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UPDATED: 10 years later...the full story.

I remember the quarter jar my mother kept in the kitchen cupboard. It was for the laundry machines in our subsidized apartment. She often struggled to keep it stocked enough to do laundry. I remember it so well because, as a troubled teen, I would often raid it to buy cigarettes. I would take just enough so that it was not easily noticeable, short of counting each quarter. I thought I was quite clever but the truth is, my mother knew.

That was far from my worst choices and far from the worst things I thought I had successfully concealed from my mom.

At that time, we were living in an apartment that was subsidized with assistance from Jewish Family & Child. I believe the rent on our three bedroom unit was somewhere in the 100 dollar a month range as a result of that subsidy, but I was a kid and so I don’t know if that memory is accurate. What I do know is that we were surviving on social assistance cheques that added up to less than $20,000 a year. 20k...for a family of four. You don't have to be a math genius to know that doesn't add up to cover even the basic essentials to live, let alone to thrive.

When I talk about this story, I have been told that every time I tell it, we get a little bit poorer. That's true but the reason is, I don’t think I have ever been able/ready to truly share the extent of it and each time I tell it, I get a little more comfortable to share the more and more of just how difficult things were.

I guess it’s hard to imagine for most. Unless you have been in this situation, you really can’t. You can’t imagine what living on social assistance is like and how little 20k a year will get you. You can't imagine how poverty permeates all the decisions, the biggest and smallest nuances of our life, every day, every choice, every action and every consequence.


"...despite our situation, we had joy, laughter, song and a mother who who quite literally enveloped us in a shield of love and strength that insulated us from much of what was actually happening."


I am not writing this for sympathy. In fact, despite our situation, we had joy, laughter, music and a mother who who quite literally enveloped us in a shield of love and strength. Her love insulated us from much of what was actually happening. I write this to honour her, my unsung hero and the inspiration behind Unsung Heroes Productions.

When I was a little kid, our story was actually quite different. We lived in Calgary. My father had a successful wholesale arts and crafts business. We went to a private Hebrew School, lived in a nice home, took vacations and had all the latest toys and clothes. We didn't lack for much and though I still miss playing Intellivision, my Jordache jeans, our tab at the community centre cafe and all the other benefits of that life, I am actually grateful for my life. The experiences and lessons have shaped me to this day. Starting with what happened next.

Our path would take a turn in somewhat of a perfect storm. My father’s business had just taken out a loan to build a massive head office and warehouse which was followed by a very large economic downturn. In short, sales plummeted but the loan payments remained. In the end, he could not recover and needed to declare bankruptcy.

To make matters more complicated, my parent’s marriage had been suffering for some time and reached its conclusion. My mother found herself single, without a job, without a financial safety net, without real work experience and of course, with three mouths to feed, three humans to nurture.

My family was originally from Montreal and we had no support system in Calgary. However, moving back to Montreal wasn't a real option either as none of us spoke French. I was 9, my sister was 12 and my brother was 14. Without a foundation in French, we were simply too old to integrate into the Quebec school system. However, my mother had a cousin in Toronto which was the closest major city to Montreal. So she packed up the station wagon with our stuff, three kids and three cats (mine was named Mr T because...well, A-Team ruled). We sent whatever stuff we had in a rental truck to Toronto, bought Neil Diamond’s greatest hits on 8 track at a gas station to listen to and were on our way.

I can’t really explain to people that despite our situation, there were so many happy times. That road trip was truly one of them. I remember what an adventure it was. Listening to Neil, staying in hotels, seeing the country, discovering new there was that one day my mother decided to take a break from driving so we could enjoy the waterpark near Winnipeg. It was epic!

Of course, when I reexamine it now, I see things very differently. We stayed at really run down motels, in towns that you would struggle to even find on a map (one was literally comprised solely of a motel and a gas station that had no gas with phone booths that no phones) and ate lots of diner food (don’t knock the gravy smothers hot turkey sandwich, mash potatoes peas till you’ve tried it!).

