Everyone has a life trajectory. But a pandemic can change that. A lot.
For FAJO’s 20 Stories of 2020 series, I interviewed people from various Canadian cities, who shared how their lives transformed since COVID-19 spread around the world.
Let me be very clear and transparent from the start: for the first time in my 19-year career, I bypassed the journalistic “conflict of interest” for the sake of getting a good story. What you will see in this series are interviews with people I know – friends, past colleagues, acquaintances, long-time business contacts – as well as those who would qualify as regular “sources” (i.e. someone I have never actually met and don’t know). I did extensive research for almost a month and reached out to anyone whose recent activities fascinated me. Some of my interviewees put me in touch with the other people they knew who were doing great things. The network grew, and here we are. Originally, this was only meant to be a list of 20 stories, but we will have many more, and here is part one.
The theme that unites it all is simple: amidst a negative situation that, let’s face it, is very much focused on death, could we instead look at the positive stories that come out from it all? How do we all cope? How do we persevere? What are the creative channels we explore?
Every person below was asked three questions:
- How has COVID-19 changed your life?
- Have you undertaken any new projects/initiatives?
- How has this been helping you?
Some of my interviewees channeled their energy towards personal creative projects, others directed their energy towards charity initiatives, and yet others did both.
I spoke to artists, singers, bloggers, fashion designers and people from various other industries. Here is what they told me.
Monika Schnarre, TV host, model, actor and entrepreneur
Follow Monika on Instagram: @monikaschnarre
“I’m an entrepreneur, so this pandemic has given me the opportunity to step back and reassess what I really want to do. I’ve had time to reflect on which projects are important to me and I’ll be focusing on them instead of chasing too many things at once.
“Since I have a young son, it has affected my day-to-day life greatly. There is little or no time to myself, however, it has spawned new interests and the extra time with my son is priceless.
“For the first time in my life, I have been painting. My son, Bode, and I paint every morning. I’ve always wanted to try painting and it just seemed like the perfect thing that we could do together.
“I also built a treehouse. It was my son’s idea and was especially challenging because I was completely without help. The foundation was newly purchased wood but the rest was all reclaimed lumber. My son and I would drive by build sites and ask if we could take the off-cuts from the garbage bin. This makes me so happy because we are keeping the wood out of the landfill and it’s also a great money saver. We would also walk along the beach (Georgian Bay) and see what had washed up. It’s amazing what you’ll find (especially in the spring): broken docks and other wood wash up every day.
“Painting is a real escape. It’s very calming and meditative. I come out of it feeling happy and with a sense of accomplishment. Building and renovating is my passion. For the past year and a half, I have been renovating my heritage home from top to bottom. My favourite part is inspiring other women to pick up the tools and instilling the confidence in them to try it for themselves.”
David Dunkley, milliner and owner at David Dunkley Fine Millinery
Follow David on Instagram: @DavidDunkleyHat
“COVID-19 has been a complete shake up to my entire business and life. Firstly, business has come to a grinding halt. We have lost an entire season of events and horse races – both the bread and butter for a milliner and DDFM. I have been forced to close my walk-in shop and move home to my studio. Thankfully, I have a very supportive spouse who has helped me emotionally with the ups and downs of trying to understand my new place in the artistic new normal. At first, I was delighted to have moved home for all the obvious safety reasons. However, artistically I learned that working from home was not my first love. I missed my creative space in my studio/shop. I missed my lighting, professional iron and supplies! Consequently, after one month at home, I moved back into my shop and decided to create there – frankly, the best decision for me artistically!
“When I was first isolating, I had some previous private orders to complete, so those kept me focused and busy. However, once that work was done, I decided to put my sewing skills to use and create masks for my chosen family members and neighbours with compromised immune systems. Once that was done too, I turned my attention to some home projects – curtains for every room! The entire time I was isolating and keeping busy, I was not really that inspired to create. However, like any artist, I knew there was something in me. Therefore, I spent a few weeks just thinking and feeling.
“It dawned on me: if I was going to create during COVID-19, I wanted to do something that was new and unfamiliar to me. I’ve never lived through a pandemic – therefore, any art I created needed to represent what I was feeling and watching. I decided to sculpt with a new medium (plastic) and create water lilies. I painted my water lilies using acrylic paints – I had to figure out how to make the paint not chip off the plastic while looking delicate at the same time! Not an easy feat. But I like what I created. It’s slightly awkward yet wonderfully perfect for marking my moment in time living through a pandemic. I have now come full circle and have started creating artistic masks and millinery. I’m feeling stronger and happy about this pivot. Creativity has returned and my fight to survive the pandemic is on!”
Hani Roustom, managing director at The Hazelton Hotel
“COVID-19 and the reality that has followed this pandemic have greatly impacted everyone’s lives around the world. Our industry has been one of the worst to be affected – it has led to a lot of hotels suspending their operations, including ours. Having to lay off the majority of our team members during this crisis was heart-breaking. There are a lot of changes and processes we are adapting to, especially when it comes to the health and safety of our colleagues and guests, and how hotels will operate in the future. Working on planning the implementation of the highest standards of health and safety measures is one of our highest priorities now.
“I do believe that we all had to make sacrifices during this period and for the benefit of all of us. Sacrifices such as our sudden loss of freedom and ability to enjoy the things that make our life fun and meaningful. The ability to go out and see our family, friends and loved ones. I am a traveler at heart. [The pandemic has sacrificed] our ability to travel, discover and get inspired. The important thing is that we all know that these sacrifices are the right ones to make as they are for our common good. However, regardless of what sacrifices we make or had to make, I do believe they all fade when compared to the sacrifices of our medical professionals, nurses and first responders. Also, not to forget the sacrifices of the silent heroes stocking our shelves everyday, so we can nourish ourselves and families, the truck drivers who are keeping our supply chain going, and many more.
