You get what you give

Volunteering is awesome. Maybe it’s my non-profit background talking, but I think everyone wins when you join a committee, sit on a board, or commit to a weekly shift.

A group of people sits around a table

I snapped this photo at the last 2014 Festival du Loup Committee meeting.

I volunteer to support organizations that do work I find valuable. But when I sign up, I know I’ll also get to meet great people, gain valuable experience, learn new things, watch my impact over time, and (big picture) build up my community. Plus there’s that “I’m awesome!” high-fivesque feeling you get at the end of a great event, meeting or project.

There are downsides, of course. My mom taught me that committing to something means giving it your all. Pile a few volunteer roles together (I can’t help myself!) and the result is a packed schedule. When I’m tired, I’d just rather sit on my couch and eat Cheetos.

But in the end, the pros always outweigh the cons, orange puffed cornmeal snacks and all. Especially now that I’m giving back to my community – the place that shaped me before unleashing me on Toronto in my late teens. My recent causes include:

Le Festival du Loup: I’m Franco-Ontarian, and this event brings frenchies like me together for a weekend of live music, beer, dancing and gossip. The tunes are toe-tappingly good – sometimes square-dancingly good. This year’s festival is on July 18, 19 and 20 in Lafontaine. We’re currently looking for sponsors, recruiting artisans, and figuring out how to sell tickets online.

The Midland Cultural Centre: North Simcoe is a secret hub of artistic greatness. We’ve bred authors, painters, musicians and everything in between. The MCC means all those talented people finally have a place to hang out, and an outlet to share their work. If you haven’t been to Saturday Open Mic or visited Quest Gallery, you should. Or better yet, sign up to become a regular box office or event volunteer.

The Georgian’s Got Talent (or not) Benefit Concert: What better way for me to give back to my employer than to help with its annual talent show/benefit concert? I’ll be singing and playing – which, frankly, is terrifying. All proceeds support Georgian College students who need a financial boost to get through school. Performances are on March 20 and 21 and you can buy tickets through Bear Essentials.

There are so many great organizations to get involved with around here, it was really difficult to decide where to direct my occasionally flailing enthusiasm. Some of my other local favourites include La Clé, Shelter Now, Chigamik, Community Reach, Waypoint and United Way of Greater Simcoe County.

Wherever you are, you’ve no doubt got similarly awesome local non-profits just waiting for someone with your skills and talents. If you’ve got time, consider diving in and helping out – you won’t regret it.

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Unlearning what I have learned

Tonight, mom and I went to Hope Lives Here, a fundraiser for the Georgian Bay Cancer Support Centre. The big room was filled with people celebrating cancer patients and survivors – bound together by shared experience.

I was moved by stories of courage, loss and, most of all, hope. I was also a bit overwhelmed by faces from my past.

If you aren’t from a small town, here’s what it’s like: there’s no use hiding in the bathroom when you’re guaranteed to know the woman peeing next to you.

If you were a total misfit and weirdo most of your youth (ahem), this lack of anonymity can be trying. But most of the time, it’s nice to feel connected to those around you. I think that’s what most mean when they use the word community: people who share a common story.

When I first moved to Toronto, I made eye contact with everyone I passed on the sidewalk, talked to anyone I rode more than two floors with in an elevator, and always made friends with seatmates on the subway, whether they smelled like garbage or not.

Fast-forward to now. The chatty salesperson trying to recommend a product makes me want to claw my eyes out. The old lady asking me where I got my coat gives me tappy-foot syndrome.  The waitress who can’t stop talking about the weather is deeply irritating.

My ability to remain disconnected from (or inability to connect with?) people I bump into every day is sad. In the words of Yoda, I must unlearn what I have learned.

This event was a good start. A reminder of the importance of community – in helping people heal, giving us purpose, and bringing our days meaning. I’m going to carry that lesson in my back pocket these next few weeks and see where it takes me.

 

Kansas

Sometimes I feel like Dorothy. Yesterday, I learned that Flynn’s Irish Pub in Penetanguishene becomes Uncle Flynn’s Daycare during business hours.

Huh?

When I hear about stuff like that, I can help but think “Mikaela, you’re not in Toronto anymore.” I’m actually in Kansas. Or what most Torontonians think of as the equivalent of Kansas: Ontario farm country.

Here are two other examples.

1) The other day I asked a colleague from Elmvale where I could drop off my dry cleaning in town. The answer surprised me.

“The gun shop,” she said.

“!??,” I said with my face.

A quick call to her husband, a local tradesman, confirmed it. Watson’s Sports is where you go to get your clothes dry cleaned in my town. While you’re dropping off your silk shirts, you can also pick up a new Ruger and some Hula Poppers. Amazing.

