Category Archives: Ideas

From Paradise, Nova Scotia, to Champagne, Yukon… We Welcome You

I mostly avoid discussing things like politics, religion and sebaceous glands on this blog. Some topics are simply too divisive, and this is a place for connection. But I don’t know anyone who is untouched by the stories of anguished families in desperate need, no matter where they come from or whom they pray to.

I’m gladdened by the open-hearted response of the Canadian community in the midst of a global crisis. We want people to be safe. We want them to feel welcome. And we want them to be able to cope with our challenging, yes-blizzards-do-blow-sideways Canadian winter.

I’m also impressed by the boundless creativity of Canadians when it comes to finding original ways to support the cause. For instance, a newlywed couple called off their fancy wedding reception, used the money to support a family of refugees, and asked wedding guests to do the same in lieu of eight-piece bakeware sets. Writer colleagues of mine have organized an upcoming evening of readings, music and silent auction. Two women in my community are offering surprise grab bags of novels – guaranteed to be good reads, they promise. (I’ve ordered two. If you’re itching to know the titles, I’ll report back.) My daughter’s class is collecting warm coats to distribute to new families, in the hopes that icy blasts of snow need not be another burden for them to bear. Here’s one that sounds even more fun than the surprise books: surprise dinner. That event was put together by a youth group in Stratford, Ontario.

Why are Canadians such divergent thinkers? Is it because we’re accustomed to outsmarting snowdrifts, or planning just the right angle for that slapshot, or tracking down the nearest Tim Hortons, or [insert another Canadian stereotype here]?

Fun fact: In a report called (rather unoriginally, I think) the Global Creativity Index, Canada just ranked fourth in the world. Apparently we score well because our country is good at embracing diversity, which in turn helps our productivity, competitiveness and economy.

I say it also helps our capacity to support newcomers. Canada, you go.

CoatDonation

A donated coat: Sharing the warmth, literally. (Using the word “literally,” correctly.)

Turkey Day Tidings

Have you emerged from this weekend feeling like you’re the butterball? Canadian Thanksgiving will do that to you. But if you spent time sharing a festive meal with loved ones, wasn’t it worth sacrificing a belt hole or two? To mark the holiday, we at 50 Good Deeds present you with six fun facts about Thanksgiving and giving thanks.

1. Experts say Thanksgiving is one of our most chill national holidays. Compared to other holidays that involve a string of social obligations, a vulgar amount of gift-shopping, or potential long drives through blizzards, there’s not much to stress us out at Thanksgiving. Really, you might spend a few minutes fretting over whether the brined method truly is best, but that’s about it. Hey, we even get a long weekend.

2. There are 531 turkey farmers in Canada. They supply Canadians with over three million whole turkeys at Thanksgiving time. The scope of the tofurkey industry is a little less clear.

3. Cranberries were used as a symbol of peace by certain Aboriginal groups in North America. In our family, it still works: Pass the cranberry sauce and pipe down.

3. If you’ve ever experienced a post-Thanksgiving-dinner food coma, don’t blame the tryptophan in turkeys. Scientists say it’s more likely a result of the obscene amount of calories you’ve just taken in, or the alcohol (or both, we’re all saying to ourselves right now).

4. “Thank you” comes from the same root word as “think,” and implies that you’ll remember fondly this kindness that’s been done to you. In Portuguese, obligato roughly means, “I owe you one.” In Finnish, kiitos is from the same word for praise. When you thank someone in Finland, you’re actually saying, “Praise be to you!”

5. When you express thanks to someone who’s done you a favour, you increase the likelihood that they’ll help another person. When you bring someone a thank-you note, your own happiness level rises. When you send a thank-you note to a hiring manager after an interview, you’re more likely to land the job. Thanking people pays off.

6. In the Middle Ages, turkeys were commonly referred to as turkey coqs. That is all.

I’ll leave you with this quote, sourced out by an 11-year-old at our Thanksgiving dinner party, and read aloud to guests: “Be thankful for what you have. Your life, no matter how bad you think it is, is someone else’s fairy tale.” It’s food for thought. And it might make a more lasting impression than the turkey leftovers.

Something’s missing. Oh, yes, it’s milk, eggs, spices and 45 minutes in the oven.

Something’s missing. Oh, yes, it’s milk, eggs, spices and 45 minutes in the oven.

Take a Seat, Buddy

Grown-ups have the office water cooler. Animals have their watering hole. Writers, well, I suppose writers have bars.

Now school kids have the buddy bench.

What do these all hubs have in common? They’re gathering places. Folks seek them out when they’re looking for company. They’re where you can chat about the game last night, or complain about the traffic this morning – or, in the case of third-graders, perhaps compare notes on the latest Pixar movie.

And just kick a ball around.