“For me, hospitality has always been about genuine care not only for a guest but also for the community that we live in and for our city. Seeing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic compelled our team at The Hazelton to get involved and give back where we can. This is how the #HazeltonCares initiative was born. As soon as our regular operations were suspended, we started the #HazeltonCares initiative as a result of the pandemic. This initiative provides frontline workers and those in-need with healthy, hearty meals during this difficult time. Initially, our approach was to focus on our community in Yorkville, however, we quickly realized there was a greater opportunity to go beyond the neighborhood and help others in need in our city. As a member of the Yorkville community, we’re proud to support both local causes and charities, in addition to frontline workers who are putting their lives on the line to help the city as a whole. Throughout all this, it was inspiring to see the team come together remotely or physically, despite all the constraints, to make all this happen. Our marketing team coordinating details. Our chefs ordering and cooking. Our operations team helping with the deliveries and preparations of the meals.
“Another project I was working on at the onset of the lock down was our exciting renovation project for all the areas of the hotel from the rooms, to our Valmont Spa, our gym, pool and, of course, restaurant and bar. Once work is complete, we will be anxiously looking forward to welcoming our guests back to a fully renovated hotel!
“Hospitality is an act of love. Loving your guests that you serve, the industry you work in, the community that hosts you. Our #HazeltonCares initiative has helped us touch a lot of hearts and there is nothing more rewarding than watching our team helping those in need. We have received a lot of support from our community as well, and it is so lovely to see how by staying apart, we are still so closely connected by simple gestures of care and gratitude. We believe we are all in this together and will get through this and be stronger than before.”
Blair T. Paul, professional fine artist and teacher
Follow Blair on Facebook: Blair T. Paul, Artist – Canadian and international
“I have been a professional fine artist and teacher for over four decades in Canada and abroad. My career has unfolded following my four years of Fine Art training at the Ontario College of Art & Design University, and an Education degree from Queen’s University. I have also been a member of the Ontario Society of Artists since 1986. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that my teaching income has been eliminated, as well as any opportunities for exhibitions with galleries nationally or internationally. I am also a member of ACTRA and, of course, opportunities to earn through acting have also been greatly curtailed. This is a serious time for all people, and artists are certainly one of the hard-hit groups.
“In April 2020, after it was obvious how dangerous the COVID-19 pandemic was, and how it was affecting the lives of all of us, I decided to try to help others through the sale of my art. All of the available work can be seen on my website at www.blairpaul.com [under the] COVID-19 Fundraiser Gallery. There are still 33 paintings [available]. The price of selected paintings was reduced significantly, in order to make purchases easier for anyone interested in adding my work to their collection.
“Basically, [you choose a painting from the COVID-19 Fundraiser Gallery] and donate 100% of the cost of that painting to a charity of your choice. [When the purchaser sends] me a copy of their receipt, we arrange the transfer of the painting to them. It is all very easy. So far $12,000 has been raised for food banks, hospitals, etc.
“There are no boundaries for this project: anyone anywhere can participate. If the painting(s) purchased need to be shipped, then that would become the expense of the purchaser, but the paintings are unframed and lightweight, so shipping would be very affordable. For example, some of my paintings are destined for Ireland.
“This personal project is rewarding because I can see that the paintings I have created are helping others through the donations made by the purchasers to food banks, health care and personal safety facilities. In addition, the people who now have my landscape paintings in their collections truly enjoy looking at them each day…it offers them a peaceful place to go to at a time when we are all feeling confined.”
Justine Iaboni, singer and songwriter
Follow Justine on Instagram: @justineiaboni
“COVID-19 has altered my life, I think it’s safe to say, forever. I feel like all the momentum that had been building for myself, and for others, over the past few years has now been pivoted. We really don’t know what the future holds but one thing is for sure: things will never be the same. Thankfully, I have a roof over my head. I have the privilege of self-isolating. COVID-19 has made me take a step back and truly be thankful for all the things I am blessed with. There really is no sacrifice in comparison to the one our front-line workers have had to make, and the loss and grief of those who have lost loved ones, their jobs, or who haven’t been able to safely stay home. I have always been a firm believer in agility and the ability to evolve at a moment’s notice. Before COVID-19, I was working on my first full-length album, going to the studio a couple times a week. Now, I’ve [had] to think of new ways to continue to be an artist as touring, live shows, album release parties, meet and greets are all things of the past. But it’s also exciting not to be obligated to do those things because, if I’m being honest, a lot of that noise doesn’t interest me. I’m happy performing in more intimate settings like my living room, and now is the best time to do that!
“Speaking of living-room gigs, I wanted to use the power of music to bring my Instagram community together for an important cause. My friend, Bojana Sentaler, called me about a week or two into the pandemic, and we were chatting about ways to inspire those around us using our platforms. She told me that SENTALER was spearheading an initiative to raise funds for Sunnybrook’s COVID-19 Research Response Fund, and I thought that was amazing. A few days later, I had the idea to do a live Instagram performance in dedication to SENTALER’s initiative and for every person who watched, I would donate $1 to the fund. Bojana and her team loved the idea, and we quickly got to work on it. The performance was on Tuesday, April 21, and I donated $151 to support SENTALER’s initiative for Sunnybrook. I sang and played piano to a (virutal) full house—I had a blast! It was a beautiful way to give back to not only my Instagram community, but to support the research efforts being done on the front lines. Life as a songwriter is like living in the incomplete, most of the time. And the pandemic has only amplified that feeling.