That night I – the pacifist vegetarian – stood in front of the gun shop on Queen Street East with an armload of dirty officewear, looking for some sign that they cleaned clothes.

My eyes found a barely legible, tucked away old placard that either said “French cry leaners” or “French’s dry cleaners.”  I hoped it was the latter and went in.

A man stared me down as I dumped my blouses and trousers on the glass counter – right on top of the ammo. He didn’t offer to help me. Didn’t even bat an eye.

“Do you take dry cleaning?” I asked.

“Yes we do,” he volunteered.

“…?” I said with my face. “I’d like to get these cleaned. How long will it take?”

“Two weeks,” he replied as he slowly moved to fill out a receipt.

I tried not to look shocked (two weeks!?) and walked around the store. I’m pretty sure there was a mounted stuffed dear head behind a rack of camouflage coats. Pray for my favourite blazer.

2) This past weekend was the Elmvale Fall Fair, in all its carnivalesque glory. There are so many reasons to love this event.

For starters, all of the moms and dads with kids at local schools take a day off work to watch their children march in the Friday afternoon parade. Apparently it lasts all of 15 minutes. That, friends, is community.

Then there’s the Saturday afternoon parade, which features pretty much all non-school-aged Elmvalers – everyone from grannies on scooters to farmers on tractors.

Also worth seeing at the fair: the tractor pull, oddest-shaped vegetable, best barley, most beautifully decorated pancake, and of course, the top cow.

This year, my old roomie Steph and I watched a handful of (we thought identical) three-year-old jersey cows walk around in circles and compete for a shiny red ribbon. A dairy farmer sitting next to us explained that judges look for cows with veiny udders and great “angularity” – that means bony.

But what I love most about the fair is that basically every living person originally from Elmvale comes to town, plus several extras like me. We could probably have sold parking spots in our driveway.

This really is a whole other world. My personal Oz.

The eighth oddest shaped vegetable in Elmvale

These cows are for eating, but at the fall fair, they are treated like queens.

These cows are for eating, but at the fall fair, they are treated like queens.

Off her rocker.

Off her rocker.

Mini princesses at the parade.

Mini princesses at the parade.

Elmvale is...

Rural Elmvale is… where we come back

Rural life.

Rural life.

Steph at the top of the ferris wheel

Steph at the top of the ferris wheel

Francophonie

I am privileged to be able to call myself Franco-Ontarian. Yup, that’s a thing. We have a flag and even an unofficial anthem.

My father’s family has been living in Tiny Township, en français, for well over a hundred years. The school at County Road 6 and Concession 12 once had so many Lefaives attending it that they named the intersection after us.

The school at Lefaive's corner. That's right, we have a whole corner.

The school at Lefaive’s corner. That’s right, we have a whole corner.

The Lefaives eat tourtière (well, except me the rando vegetarian), play the fiddle, and wear métis sashes on certain special occasions. My mémère and pépère used interesting expressions like « va don plugger l’canar pour moé, ma belle » which losely translates to « would you plug in the kettle for me, dear? »

Mémère et Pépère, sur les plages de la Baie Georgienne.

Mémère et Pépère, sur les plages de la Baie Georgienne.

I’m proud of my heritage, weird idioms and all. I also applaud and support any effort to keep our language and culture strong. It’s hard work, but it’s important. Sometimes it feels like we are on a rickety french raft — or maybe a birch bark canoe? — in a sea of english, but we keep paddling. Now that I’m local, I’m looking forward to lending my slighlty wobbly paddling arm more often.

At the centre of that canoeing (?) effort is one of my favourite events of the year, le Festival du Loup. Organized by local people, it takes place at the park in Lafontaine: the core of the french community.

The festival was this past weekend, and I was delighted to be able to share it with my « France French » friend Sylvie. We volunteered Saturday morning, donning beautiful yellow smocks and fastening neon orange paper bracelets to people’s wrists at the entrance.

Sylvie, showing off the Festival du Loup volunteer smock.

Sylvie, showing off the Festival du Loup volunteer smock.

Minus a brief stint at the beach, we spent the afternoon and evening listening to live, french music. My cousins Kelly, Jill and Nicole performed as Ariko, my childhood crush and longtime friend Joël Forget played some of his original songs (one of them about me), and JF’s brother Damien Robitaille was the headliner.

Mes cousines, Jill et Nicole Lefaive, en pleine performance.

Mes cousines, Jill et Nicole Lefaive, en pleine performance.

Why do I love this festival so much? Because, in the words of Larry Lalonde, it feels like a great, big family reunion. Folks I grew up with come in from out of town and hundreds of people of all ages living in and around Lafontaine make a point of being there. It’s a great opportunity to catch up on gossip, re-connect with friends, and just enjoy dancing at the heart of a community I know and love.