Meet eight Toron­to­ni­ans who gave up ev­ery­thing to pur­sue their pas­sions

North Toronto Post - - Contents -

Hip­pie van man on his 16-coun­try road trip

Like many other mil­len­ni­als, Aaron Neil­son-Bel­man went back­pack­ing in south­east Asia. When he came home, he was al­ready ea­ger for his next ad­ven­ture. He had re­cently bought a VW van and had an artist paint a hip­pie-in­spired mu­ral across it, so he de­cided a road trip was in or­der. At that point he had been free­lanc­ing as a web­site de­vel­oper and pho­tog­ra­pher and de­cided to take his gig on the road. He drove out of Toronto in Au­gust 2013, reached Buenos Aires by De­cem­ber 2014. “Driv­ing in Peru was such a wild ad­ven­ture with the dirt roads on the side of a cliff with a huge drop,” he says. “You meet great peo­ple ev­ery­where you go, that was one of the best parts too, break­ing down cul­tural bar­ri­ers and stuff.” Cur­rently, the van is un­der­go­ing renos, get­ting ready for the next big trip. With a re­built en­gine and cus­tom in­te­ri­ors, it’s a lit­tle more liv­able. Liv­ing in your van is the #van­life trend af­ter all. He’s also get­ting a new mu­ral painted. “One idea I’m toy­ing with is to drive up to the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries.” Neil­son-Bel­man rec­om­mends drop­ping ev­ery­thing to travel: “There is no bet­ter way to learn about your­self or the world we live in. You trade in your mis­con­cep­tions gen­er­ated

by movies, the me­dia and other third-party sources, for price­less first-hand ex­pe­ri­ences.” — Nikki Gill

The sky­div­ing grandpa

Elly Gotz, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, dreamed of be­com­ing a pilot be­fore the war. Af­ter liv­ing in Nor­way and South Africa, Gotz and his wife, Esme, came to our fair coun­try in 1964. “I love Canada. I’m a great Cana­dian pa­triot. I learned here how to fly an air­plane. I ful­filled my dream of be­ing a pilot,” he says. Last July, the day af­ter Canada cel­e­brated its 150th birth­day, Gotz took his dreams of fly­ing to the next level. He de­cided to go sky­div­ing for the first time at the age of 89. “I wore a big sign that said Canada 150,” he says. “The mo­ment you jump out of the air­plane into the cold air at 13,000 feet, your heart stops for a minute, but it re­sumes.” This March, Gotz will turn 90, and he and his wife will cel­e­brate their 60th wed­ding an­niver­sary.The dar­ing Toron­to­nian will also be re­leas­ing a mem­oir in the near fu­ture. When it comes to jump­ing out of planes, this grandpa says it’s per­fect for peo­ple “who have that spe­cial love of space, of fly­ing, of be­ing in an air­craft.” — Macken­zie Pat­ter­son

The colour-blind finance pro turned artist

De­spite the fact that he’s colour-blind, North York artist An­thony Ric­cia­rdi has had a life­long love of paint­ing. Yet in­stead of chas­ing his dream, he chose a sta­ble ca­reer in finance. A gig at a real es­tate in­vest­ment fund down­town paid the bills, but he al­ways found time for paint­ing. “I con­sid­ered my­self a full-time artist be­cause the hours I was putting in paint­ing were al­most the ex­act same I was putting in at my job,” he says. Then last Fe­bru­ary, the artist re­ceived an of­fer to paint a mu­ral in New York City.