“For me, cooking has always been my stress-relief because it’s a task that I can see through to completion in just an hour or two. I derive so much satisfaction from it, especially when I’m at an impasse with a verse or a chorus. During COVID-19, I’ve been cooking up a storm, I’ve used my slowcooker for the first time since I bought it five years ago! I’m on a risotto kick as well. I’ve attempted eggplant parmigiana but also made the most basic foods over and over: like chicken soup, grilled cheese and, of course, pasta! Another thing I’ve decided to do is to take up the guitar. My producer, Dragan P. Alexander, has agreed to teach me (while practicing physical distancing, of course). I’m really excited because I already play piano, and that is my main instrument for composing, so I feel like guitar is going to take me on a whole new journey when it comes to my writing. Like, who is Justine Iaboni on guitar? I’m about to find out!
“Honestly, I feel like a big reset button has been pushed on my life, and the quicker I can process that and move on, the more I can embrace all that lies ahead. I took the first two-three weeks to sit on the couch all day, watch Justin Trudeau, cry, stare into space, FaceTime friends and family literally 12 hours a day, and just process. After that settled in, I started to get the will to go on, whatever that means. You can’t force it, some days are good and some days aren’t so great. But I have to find purpose in all of this: that is what drives me now. My live performance dedicated to SENTALER and Sunnybrook, my songwriting, my cooking, my guitar lessons, and using my social media to raise awareness for all the amazing efforts happening out there, are all ways in which I can continue to find purpose during these times. Plus, I’m so lucky that what I do happens to be one of the most healing arts. Music feeds the soul, it soothes the pain, it makes meaning where there is none. Music is a prayer. And, it has truly saved me in all of this.”
Casie Stewart, content director
Follow Casie on Instagram: @casiestewart
“We moved up North at the start of March and have been isolating at the cottage since then. It’s nice to be in the woods and not around people. We’ve been limiting trips to the grocery store and have been making a lot of food from scratch. Right before the pandemic happened, I’d been interviewing for a full-time role with an agency. I met with a handful of people and was excited about the opportunity. Now, the position has been put on hold. Several of my brand partnerships have been cancelled and I’m not seeing many sponsored content requests that feel right for this time. For me, I was kind of ready to move away from the ‘influencer’ space, so I’m using this as an opportunity to be in a creative bubble. I have a client on retainer who has adapted their business but, thankfully, continued my contract. I also work with my partner’s production company, 1188 Films, and there are no shoots happening, so they’ve had to adapt their business for the current situation.
“My creative workshop has been quite busy! I’ve experimented with bleach tie dye, bleach denim dye, food colouring dye and natural dye with turmeric (works amazing!). In the first few weeks, I cut my own bangs. Please note, I already had bangs and it was just a trim. I’ve got some experience so if you don’t have bangs yet, don’t do it! I also temporarily dyed my hair pink with a product I had lying around from Shoppers [Drug Mart]. A fun change! I picked up an old hobby of making bracelets from embroidery thread like I used to do as a kid, using one of my childhood books. I made a dozen bracelets and handmade cards, then mailed them to my friends and family. I thought it was a nice way to be connected and a good way to pass the time while watching Netflix.
“I’ve started drawing on my iPad Pro again and after watching a tutorial from Toronto artist and friend, Briony, using a program called Procreate, I’ve been doing line drawings of friends I miss and sharing via [direct messages]. I’ve tried to keep up with my fitness routine and have been taking part in monthly running challenges on Nike Training Club hosted by Amy Shao (@lesbest). Being in a challenge has helped me feel motivated and know I’m not just working out for myself. I’m working out to complete a goal and seeing other people climb the ranks is motivation to get me moving. I’ve also been taking L.A. choreographer Ryan Heffington’s weekly dance classes on Instagram live. A couple friends and I put on the class, then join Houseparty on another device so we can dance together. It’s been so great to connect with them over this and I finish each class feeling alive, energized and inspired!
“Since the start of isolation, I’ve been keeping a daily diary on my blog, documenting what I’ve been doing each day. We’re in such a unique time and documenting has always been therapeutic for me. It’s nice to look back and see how my feelings have changed, the activities I’ve been doing and how the pandemic is changing the world. If I didn’t have it documented, the days would turn into months and I’d wonder where the time went. One final thing, I [recently] started a free 6-week course at UC Berkeley, called The Science of Happiness. It’s been a long time since I was in school but the thought of going back to take a course has me excited!
“I’m not exactly sure what my business will be when this is over. Over the winter, I learned Spark AR from Facebook to make Instagram Filters, so if anyone has an idea for one, feel free to reach out! [The other week, I had] almost at a million impressions on my filters!”
Jennifer Love, publicist and entrepreneur
“Like most, my life has changed a lot since COVID-19. I think now more than ever my personal life and professional life are blended, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m redefining my schedule to mix a disciplined routine, work and play. Now that I’m in a new groove, I find it productive and balanced.
“When this first happened, I took it as an opportunity to take a breath and re-evaluate what’s important, what’s working and what isn’t – in life and in business. I miss that the Duet PR team can’t be together at the office, and friends and family can’t be together, especially for special occasions, but it’s a chance to discover new ways to connect and I’ve found that rewarding!
“I could go on forever about the things I’ve discovered (I can cut my own bangs!) and love doing during this time (more reading, more drawing, more meditation) but one – virtual wine tasting nights – has brought unexpected joy and connection. The first rendition happened because I had scheduled a wine tasting night with Lauren Power for the Duet PR girls, which had to be postponed. One day, while missing the girls and a good old-fashioned wine tasting, I thought, ‘Why wait?’ I reached out to Lauren to see if she had a way of still hosting while in physical isolation, and luckily she had it all figured out! I treated it like a real event: set a theme, sent fun invitations, and Lauren delivered all the wine to each person’s house for Duet’s (W)ine (F)rom (Home) party. Lauren added fun wine trivia and led a formal tasting as if we were in-person. Over Zoom, we sipped, laughed and discovered wines together.
