadvertently sent to the nursing home’s central laundry – and run through a commercial washing machine. Long story short: The shawl was ruined. “It came out as felt,” says Judi.

Devastated, my friend came awfully close to throwing the whole mess away. But then she hesitated. Judi has a bird-nest helper in her back yard – a cute, crafty wrought-iron holder of colourful yarn scraps, available for the busy birds who are building their spring homes.

Instead of discarding the fluffy blobs of shawl, Judi stuffed the pieces into the nest helper.

Why did she do it? “I don’t know if I have an answer,” Judi says. “Just, when I held the shawl in my hands and was about to throw it out, I thought that Mom loved the birds, and would want to share with them.”

I never met Judi’s mom. But even to me, this feels right. Aileen’s shawl may no longer be keeping her warm, but parts of her special garment will go on to help nurture new life.

We never really disappear.

If you live in London, Ontario, keep an eye on your backyard trees. You may spot some of these fluffy bits in a new bird’s nest or two.

If you live in London, Ontario, keep an eye on your backyard trees. You may spot some of these fluffy bits in a new bird’s nest or two.

A Close Shave

When our kids get into accidents, it feels as though our hearts have been ripped from our bodies, turned inside out, stuffed full of nails and used in a game of tackle football.

Actually, it feels a lot worse than that.

So you can imagine the agony my Canadian-Dutch friend Ella experienced last month, as she waited for her son to get through emergency brain surgery in Groningen, Netherlands.

Ten-year-old Reuben had been happily playing with his friends when he suddenly fell eight feet from a ladder, receiving a very hard knock to the head and bleeding around his brain. (Doctors said later that had his operation been delayed by just five minutes, he wouldn’t have survived.) It was a horror show – but one with an extremely happy ending. In the days after the surgery, as Reuben was gradually weaned from an array of tubes, bandages and monitors, it became clear that the little boy was recovering.

Naturally his parents were overjoyed and relieved at the outcome. But Reuben wasn’t so happy with his less-than-stylish new look. The left side of his face was bruised and swollen, an entire hemisphere of his head had been shaved, and an enormous incision, laced with dark stitches, curled around his scalp.

After he got home, Reuben opted to have the rest of his head shaved – what choice did he have, really? – but was still distressed over his reflection in the mirror. So, naturally, his mom stepped up. She told her son he could cut off her hair, too. All two-feet-plus of it.

It worked. “When I told him he could shave my hair off, his face lit up completely. One of his first moments of genuine happiness since his accident,” Ella told me. As Reuben operated the electric shaver on his mom’s head, he “was all smiles,” she said. “Afterwards, he sat by me for the longest time, resting his head on my shoulder.”

“I would do anything for my children and people I love,” this devoted mother reported. “Doing this for my son was the ultimate ‘I love you, support you and will do anything for you’ gesture I could think of to show Reuben.”

Ella is no stranger to radical haircuts – she has been growing and donating her hair, over and over, almost her whole adult life – but this was different. “This was the first time in over twenty years of cutting my hair that I didn’t donate it,” she noted. “This was just for my son.”

Today, Reuben is still recuperating. His mom is staying by his side, helping him with jigsaw puzzles, and baking chocolate cookies upon request.

I don’t know whether they’ve spent any of their together time online-shopping for matching scarves or hats (possibly toques, with a nod to Ella’s Canadian heritage) to cover up their buzz cuts. But it doesn’t matter.

We know their hearts already match perfectly.