The buddy bench is a recess hangout for lonely kids who want to make friends. Think of it this way: The buddy bench is a (bigger) variant of the spare-penny tray, the one you used to see at the store checkout counter. Need a friend? Take a friend. Have a friend? Give a friend.

I don’t know who thought of this first. But I do know it was brought to our continent by a grade-one student named Christian in York, Pennsylvania. He saw an online photo of a friendship bench on a German playground, thought it was wunderbar, and lobbied his own school to install one. The bench has since been added to an ever-increasing number of playgrounds across North America.

It came to Rick Hansen Public School near Toronto, and school parent Rachel Stewart was so delighted by the idea that she’s started a crowdfunding campaign to get the benches into dozens of other Ontario schoolyards.

She knows they can make a difference. Rachel’s had to move her son Owen to a new city and school three times. She’s seen how hard he’s worked to establish new friendships each time. The buddy bench helps eliminate barriers.

Hear how Owen tells it on her crowdfunding page: “When I was new, I sat there and someone came to me and asked me to play. I felt happy. And now when I see kids on it, I ask them to play with me… We all do.”

Need a buddy, take a buddy.

Unlike a penny, it’s priceless.

There’s always room for more: Owen is happy to scootch over.  (Photo courtesy of Rachel Stewart)

There’s always room for more. Owen is happy to scootch over. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Stewart)

Dear Future Mom: It’s All Good

It started when a pregnant Italian woman reached out to her country’s national Down syndrome support organization. She had learned her baby would be born with the disorder, and didn’t know what that would mean for the future. “I’m scared,” she wrote. “What kind of life will my child have?”

In a spectacular case of show-don’t-tell, the support organization opted not to write back with pamphlets and statistics, and all the answers to all the FAQs. Instead, the group decided to create a video demonstration of how beautiful the child’s life could be.

“Dear Future Mom, don’t be afraid. Your child will be able to do many things,” explain a series of smiling, attractive, confident and capable men, women and children with Down syndrome. They proceed to give examples of all the things people with Down syndrome can do – go to school, get a job, travel – while standing in front of their bookshelves, laptops and hip cityscapes. And then, importantly, they note: “Your child can be happy. Just like I am. And you’ll be happy too.”

At the end of the video, they all hug their moms… who are all, without exception, smiling broadly. (Yes, okay, I got teary, so what?)

It’s a fabulous idea, so worthy of its 6.5 million views on YouTube to date.

And as I write about this, I’m contemplating the messages that I could have benefited from, if they’d been told to me while I was pregnant. “Dear Future Mom, don’t be scared,” the people in video would have said to me. “Yes, your child will throw tantrums. She will experience diaper malfunctions. She will suffer through ear infections and bullying.” They would go on to say: “When she’s a teenager, she’ll go to parties, and she’ll ride in cars driven by high school students. And you won’t ever fall sleep until she’s home.” And then the people in that video could have provided that same exact much-needed reassurance: “Dear Future Mom,” they would have said to me. “Your child will be happy. And you’ll be happy, too.”

No matter what our kids’ differences, all new moms could use a boost in confidence. How fabulous that this group of individuals has put so much effort into helping one expectant parent (and likely countless others, too) to feel uplifted.

Dear Future Mom: It won’t be long at all before your smile looks this huge…

Dear Future Mom: It won’t be long at all before your smile looks this huge…


…And one day, when your child is all grown up, you too will take selfies with this much joy in them…

…And one day, when your child is all grown up, you too will take selfies with this much joy in them…

When Client Doubles as Creative Muse

We all have moments when we get a little testy on the job, especially when high-maintenance clients ask for the impossible (or highly improbable). But if you’re the creative type, you channel your frustration into something less like hypertension and more like art.

That’s what a group of graphic designers in Ireland did, taking some of the most ridiculous feedback their clients had ever given them (um, you want the pig to look sexier? And the snow to look warmer? And you’re not even kidding a little bit?) and crafting it into eye-catching, ingenious posters. The series, called “Sharp Suits” – even that makes me laugh – was exhibited at an Irish gallery.

It’s worth browsing through some of the hilarious end products. Poster themes include (remember, these are real comments from actual clients): “I really like the colour but can you change it,” “I’m just not sure that a globe and passport represents travel,” and “I know you said the TV ad would be ‘animated’ but that’s a cartoon!”

The best part is that all of these illustrious (if exasperated) illustrators ended up helping a worthy cause. Gallery-goers could order prints of any posters that caught their eye, and all profits were donated to a children’s hospital in Dublin.

Next time you’re vexed on the job, take a few deep breaths, and try to find the funny in it.

And just be thankful that no one is asking you to make a pig look sexier. At least, I hope they’re not.