“I’ve also done a more casual version with friends. I sent around a wine tasting sheet I made when hosting (in-person) wine nights in the past — it’s a simple form with 5 wine glass emojis beside each wine name and the question: ‘How many glasses would you drink?’ We all print the sheet and decide ahead of time what wine to pick up or order from MyWineCanada.com depending on the theme. We’ve done chardonnay and merlot vertical tastings, and a tour of Tuscany. We number and pour the 3-5 wines, mix the order up, and then sip and rate. It’s a blast and best enjoyed in pjs!
“Next up, I discovered a more extravagant date night with a three-course dinner from ByPeterandPauls paired with Veuve Clicquot. My bestie and her husband [recently joined] us for a virtual double date. Along with dinner, they delivered everything to make a French 75 cocktail (and show you how on Zoom) and the bottles of Veuve that the chef pairs with each course. I’ve never paired different bubbly with each course and loved the excitement this [brought]!
“Pre-COVID, I also wanted to take more time for wine education and so I’ve been checking that off the list. Studying something outside of work is a nice change of pace. Especially something so interesting and vast like wine, it puts things in perspective for me. Discovering new things with friends has been the most enjoyable part and given me the connection I’ve been craving.”
Shantelle Bisson, author, producer and entrepreneur
Follow Shantelle on Instagram: @shantellebisson
“COVID-19 has impacted my personal and professional lives equally, but differently. I do 90% of my work from home, and my husband’s job sees him with hiatuses that can last between four to six months, so us living cheek by jowl is nothing new. Plus, we’re very close to our three girls (31, 29 and 23) and spend more time together than ‘normal families’ do, so lockdown with two of them for eight weeks in our L.A. home wasn’t all that different.
“Normally, the months that COVID has had me on lockdown are the months I’m gearing up for an extremely busy six months [ahead], due to the gala/charity season. I sit on one board and on two committees. [It’s also when I get my seasonal business ready]: Shantilly’s Place, a marina on a lake in Northern Ontario. This includes sourcing products for our grocery store and, this summer before COVID hit, I was already committed to opening Shantilly’s Subs on site. With the pandemic, all our fundraising events have been canceled. So, personally I’ve had a lot of my time and mental bandwidth freed up but, professionally, I’ve had to do complete shifts and pivots with my creative side for both my marina and my debut book, Raising Your Kids Without Losing Your Cool, which was released on April 4. All the usual plans for a book launch were canceled: no book signings, no on-air book tour to pump it and get people in the know that my book even existed. When it first became clear that my 15 years of love and labour was going to be launched quietly, I have to admit I fell into a two-day depression. And when I heard that marinas had been declared non-essential on the same day as my book launch, I feared and cried that both my babies would not receive what they needed financially to hold their own weight. It was definitely a tough week. But I put my head down and pressed on with faith, and a lot of prayer and meditation.
“My primary project since the pandemic began has been trying to figure out how to pivot my seasonal business, so that I’m able to keep my staff who I’ve committed jobs to. I had to find a way to safely operate, so they wouldn’t lose their jobs in a time when not many companies are operational, never mind looking for new staff members. I’ve also joined forces with an L.A.-based initiative, MODERN MUZE. This is a platform for women to connect with their own souls, to connect with other women from all over the globe to discuss and share information on Science, Sex and Society. A place to be inspired by other women, where we lift one another up toward our highest good, rather than tearing one another down in competition.
“I’ll be writing blogs, and creating video content in the parenting and relationship realm that is in keeping with the topic of my book. I have to say that turning my book to a digital launch platform has most likely been even more successful than had there been no pandemic. Parents are looking for support, as they’ve gone from being not only parents, but educators and coaches. I truly believe that what initially looked like a curse with regards to the timing of my book, has proven to be one giant blessing. Which has, in reverse, caused me to struggle with feelings of guilt over my good fortune during a crisis when so many have lost so much. But then I remember that faith, and turning our thoughts from those of defeat and fear to trust and hope is powerful; and I release myself from the guilt and embrace the reality that helping people in any way we can when we’re all up against it is an important role to play. So, I own it and let go!
“Finding ways to shift Shantilly’s Place into a non-contact lakefront ice cream and grocery store has helped me feel like I’m putting other people’s needs in front of my own, which helps to keep a positive attitude during these unknown times. By being creative, using my brain to look for solutions rather than being preoccupied with the problem, is helping me to have a purpose that is exciting, encouraging and powerful every day. And it doesn’t hurt that my book is flying off the virtual shelves! I’m definitely feeling like our thoughts can make such a powerful difference in how our lives play out, so I’m choosing to keep mine as positive as I can. Every day is different, so I give myself grace, dust myself off when I fall, then I get back up and down to business!”
Julio Reyes, educator and blogger, and Daniel Reyes, culinary marketer and blogger
“With such busy lifestyles balancing our full-time jobs and our blogs, it was a drastic change from the fast-paced life we were used to living. With Julio being immunodeficient, it was very scary in the beginning with so much misinformation being put out daily. After two months, we have finally found a bit of a groove, but it’s still challenging some days.
“When it comes to our work, I was, unfortunately, temporarily laid off from the restaurant where I work. I quickly pivoted to full-time working on the blog again and finding creative ways to keep myself busy. In life, we have had to learn to grocery shop in entirely new ways, to respect that we need time apart doing what we love and knowing that that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, as well as rediscover the things we enjoy doing personally. Julio is drawing and focusing on staying busy with his work. Daniel is writing, planting and cooking so much more, while trying to find a balance of physical activity. But all of these things are nice ideas and can put undo pressure on us too. It’s been about focusing on what we can do today.