The op­por­tu­nity was too good to refuse, so Ric­cia­rdi left his job the next morn­ing. “It was at that mo­ment I re­al­ized it was what I wanted to do for my life, and whether I was go­ing to make money or not, I de­cided I would be there,” he says. Since then, Ric­cia­rdi’s ca­reer as an in­ter­na­tional artist has sky­rock­eted. Most re­cently, the artist set up shop at his own gallery in York­dale Shop­ping Cen­tre, call­ing the ex­hibit Less Isn’t More as a nod to his all-or-noth­ing at­ti­tude to­ward art. “I al­ways joke that I left my nine-to-five to work 9 a.m. to 3 a.m.,” he says, “but I’m do­ing what I love.” For oth­ers want­ing to chase their dreams, Ric­cia­rdi says, “If you are spend­ing ev­ery sin­gle spare sec­ond in your 24-hour day ex­e­cut­ing your pas­sion, then nat­u­rally the time will come to pur­sue it full-time.” — MP

A BSS stu­dent who climbed Kil­i­man­jaro

At just 17, Chiara Picão has climbed three of the world’s high­est moun­tains to sup­port equal ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion for girls around the world. The Grade 11 Bishop Stra­chan School stu­dent came up with the idea for Lit­er­ally Climb­ing Moun­tains for Girls’ Ed­u­ca­tion af­ter a se­quence of fate­ful events when she was only 12 years old. First, an in­spir­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at We Day, then the shooting of fe­male ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cate Malala Yousafzai and fi­nally a trip to Pico Is­land where the high­est moun­tain in Por­tu­gal stands. “At that point it clicked for me: I’ll never face that sort of moun­tain of in­jus­tice be­cause that’s not some­thing I face here in North Amer­ica. I’m very priv­i­leged and I’m al­lowed to go to school,” she says. “Of course I could throw a fundraiser. I could raise aware­ness with pam­phlets, but what bet­ter way for me, as some­one who has a lot of priv­i­lege, to raise aware­ness than to put a moun­tain in front of my­self and try to con­quer it?” In­deed, Picão con­quered Pico Moun­tain that sum­mer, and be­gan col­lect­ing do­na­tions through WE in sup­port of girls’ ed­u­ca­tion around the world. Since then, she’s climbed two more of the world’s high­est peaks — Kil­i­man­jaro and El­brus. “I’ve al­ways been told to work to­ward do­ing what you love, and there’s noth­ing I can think of that I’m more pas­sion­ate about than cre­at­ing a bet­ter world and fight­ing for equal­ity,” she says. — MP

The bik­ing busker

While work­ing as a high-level busi­ness con­sul­tant, Bologna-born An­to­nio Piretti had it all, and yet some­thing was miss­ing. “I had ev­ery­thing, from a su­per­fi­cial point of view, you can de­sire: cars, beau­ti­ful clothes, ev­ery­thing,” he says, “but I was not happy. I wanted more emo­tions in my life.” Piretti de­cided to pur­sue mu­sic. “I un­der­stood fi­nally that what gave me the most im­pact was mu­sic, song. So I said to my­self, if this is what you like the most, you have to start from scratch.” The Ital­ian had never touched an in­stru­ment in his life, so he started slowly with singing lessons in 2004, ex­pand­ing into guitar the next year. In 2009, Piretti moved to Toronto to be with his Cana­dian girl­friend, mak­ing it his mis­sion to earn a liv­ing as a mu­si­cian. “I went along on my bike, Queen Street, King Street, Dun­das — all over the city — and made copies of my CDs with a busi­ness card in­side and handed them out,” he says. In 2017, the melodic rock mu­si­cian biked from Vancouver to Hal­i­fax in three months with his guitar clock­ing 120 kilo­me­tres a day to bring mu­sic to Cana­di­ans from coast to coast. He re­leased his lat­est al­bum on Jan. 10 and is now learn­ing pi­ano in prepa­ra­tion for his next Cana­dian tour. “I’m Cana­dian and I feel that, and I love Toronto. It’s a beau­ti­ful city with a lot of en­ergy,” he says. Piretti has no re­grets about quit­ting his job. “If you kill your dream, you also kill a part of your­self,” he says. “Where is your heart go­ing? There is where you will go. There is where you have to go if you want to be your­self.”