On the outside, she’s smiling. On the inside, she’s damning her clients and all their descendants to a house full of pismires and spiders. (Photo courtesy of AscensionDigital / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

On the outside, she’s smiling. On the inside, she’s damning her clients and all their descendants to a house full of pismires and spiders. (Photo courtesy of AscensionDigital / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The Real Reason I’m a Yummy Mummy

When I was growing up, there was a dinnertime rule we four kids all followed. At some point during the meal, we had to tell our mom the food was good. Whether we actually liked it (thankfully, we usually did) or not was irrelevant. What mattered was that we acknowledged the time and effort my mother had put into preparing yet another complete, nourishing dinner for her family of six. It’s no mean feat.

Fast forward a few years, and we’ve put this guideline into place in our own household, where I do most of the cooking. We encourage gratitude. Heck, you don’t even have to tell me it’s delicious (mind you, it usually is). Just say thank you – for taking the trouble to throw together something that both is reasonably edible and covers off on all the major food groups.

Remember that Family Guy episode in which title character Peter muses aloud that wife Lois must love cooking and cleaning – because, after all, she’s constantly doing it? Lois swiftly sets him straight. She doesn’t love it. She doesn’t even like it. She does it because she loves her family. Now, doesn’t that deserve some acknowledgement?

Does another person cook for you on a regular basis? Go tell them how much you appreciate it. They’ll enjoy hearing it, and I guarantee it will turn back in your favour… who knows, you may find yourself with a little extra dessert chocolate pudding.

Yum. Some images are rather more fun to photosource than others. (Photo courtesy of hyena reality / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Yum. Some images are rather more fun to photosource than others. (Photo courtesy of hyena reality / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Say Hello to Eye Phone

On January 15, a new app called Be My Eyes launched around the world. This is an app whose success depends entirely upon the goodwill of total strangers.

According to Forbes, for an app to do well, it’s got to be a great product. (Well, duh.) You also need a solid marketing plan. It shouldn’t overlook niche markets. And ideally, the app should work best when users rope in their entire social networks (which explains those endless streams of requests I get to play Candy Crush Saga). For the most part, I found this Forbes article illuminating (although ultimately not worth the seeping wound I sustained on my brain after learning there are apps called Zit Picker, Yo Mama and iFart).

The article failed to mention the bit about goodwill and strangers.

Thelle Kristensen, co-founder and CEO of Be My Eyes in Denmark, is not at all worried.

Be My Eyes is an innovative way for sighted people to loan their vision to blind people –anywhere in the world. It works like this: If you happens to be blind and want to know the expiry date on a yogurt container, or the contents of a soup can – small tasks if you can see, impossible tasks if you can’t – you can use the app to signal thousands of sighted volunteers. When someone responds, the two of you are connected by live video. Now all you have to do is show the volunteer what you want to see, and the volunteer answers your questions. Thank you and goodbye. (Both helper and user can rate each other afterwards, for everyone’s protection.)

It’s brilliant. Obviously, a lot of other people agree. Over 7,800 blind users and close to 100,000 sighted helpers have joined the Be My Eyes community, and those numbers are rising steadily. More than 20,000 acts of kindness have been performed in the twelve days since the app launched.

In other words, goodwill not a problem. “When we started Be My Eyes, our immediate response was that people were willing to help,” Thelle told me, “especially when they experienced how easy it was, and how big a difference they could make in a short period of time.” Bingo. I’m a huge fan of lazy good deeds. Making an impact without much effort? It only means you’re more likely to go out and do it, again and again. Thelle is surely onto something.

And it is making an impact. “We knew that the relief of not being a ‘burden’ to a specific person was a great value proposition to the blind users,” Thelle added. In other words, most blind people would really like to not have to knock on their neighbour’s door for the fifth time today just to ask for help. (Hear more about this from inventor and co-founder Hans Jørgen Wiberg, who himself has a vision disability, at this TED Talk presentation in Copenhagen.)

Thelle noted: “The feedback has been tremendous since the launch, and people are pitching in with ideas and developing further on the app from all around the world.”

So it’s not much of a gamble after all, is it? If you want to be part of this world community, you can download the app here. (If, like me, you’re not part of the iPhone tribe, you can sign up to wait for the Android version, here.)

Now there’s really no excuse for ignoring those calorie counts on the product labels. (Photo courtesy of Be My Eyes)

Now there’s really no excuse for ignoring those calorie counts on the product labels. (Photo courtesy of Be My Eyes)

KISS Principle: Keep It Simple, Sweetheart

I was super happy to be a part of Craig and Marc Kielburger’s “Brain Storm” column for The Globe and Mail a few weeks ago. The co-founders of Me to We and Free the Children canvassed a few kindness experts – including me – about injecting more common courtesies into our day-to-day routines. I talked about the importance of keeping your eyes and ears open, since it’s my belief that there are countless opportunities to do good deeds, just as long as you’re on the lookout for them. (And, yes, I did refer to doggie-doo in a national newspaper!)