“In our creative process and ability to share our lives online, we have created a new project for ourselves. We’ve never done drag, and we are going to partner with beauty brands to try and learn to do it on our own while also giving back to the drag community. It’s been fun to learn, do our research and start practicing something new that we can help raise awareness with and give back to our LGBTQ+community. We got inspired by binge watching RuPaul’s Drag Race on Netflix from the beginning and because Daniel still wants to one day be a judge on the upcoming Canada’s Drag Race! As performers, the drag communities rely on safe spaces to perform to earn their livelihood. Using our social media, we will tag queens and encourage a discussion around support and inclusion, as well as ask participating brands to give back in various ways to help support the drag community during these challenging times. We’re excited to kick off our first try with NYX Cosmetics Canada once we stock up on all their amazing products!
“[We like] being creative together and learning a new skill. The days have all kind of blurred together in the past two months, and this gives us a way to express ourselves and try something new. From Julio’s masterful makeup skills to Daniel’s desire to own multiple wigs and learn to style them, we are embracing a whole new side of ourselves. And we can’t wait to share via our social media accounts!”
Tess Franklin, personal trainer
Follow Tess on Instagram: @tess_franklin
“Before COVID-19, I was working full-time in a brick-and-mortar private personal training facility, two of my three kids were in school full-time and I was closing in on my first ever Spartan Race. My entire life is wrapped up in fitness, so when coronavirus hit in March I had to make some swift adjustments to my business delivery, my clients’ programs, as well as my own training … all while now also homeschooling my three children. Like many, I felt the change was daunting at first. But when I removed the veil of fear, I found on the other side of it a great opportunity to ground myself in time with my children, reconnect with a training style I’d tucked away and spread my entrepreneurial wings.
“When COVID first erupted, the company I worked for quickly changed course to accommodate virtual personal training clients. However, not all my clients had the means or interest to continue that way. Having some extra time on my hands, I decided to use it to launch my online personal training services – something I had been considering for years but the stars just never aligned. So, I took a course to learn the ins-and-outs of online training. Part of growing my online business has involved interacting with my social media following in a more meaningful way – releasing content that truly connects with my followers and addresses their struggle. For me, many of my followers are mothers of small children, and right now they are trying to figure out how to exercise in this new reality, so I have been trying to give them some support on that front. Oxygen Magazine, with whom I have worked before, has many of the same types of followers as I do, so I reached out to them and offered to create a piece showing a fun way for moms to exercise with their kids. And they featured me in a Mother’s Day post across their social media platforms.
“Launching my online training services has helped fill the gap in lost earnings, yes, but more importantly has created freedom for me going forward. I now have the choice to keep a hybrid business (in-person and online coaching) or go completely online. Given that we’re unsure what will be happening with our kids’ schooling, that’s a valuable option! I’ve been able to drop into my creativity and sharpen my entrepreneurial instruments, and what’s more is that I have complete autonomy over my time and work. I’ve loved being able to service my clients, while still taking care of my kids at home!”
Dylan Dimitri Dias, hairstylist and writer
“COVID-19 is certainly unprecedented. For me, it changed everything. I work in a close-contact business where distancing is impossible, and I rely on the frequency of my guests to make my living and sustain my ability to work. I was forced to close immediately. The uncertainty of maintaining my studio without regular work took a toll on me. The first month tested the limits of my mental health. I just didn’t know what my landlord would do, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain both my apartment and my studio with only government help. But there are only so many things we can control in an environment that is unpredictable. What got me through was paying attention, staying informed and understanding where I’m protected. We’re all in different places dealing with this — different financial circumstances, different family dynamics, different cultural expectations and different social privileges. Our stories aren’t universal even if the situation is. Helping one another is the only way to get to the other side, and sometimes that is as simple as being mindful. Keeping my studio closed and not providing mobile services protects everyone in my circle and beyond that. Making sure I listen to the right information and have open conversations with friends and family helps me, and them, carry the weight of mandated loneliness. And appreciating everything we’ve been given, even if it’s not perfect, by the people who are at the most risk but working each day regardless. I really believe in each of us doing our part.
“The major project I’ve been working on during isolation is my first collection of poetry and prose in a self-published book. I’ve always been a writer and studied journalism before I jumped into hair many years ago. It’s been an ongoing goal of mine to pursue writing properly, and I did have some previous stints as an editor-at-large for a local publication and a freelance copywriter, but nothing substantial or consistent. I wanted to find my authenticity with writing again, and I’ve been developing it for the past year — sharing some work online, collaborating with talented friends, and finding my own style and voice. My first book — Blue — is a short collection of personal pieces relating to identity, love and dreams through an LGBTQ+ lens. If anyone is interested, I’d love for you to follow along on my new insta-poetry account @dyl.dimitri — thank you! The book is currently available online at Amazon Canada, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.”
“I’ve always been intuitively creative — hair has never been my only project or medium. However, when the pandemic initially threatened my business, I didn’t know what to do to temper my emotional state. I needed to pour my creativity into something, but didn’t have the capacity or energy to follow through at the same time. It took a while before I could get there, but when I did, I realized that if I focused on one small creative outlet at a time with no expectations or deadlines — it helped infinitely. It taught me about the quality of my life outside of my career, and how there is a distinction there even if you love your work and you’re already in a creative field. What doesn’t pay you but fulfills different parts of you? If money were obsolete, what would you be doing? Isolation has been a tricky, existential thing. Writing Blue gave me insight into the things I want to create, not just the things I’m asked to create. It’s taught me a lot about myself.”
Debra Sadowski, CEO and founder at rock-it promotions
“This pandemic has given me the opportunity to get to know my business again in many ways. I’ve been forced to look very closely at every single operational cost – fixed, variable and periodic – and get to know our vendors personally again. A close friend said to me that a crisis often reveals the cracks in a business, and it should be considered as an opportunity for growth and change. From a personal perspective, this experience has reinforced one major life lesson: we can only control what we have power over, and the rest we have to learn to accept and let go.