I can only imagine the fear, panic and uncertainty my mother must have been experiencing the whole trip. Where were we going? How were we going to live? Each penny spent on this trip is eating up the only money we had. How would we get by? How would she feed and take care of three kids?

For the next several years, I don’t even know how my mother did what she did. The situation had taken a terrible tole on her health. She struggled regularly with depression and weight. She struggled to find work that would be enough income to break out of social assistance and properly take care of her children. If you can try to imagine, without real work experience, there were very little options available to her. The kinds of jobs you can get in those situations actually paid less than social assistance and would mean losing social assistance altogether. Additionally, those types of jobs mostly require shift work that would mean no one would be home for her kids before and after school but with less take home pay, no way to pay for child care costs to compensate. When I hear people say that people on welfare are just lazy and are taxing the system, they really have no idea what it means to break out of the system, particularly as a single mom without a resume and without family or a support system to help. It sickens me when I hear people say those words. It’s not that I don’t get the logic but unless you have lived it, you really have no idea how monumentally difficult it is to do.

During those years, my mom would sacrifice everything for us. We were her full time job and her greatest joy. I remember that she only had a couple of pairs of pants and a few shirts. They were cheap stretchy polyester pants. She was so good at shielding us from our reality that I didn’t get why she only wore those clothes and at the time I would bug her about it because I felt embarrassed by her. Can you imagine? Here she was living in the cheapest and smallest wardrobe so that she could give her kids more and I was embarrassed. I really had no clue what was going on and how much she gave up for us and I will spend the rest of my life finding ways to thank her.

I remember a game we used to play. It’s funny that what I am about to describe is a fond memory but it was (perhaps because I was good at it!). We used to go to the grocery store where they would have a shelving rack full of cans with dents and no labels. They sold these for about ten cents. Big savings! The game was to try and guess what was in them. The "big bucks" was chunky soup while creamed corn was the "whammy" (that’s a Press Your Luck reference for those who didn’t catch it). I loved this game! I was always able to find the chunky soup cans! I could shake the can and tell by the sound. I was untouchable! Imagine how turning the need to stretch every grocery dollar out into a game changed the experience for us. Like I said, she is my unsung hero.

In my teens I was more than a handful. As years passed and teen pressures to fit in grew, despite my mother providing a happy home, I became increasingly frustrated that I could not have everything my friends at school did. Even though my mother stretched every penny and made every personal sacrifice imaginable so that I could have the things I did, I wanted more. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get more clothes, more brand names, take vacations, play in sporting leagues and so on. On top of it all, I had undiagnosed ADHD (at that time, it was far less common at that time to spot and get help for). Long story short...I rebelled. A lot.

Stealing quarters from the laundry jar was only the beginning. That turned into stealing cigarettes out of the unlocked cars in our building’s underground parking garage. That turned into shoplifting cigarettes from convenience stores. That turned into shoplifting other things I could sell. I actually remember my mother giving me money to go buy some groceries and instead, I stole them and pocketed the money. Then came drugs. Pot, then hash, then mushrooms, then me selling drugs, then dropping out of high school despite being an honour roll student. Then, eventually and thankfully for only a short time, came cocaine.

This is the first time I am sharing everything because I really want people to know how low I was to appreciate what an unsung hero my mother was.

I started working when I was 11, delivering the Toronto Star. At 14 I lied about my age and got a job at McDonalds. I held many part time jobs throughout those years but was not able to keep one due to my many issues and rebellious nature. Through every single challenge I have talked about, my mother was there. When I fell, she helped me back up. She believed I could do anything. She believed I was the smartest and most capable person. She may have gotten justifiably angry or been justifiably disappointed but she never, not for a second, stop believing in my potential. Something she made sure I knew and made sure I believed as well.