Then the Kielburgers asked readers to weigh in online, and some of their ideas were published in the newspaper’s January 2 edition. Inspiring? I’d say. A common theme here was simplicity: Smile at strangers. Hold the door. Give compliments. A schoolteacher suggested a stronger focus on kindness in the classroom. Another reader talked about the value of warm, active listening (without glancing distractedly at your smartphone!). Someone suggested reminding people close to you how much they’re loved.

One woman shared this thought: “I believe we should speak our minds in a positive way more freely to strangers we meet in our everyday life. Comment when you feel they have said or done something that you respect or just let people know that you appreciate their positive energy.”

That’s what I had in mind when I thanked a bus driver, last week, for waiting a few extra seconds after he dropped off a frail lady on a snowy sidewalk. He wanted to make sure she was walking safely before he sped off. As for me, I wanted him to know I wasn’t impatient about getting to my own stop – and, in fact, appreciated his compassion.

How about you, smart and lovely people? What ideas do you have for adding more acts of kindness to an ordinary day? We’d love to hear them.

A dog waste receptacle in Germany. My question is, how do you keep your dog from wriggling while you hold his hind end over the bin? (Photo courtesy of Mister GC / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

A dog waste receptacle in Germany. My question is, how do you keep your dog from wriggling while you hold his hind end over the bin? (Photo courtesy of Mister GC / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Many Happy Returns

“I wondered if you could help please?” This is the message that a young English woman posted on 50 Good Deeds last week.

Vikki George recently turned 30 years old. Just two days ago, in fact. But although 30 is a milestone birthday, I’m guessing she’s not all that hung over. Her birthday celebration will have been pretty tame. That’s because instead of chugging beers in a bar somewhere, Vikki was opening greeting cards… in bed.

Vikki has had a severe form of chronic fatigue syndrome for 13 years. Most of the time, she feels unwell and stays in her bedroom. But Vikki, who lives an hour outside of London, is an innovator. This young woman who rarely leaves home has found a unique way to make a difference to others.

In the months leading up to her big birthday, Vikki has been working on a blog called My 30 Wishes. It’s a list of 30 wishes for her 30 years. Most of her so-called “wishes” are actually good deeds, like donating blood, giving away flowers or supporting disadvantaged children. And Vikki figures since she’s too ill to do these herself, perhaps other people will do them – sort of as her stand-ins. Hence the message posted to 50 Good Deeds, asking for help to spread the word.

Vikki’s been a busy birthday gal. She’s even started a charitable service, Post Pals, to collect mail for children with chronic illnesses. (She loved getting mail when she was feeling miserable, and wants to help put smiles on other kids’ faces.)

Happy birthday, Vikki! Thanks for passing on the love. And because we aim to be fair here, we’re giving a shout out to this Deck of Good Deeds Cards initiative, also posted recently on 50 Good Deeds (I’m such a sucker for “please spread the word” entreaties). This set of cards is preprinted with good deed ideas for kids to complete. As the creators declare on their Kickstarter page, “Will this deck solve every problem there is? No, but it’s a damn good start!” Folks, it’s all about keeping it in perspective – yet keeping it positive.

Be merry, be joyful, be with friends and family. It’s what these special times are all about. See you in 2015.

Be merry, be joyful, be with friends and family. It’s what these special times are all about. See you in 2015.

I Thought Every Day was Giving Day

First there was Black Friday. Then came Cyber Monday. If you’re not clean out of cash yet, today is Giving Tuesday.

Never heard of it? This charity-driven concept was only launched two years ago. It seems to be catching on. Ostensibly, it’s a day to kick off the so-called giving season. (And that’s giving as in a goat to a third-world village, not as in cashmere-lined gloves to your fitness instructor.)

Then there’s the kind of giving that’s priceless. I was moved by a recent news item about a heart donation. The family of a 21-year-old American man who had lost his life in a fire decided to give his heart to a sick Vietnam war veteran. (They also donated organs and tissues to 59 other patients. Staggering.)

The war vet in question, who’s no spring chicken, had already been turned down for a transplant by five hospitals. So I don’t imagine there are words for what this gift meant to him.

Who needs words? Eight months after the transplant, the recipient gave an unforgettable gift back to the donor family. He allowed them to listen to their loved one’s heart, fully alive and beating, inside his chest.

Furthermore, the transplant patient and donor family all said yes to the exchange being videotaped and broadcast, just so they could spread awareness about the critical importance of organ donation.

With all that giving, I can only guess how many more lives they have saved.

Grab the tissues and watch the video here.