“My husband and my neighbour came up with the idea to have a daily dance party every day at 3 p.m. I’ve been making playlists and dancing on my front lawn to shake out the uglies and bring some joy into our day. Hard to stay in a negative mindset when you are dancing to Footloose! I’ve started doing all of my yoga online, as well as my therapy. I have a women’s meditation group I meet with every Tuesday, and it’s a wonderful chance to share openly and stay connected. Unfortunately, my husband was laid off, so he has taken on the role of teacher and has been doing such a great job. He is making music with [our kids], including an awesome rap, taking nature walks and taught our six-year-old to finally lose his training wheels. Our daughter has been learning magic, making art, perfecting Tik Tok and doing weekly baking lessons with her pals. Every Friday, we get a new delicious dessert. Today is a triple chocolate cake.
“Being home with my husband and kids full-time is hard. I’ve never spent this much time with the same human beings, for this many days in a row, in my life! As much as I love them – and I love them a lot! – I also love my personal space, so making sure I carve out time for myself has been essential to keeping my mental health in a good place. I love the time we’ve had together and I will also love it when we aren’t together quite as much. Dancing in the streets has been the best thing we’ve done, and I hope that is what my kids remember the most when they look back on this time when they are older.”
Farley Chatto, designer, consultant and educator
Follow Farley on Instagram: @farleychatto
“COVID-19 was a game-changer for everyone! As both a creative and educator, it was a quick flip from interacting and one-on-ones to virtual and online. In terms of education, Ryerson [University] gave us the ‘heads up’ that we might be switching to virtual online classes and to prepare for that. When we did receive the notice, it was an instant go. Thankfully collaborating with fantastic colleagues, we met that day and plans formulated quickly. Translating studio classes to virtual ones was a bit of an undertaking. Not the best or smoothest process] yet in a short time, we [were able to] put up lectures, outlines, projects and exams – it got done!
“Creatively and business-wise, we follow the slow fashion process. Our products take time; by closing and slowing the business down even more, it was a natural process and, happily, most of our clientele understood. Being a small ‘mom & pop’ business, safety is first for our employees. The hardest part was temporarily letting the staff go. It has been two months and counting that we have not been in, yet researching and designing is still going on at home.
“Asides from taking workshops and lectures on improving the skill set of teaching online, the most significant projects [for me] are our friends and family’s upcoming weddings and proms. The other enormous task in development is my next collection. With much uncertainty, we must keep moving forward and still plan. Quarantined at home, by using online resources of museums, historical archives and online shopping – my exploration hasn’t stopped! Purchasing resource books and working with local and international vendors, the development and ideation of the collection has now begun.
“The most rewarding part will be the possibility of seeing the people we love and celebrating with them! Weddings and proms that were supposed to be earlier this year have now been rescheduled. I look forward to collaborating more and slowly creating their ideal dresses. Funny how an item as simple as a dress becomes so intimate, emotional and uplifting!
“And the other good part of this COVID lockdown is for once I have a break. I can be selfish, indulge in relaxation and fully recharge. It’s a real luxury for me, which may not ever happen again, and I am taking full advantage of it as much as I can!”
Halla Rafati, president of Halo & Co.
“I understand I am not alone when I say this, but COVID-19 has completely impacted my life in the most profound ways. Before the pandemic, I was essentially living out of a suitcase, working from airport lounges and spending more nights in hotel rooms than my own bed. My business travel was beyond excessive. I was overworked, stressed all the time and never felt like I could keep up with the demands of all my obligations. Then, overnight, all that came to a screeching halt and, when it did, I was fortunate to be in Aspen celebrating my sister’s 40th birthday with my family. From there, I decided to go to my family home in Texas where there is a lot of space and social distancing would be easier than in my condo in Toronto.
“I’ve been with my family since March 10 and it’s been the best thing. I left for Trinity University when I was 16 and I never really came back home, barring holidays, birthdays and graduations, of course. So personally, my most prized win during corona is that I have been given the gift of real quality time with my family, especially my aging parents.
“Professionally, the happiness I enjoy by being home translates into the way I work with the team. I believe COVID-19 brought out peoples’ true selves. For the first time, I am more conscious about my leadership style. We don’t have the benefit of close proximity and in the absence of that, tone, communication and care are more important than ever. Some members of Halo weren’t accustomed to the [Work from Home] model and [others] took to it right away. Everyone is moving at their own pace during these days, and it’s become a priority for me to manage this new work dynamic in a way that’s positive and constructive for everyone. I empathize with the team more than I ever have, I show gratitude more often and I delegate more effectively. As crazy as this sounds, even though I am thousands of miles away from my ladies at Halo, I have never felt more connected to them as I do now.
“My mind is constantly racing with what the “new normal” will look like – and how that fits into Halo & Co. There was a time when I wanted to only focus on getting more event business. We now know that events will take a long time to bounce back and that’s okay. Digital strategy is already becoming a focus in the scope of work we offer and, luckily, we are diversified enough to stay relevant. The team and I have stayed very busy during this time – first, with crisis communications and, now, with integrated communications strategies as our clients reintroduce themselves into the market. Client work will also be there, but what we have found very fulfilling is using our expertise and our platforms to help charities and small businesses. From delivering food to healthcare workers with Four Seasons, to spotlighting local businesses and driving our network to support small enterprise, to organizing a fabric and supply drive to assist Kiki Pedro at Ki Collection in NYC in making and delivering masks to front line workers – helping however we can is the most enjoyable part of this process. My time in Texas has really forced me to think about expanding Halo and making it more international. We typically work globally, but now my partner Catriona and I are serious about opening up offices in other cities. Being here has created a lot of business opportunities, so we plan on opening another location. I absolutely love the process of planning an expansion into the States.
“When it comes to home life, I have effectively become a first-grade teacher, college tutor, caregiver, housekeeper, mother to yet another dog and constant entertainer for the kids. Family activities keep me very busy and I’m completely happy with that.