I eventually moved out of the house and found an apartment and a roommate. I got by on my many part-time jobs and selling weed from time to time. Sadly, the challenges I experienced as a young teen only worsened in my late teens. I was high 24/7. I depended on others to bail me out of my financial problems. I asked and even at times, begged, for things from others that I did not earn or deserve. It was not a high point in my life by any stretch and the pain of the deem shame I felt is something I can still feel to this day.

It was really just sheer luck I never ended up on the street. I had friends who did, I had friends who escalated their crimes to credit card fraud, breaking and entering, dealing in cocaine, gem scams and more. I have friends who ended up in prison or ended up dead. Yet through all of this, the belief my mother had in me was not lost on me and would be the thing that saved me.

I will never forget the day that belief, which was like a flame that had not been given oxygen, was suddenly reignited. I was high on several drugs, I was green in the face, I was broke, behind on rent and just tired of everything. I looked at myself in the mirror and I hated what I saw. This was not the son my mother had raised. This was not the path I was meant for. This was not taking me to a future I recognized. Something had gone horribly wrong. I needed, in a way I knew so deep in my core, to be the person my mother knew I was.

So, I left Toronto. Within a month I had booked a flight to Calgary where my dad was (and so where I had a place to stay). I needed to get out of Toronto where I was surrounded by a world of drugs and crime...I could not see a way out if I had stayed. I sold off whatever I had of any value to pay for the flight and I left. I stayed with my dad for a few months until I got a job and then rented a room with some good people I had met. I worked my ass off from morning til night. I got promoted and promoted again. And again.

Then, I became an Uncle! My nephew Jonah was born in Toronto and I knew I needed to go back. Plus, I felt I was ready to return without regressing. So, I returned. Was able to get transferred with the company I was working for. I kept progressing in my career, becoming an expert and thought leader in customer experience and employee experience. I even founded my own consulting firm, Chorus Tree Inc., helping some of the world’s greatest brands achieve amazing things. I have an incredible wife and four beautiful children who are all thriving. I changed my future.

It all stems back to that fork in the road. That moment in the mirror where I saw a reflection that was not my own. It was not the person my mother had given everything up for. It was not the person she showed me I was. I owe her everything I have and will honour her in everything I do.

When I reflect back, what I remember most wasn't the divorce or the struggles. It was that through all those tough years, my mother took care of us. We had food on the table. We had a roof over our heads. We were loved unconditionally. She was our mother and our father, our cheerleader and our friend. All the while she was living in her own personal nightmare that we never fully grasped, filled with anxiety about how we would get by the next week, the week after that and the week after that. To explain how she gave us a happy life while concealing all that from us is a task I am simply not worthy of. I can’t explain it. All I know is, I owe her everything.

And that’s where Unsung Heroes Productions comes in. When she passed, there was a small sum of money donated through the funeral home, Benjamins. 800 dollars to be exact. They would call us periodically, to ask what we wanted to do with it and I thought, what could we possibly do with 800 dollars that would amount to the sacrifices she made and the impact she had. We would need more. A lot more. Unsung Heroes was born to honour her legacy and to keep telling her story. We raise money for charities that were so important to her.

One is Leukemia, because she lost her father to this terrible disease. Another two are helping impoverished single parent families and mental health because of her own experience. Lastly and most recently we added Alzheimer's because her baby brother, my Uncle Lenny, was diagnosed and is currently living with this cruel disease. She would do anything for him if she were alive and so we added this cause as our current charitable focus.

UHP produces musical revue shows that mix broadway with popular music. We create custom arrangements that retell old stories with a focus on harmony because we believe musically and symbolically in the power of many voices coming together to work as one.

Now, after ten years, our 2023 show, Unsung Heroes 10 will be our last production. A best of the best of all the years and shows.

If you are reading this before Oct 14-15 2023, we hope you will come to see It, make a donation, become a sponsor, like our social media pages and help spread the word.

It's going to be an amazing and emotional final production!

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for listening to this story and helping to keep my mother’s legacy alive.


Neal Dlin - Founder and Producer

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