— MP

The globe-sail­ing fam­ily of three

Del­phine McCourt and her hus­band Robert first set sail on their boat Wahkuna in July 2013. With their mu­tual de­sire to ex­pe­ri­ence new places and a new way of life, they left their jobs (she was a French teacher, and he re­tired from his post as a di­rec­tor of en­gi­neer­ing) and sold lit­er­ally ev­ery­thing they owned (house, car, fur­ni­ture and most of their clothes and be­long­ings) to move to their boat full-time.Their first cruise was down to the Sea of Cortez on the west coast of Mex­ico. While in Mex­ico, they found a stray dog who wouldn’t leave their sides. He in­stantly be­came part of their fam­ily, and he, Güero, is the voice of their blog. Cur­rently they are an­chored at Si­mon­ette Sur Mer north of Port au Prince, Haiti, on their jour­ney to­ward the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands. “Our long-term plan is to make it to Europe. We have been full­time cruis­ers for the last four and a half years, and we hope to con­tinue cruis­ing in Europe where it will be eas­ier to visit fam­ily and friends,” says McCourt. — NG

Help­ing pa­tients in Africa for a decade

Dr. Adri­enne Chan, an in­fec­tious dis­ease spe­cial­ist at Sun­ny­brook Hos­pi­tal, al­ways had an in­ter­est in global health and the in­ter­sec­tion of so­cial jus­tice and hu­man rights. So it was only nat­u­ral for her to take the first op­por­tu­nity she had to work abroad as a physi­cian. First stop, Zim­babwe in 2005. “I was work­ing with a physi­cian who was work­ing in a hos­pi­tal out­side of Harare, which is the cap­i­tal of Zim­babwe,” she says. Not long af­ter, she re­ceived an op­por­tu­nity to set up pro­grams for HIV-pos­i­tive pa­tients in Malawi, and moved there in 2007 for three years to co-or­di­nate the HIV clinic and run the med­i­cal pro­gram with Dig­ni­tas In­ter­na­tional. “Now I go back and forth sev­eral times a year to the Dig­ni­tas project in Malawi,” she says. “When we started, there were only about 4,000 pa­tients who were HIV pos­i­tive on treat­ment that we would sup­port, and now the pro­gram sup­ports over 170,000 HIV pos­i­tive pa­tients,” she says. In or­der to make a big dif­fer­ence, Chan says one has to com­mit to be­ing in a re­gion long-term. How­ever, her com­mit­ment to pa­tients in Malawi did not stop her from putting more on her plate. In 2014, dur­ing the Ebola cri­sis, Chan joined a team of doc­tors trav­el­ling to Sierra Leone to train front line health-care work­ers. Al­though she’s now back in Toronto, Chan says she’ll con­tinue to work in Malawi. “My com­mit­ment to Dig­ni­tas is a long-term com­mit­ment. It’s hard to say no if a good op­por­tu­nity comes up that can help.” — NG

From Canada to Mex­ico on foot

A glo­be­trot­ter at heart, Jor­dan Bower’s love of travel took him to places like Thai­land, Aus­tralia and In­dia through­out his twen­ties. Af­ter watch­ing Take a Seat — a film about a man bik­ing from Alaska to Argentina on a tan­dem bi­cy­cle, of­fer­ing rides to peo­ple he met along the way — the Earl Haig grad em­barked on the jour­ney of a life­time: a 316-day walk­ing trip from Canada to Mex­ico. He walked alone down the coast through Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia to the Mex­i­can bor­der. Through the peo­ple he met along the way, the trip opened © Bower’s eyes to the idea that ev­ery­one has a story to tell. “The more I talked to peo­ple, the more I would learn that not only do we have sto­ries, but we live in our own sto­ries,” he says. Bower be­lieves that all peo­ple will ben­e­fit from do­ing some­thing that gives them per­spec­tive on the life they are liv­ing and why. “A re­treat doesn’t need to last a year, but it does need to de­liver some im­por­tant and deeply per­sonal in­sight about what you’re do­ing on this planet.”

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