“I’ve used this break in normal life to reflect a lot on priorities and what the right balance should be. This is a time when we have the ability to care for others as much as we care for ourselves, and I find it my best silver lining amid the chaos.”
Ivy Chen, blogger and entrepreneur
Follow Ivy on Instagram: @primandpimp
“COVID-19 is one of the scariest times I have gone through! I was very overwhelmed with trying to homeschool my boys, dealing with my husband and taking over all of the house’s daily chores. It began to take a big toll on my mental health. I started to self-doubt my abilities, which affected the content I was creating for my business. I also lost clients because they were facing challenges from COVID: when a company wants to save money, marketing is the first thing that is cut.
“Two weeks into my quarantine, I fell into a deep depression and hated everything around. One day, my husband asked: ‘What would make you happy?’ I thought about it and answered, ‘I want to create something meaningful.’ From that moment on, I realized that I probably wasn’t the only person feeling this fear and depression, so I decided to use my reach to create an Instagram Live series with other people on topics and activities that would help get me through this scary time.
“My series, Staying Home with PnP, was originally started to help create content that helped me get through my day with my family. I started off with having [virtual] guests who would show ways to entertain my kids. But as the weeks got longer, my topics expanded as I saw that people were watching and my new series was helping them as well. I started to get messages of thanks: on how I helped them understand federal compensation programs, how to pivot their business during COVID and much more.
“I love creating content. I feel like what I’m doing is meaningful and has helped me connect to my audience even more. I have had people who were friends come on as guests, and also small businesses and new business owners that I have found on Instagram, who I have never met in-person. I have made new friends and have been able to learn about so many different things along the way. But the best part is inspiring other people.”
Christian Dare, design and style expert, writer and creative
Follow Christian on Instagram: @christian_dare
“In some ways COVID-19 has turned life upside down but it also stays much the same… It’s still all about creating, making and hustling. Just in a different way. I mean, TV life has changed completely. I used to appear on Cityline two or three times per month, and the show went on total blackout. But, it quickly shifted and changed with the times. First, I started doing some Instagram videos for them. Then, Instagram live events with Tracy Moore. And finally, we are up and doing the show remotely from our own homes (complete with a home studio set up – another learning).
“Personally, life has been drastically different during these times. I am someone who usually travels three or four times a month for work. And I try to spend about 40% of my time at our home in New Orleans, but that has been put on hold as well. I miss the energy and inspiration I gain from travel, but have found other ways to fill those voids.
“After the first couple of days in quarantine, I realized I needed a daily project to help me keep a schedule better. And since I have always wanted to explore the art of mixology, or cocktails, I thought it would be a good time to start. Moreover, I had a full bar stocked from years of press events and press mailers that I rarely touched. The conditions just seemed ripe to do daily cocktails. So, everyday I spend a few hours in the afternoon going through my bar, and researching new recipes to make. I try to change up the base alcohol I use each day – from rum, to gin, to tequila, scotch, everything really – to show how every type of booze might be your new favourite depending on the recipe. I try to ensure the recipe isn’t too complicated for the average person to make and I keep the ingredients easy to find. Hopefully, they are in your own kitchen already. And at 5 p.m. (Happy Hour), I post a new cocktail recipe, with video, on my Instagram (and on my TikTok @dare_christian) for my followers. Many have even posted videos of them trying (mostly successfully) to follow the recipes. I love it. I think it’s a great way for people to explore the art of making a cocktail. It’s all about experimenting with flavours and learning about how to make some of your favourites at home. If you have missed any of my cocktail videos you can find them all on my YouTube channel @christiandare.
“I live in a live work style space with large windows that overlook a major street in Toronto, so I had always wanted to do some sort of installation style art in the windows… So, this seemed like the opportune time to start. Further, as someone formally trained in graphic design, I knew type was the obvious medium of choice for me, but I couldn’t simply order up some vinyl from a local sign shop. In the end, I settled on what I would call ‘quick, dirty and fun’ gaffer tape style art. I liked the immediacy of making the sign in an under an hour using gaffer tape and seamless paper, both of which I had lots of stock in at my studio. Many of the messages, for the signs, came from family and friends who wanted to share messages during these ‘unprecedented times’. The bright colours and pop culture references have caught the eye of many passersby; they have been featured on CBC, Now magazine and are all over Instagram. I am planning on making easily downloadable prints of the signs, with profits going to charity.”
Deborah Weinstein, PR professional and partner at Strategic Objectives
“Our Toronto-based Strategic Objectives PR team of 30+ PR pros is now in our eleventh week working from home. This is an entirely new experience for almost all of us and collaboration is going amazingly well with our home-based clients, contacts, suppliers and the many not-for-profit agencies our awesome clients are supporting. I’ve been physically isolating alone since the outset and am very grateful for Microsoft Teams, Zoom, email and good old-fashioned telephone calls to stay in touch. In fact, I’m spending more time on the phone now than I’ve done probably in the last five years (in particular with my millennial daughter), and I definitely like the personal contact. I find I’m working longer hours, but more effectively, and that I thankfully adapt well to dramatic change.
“The COVID-19 lockdown gave me some extra time to focus on sharing my professional key learnings acquired through these abnormal times. I collaborated with our team on writing two blogs – Work From Home — COVID:19 Edition and Corporate Social Responsibility: COVID-19 Edition – featuring original research and current examples of social good work underway. And shared them with our team, industry peers, professional organizations and our social channels. The positive response was inspiring.
“I am so proud [that] in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, Strategic Objectives [was] named IABC/Toronto PR Agency of the Year 2020, for the eighth time in the last 11 years. Our agency also won 17 awards, including seven Awards of Excellence – in diverse categories ranging from Social Media to Social Good.
“I’ve discovered, like so many, that there is no work/life balance under the Coronavirus lockdown. They merge together seamlessly and harmoniously given that I’m living/working together only with me, myself and I. I love not having to drive to-and-from-work, not wearing makeup, wearing my comfy UGG slippers all day, staring at my garden emerging with beautiful spring flowers at any time of day, and being able to concentrate without interruption. But what I miss most is people contact — seeing my family and friends, clients and contacts, even mere acquaintances who add value on an ongoing basis to my real life.
“Gardening is something I really enjoy and can’t wait for some reliable planting weather. Unfortunately, I jumped the gun [recently] when garden centres finally reopened and bought two gorgeous large begonias and ivy for my front planters. Stunning! And then came the Polar Vortex. All gone, overnight. [With] warm weather, I can’t wait to get started and try it all over again!”
Diana Nguyen, Founder and CEO at Lux Second Chance
Follow Diana on Instagram: @luxsecondchance
“As an entrepreneur, adapting to change is part of my everyday life. COVID-19 hasn’t changed the way I run my business. My team and I are used to working remotely, so not going to the office is nothing new for us. What has changed is the amount of time I spent with my friends and colleagues. The shift has gone to family and Mother Nature, which is actually a positive thing. I’ve always had a love for Mother Nature. She is such a beauty and we do not appreciate her as much as we should. We, as humans, have pushed industrialization and technology too far and that’s why we are seeing these viruses behaving in this manner. We must be conscious of our behaviours. What’s happening now has reaffirmed my belief that individual well-being is not a nice-to-have, but imperative to one’s self. Physical well-being will support a strong immune system, while emotional well-being supports mental resilience and adaptability. This is true all the time, but all the more so right now.
“I love designer luxury and I care deeply about the environment. I’ve been shopping vintage luxury for years while living overseas. Moving back to Toronto in 2015, I realized vintage luxury was and still isn’t what it is compared to Europe and the U.S. So, I started Lux Second Chance, not by choice, but by need. I believe now more than ever, especially with what is going on in the world: the way we consume will change, if it hasn’t already.
“We wrote a special blog story for Mother’s Day on, Thinking about Mother Nature this Mother’s Day. I didn’t want to use Mother’s Day as a way to promote sales, advertise what to buy or create wish lists, but instead write about the changes we can all make to help Mother Earth.
“Even in light of all things happening around us, Lux Second Chance is still growing. We have been fortunate and I feel that it is a duty to give back when I can, especially to all the frontline healthcare heroes out there, who are working hard to keep us safe. Currently, we donate 10% of our sales proceeds to The Home Front (https://thehomefront.ca/). Good start-ups become great companies with the right corporate culture. Giving back is one of them: something that I embedded into my company when I first started it five years ago.”
Aleyah Solomon, freelance photographer and graphic designer, and owner/editor at Here & There Magazine
“If I am being honest, COVID-19 hasn’t affected my life as much as others. Other than not celebrating my birthday with anyone, I already worked from home, and prefer to workout outdoors and alone. My work tends to take all my time and my social life is usually mixed in with this.
“I had a trip booked to London and then to Paris for a few months that would have begun on March 25 but, of course, there was no way I could go. We had so much planned for this time, as my magazine is based out of Paris as well as Canada, so everything I was going over to do has been postponed hopefully until fall – though we have started weekly meetings to keep motivated and stay on top of planning, as well as do the work we can do remotely.
“I have been working on a design contract that was set prior to all the lockdowns but has kept me very busy during this time. I also came up with a photo project – though I have been so busy it’s been a slow start. And a big thing for me: I started to bake bread. I’m someone who never enjoyed baking as there are too many rules to follow, but after deciding I would perfect my favourite artisan bread, it became addicting and I [now] venture from bread to healthy cookies (thanks to the Greenhouse Juice’s cookbook!).
“Baking has been a really great release for me. As someone who is always on a screen – laptop, phone, iPad – it was such a nice escape, and I found it very therapeutic. Just being able to witness something work out so beautifully, I feel in this time, the need for control, success and instant gratification has really helped my state of mind, as well as being able to use my hands to make something. This is the one time where I don’t have anyone interrupting me – I am not constantly checking my messages or emails, and it’s a really nice and relaxing time for me!”
Cecile Washington, business mindset coach and motivational speaker
Follow Cecile on Instagram: @cecilejwash
“This pandemic has done so much for so many; keyword: for. I was forced to temporarily shut down my hair salon. The day I walked out of there, I knew my life was about to change but in the best way possible. The strange thing is I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I could move the needle forward in my coaching business the way it was meant to. I started my coaching business four years ago and [now] I had an opportunity to become the leader I was meant to be. I felt overcome with gratitude regarding the time I was going to have to dedicate to my coaching business and most importantly extra time home with my daughter. I knew that now, more than ever, the world needed leadership.
“I have felt nothing but gratitude. This pandemic has shown me so much. It has shown me that life is exactly what we make of it. It has shown me that time is man-made and that we can do as little or as much as we want with it.
“I hosted, planned and put together a digital summit in my private Facebook group Badass Bosses Club with 21 of the most badass female entrepreneurs. I brought together a group of women, whose lives were completely changed because of this summit. It was absolutely free, I contacted fearless leaders to participate, made digital marketing and connected people to one another in a way that was totally magical. Women had reached out to me after and told me that this summit changed their lives. That is exactly what it was meant to do. Whether they chose me as their coach or not, they were connected to someone who could help them in some way or already did via the summit. I have also created several mindset courses that will change the lives of people.
“I feel the most fulfilled knowing that I have helped someone in some way in their biz or in their life. I think that the fact that I can motivate someone to become who they were meant to be is the biggest blessing. COVID-19 has shown me where I am going, how to get there and, most importantly, how to bring others with me.”
Photography by/courtesy of each interviewee.