| You’re about to experience one of Canada’s great love stories; a love story on many different levels. Together Joelle and Lou Adler built Diesel Canada, one of Canada’s most successful businesses. Since Lou Adler’s death Joelle (Joey) turned her passion and her husband’s inspiration into building another huge success – a foundation to change people’s lives one person at a time. Here’s a small part of her journey to founding the unique umbrella organisation ONEXONE. |
Interviewed by Barbara Goodman, Editorial Director – Canadian Health & Lifestyle
|H&L You lost your husband Lou to a horrible illness in 2003. Many people get involved with Associations that advocate the illness, yet you didn’t. What led you to found ONEXONE, which is not associated with a physical illness?
Joey As a family we support Lou’s House and the Hope & Cope Wellness Centre, associated with the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, opened this past June. It was set up to help cancer patients and their loved ones cope with the physical, emotional and social effects of cancer diagnosis and treatment. Because of our experience around Lou’s care, I’m a huge supporter of humanization in health care and an advocate to change our system.
H&L Would you share some of this with us?
Joey Lou got ill suddenly on Labour Day weekend 2001. We took him to emergency. Because of the abnormal amount of clotting, the doctors told us they would have to amputate his foot. Within the first 24 hours, the doctors told me there was no hope, and because his condition was so serious they wouldn’t do anything extraordinary to try and save his life. I couldn’t believe I was hearing that my husband’s life wasn’t worth saving.
On September 11, the surgeon informed us they couldn’t save his leg and the decision now was whether to amputate above or below the knee. I was devastated; they were cutting him up bit by bit. I called my sister who described what was happening in New York City; I had no idea about the attacks on the Towers. That night as Lou slept, I watched the unbelievable events on TV. When I saw a commercial of a destitute child in Africa covered in flies I had an epiphany. This child and my husband were the exact same person. There was no value for my husband’s life, and none for this child’s life – they were equal. The confirmation was the planes being commandeered into the towers without any care about the devastation. My husband’s life was being written off, a child living in absolute squalor, the epitome of freedom crashed to the ground – there was no value being put on life. This is why ONEXONE is based around children, the innocents that suffer the most because they’re helpless; it became the vision of one life, one person, one voice – teaching people the value of a solitary life, especially a child’s. What separates ONEXONE from other organisations is that we educate and sensitize people to the realities of life.
The Talmud states, “When you save a life you save the Universe,” meaning that you and the person next to you are of equal value. To me, the only way the world will change will be when we look at the person next to us and see they have the same value as we do.
H&L On this journey of philanthropy, what’s been most rewarding for you?
Joey Seeing the outcomes. In 2007, I visited our Millennium Promise village in Rwanda, funded by Edward and Suzanne Rogers. The women of the village had just started a basket weaving co-op. Standing among the women I had an epiphany to purchase their baskets as gifts for ONEXONE gala attendees. We gave the co-op its first order: a $5,000 US order for the 2007 Toronto gala and the Calgary gala in June, 2008.
This year, we learned what the money does. When we met with the same women, we heard how one woman bought a house; another, a table for her children to do their homework and others a sheep or a goat. I was impacted by the incredible effect $5,000 had on the lives of these Rwandan women.
We also visited a remote part of Ethiopia, three hours north of Mekele. We arrived at a well installation in time to witness the first gush of water. It was so overwhelming, I cried. We had no idea the difference this $10,000 well would make on the lives of the people, especially the women. Prior to the well, they walked two hours to get water and two hours back with water that wasn’t clean or bacteria-free. It’s these precious moments that provide the reward, seeing how the money is used to make life-changing differences. The people celebrated and showed their appreciation with a coffee making ceremony and serving us whatever food they had. To receive this generosity when they have so little was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever experienced.
H&L Forgive me, but it seems this tragedy has made you into a real force to create change, to bring humanity out in as many people as possible.
Joey I take that as one of the great compliments of my life. Thank you. I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through. I say constantly, “Imagine getting up one day with a sick child and not having any recourse to take care of that child because there’s nothing accessible to you.” It’s the complete helplessness that I abhor and believe is one of the great injustices of life.
H&L You run two very different businesses. As a leader, how do you motivate everyone?
Joey Trust me, I have my flaws. I’m not an easy person; sometimes I’m difficult, driven without enough patience. I have to remember that I run a company and have to be a teacher and a leader. That’s key. One flaw I don’t have is being ingenuine or dishonest. I’m incapable of not telling the truth to the level that it’s a possible flaw. But in a business meeting or in philanthropy, people know that this is the most intimate essence of truth.
In the business it’s important to lead by example. We have critical rules we live by. To respect each other, have total honesty and treat clients with the respect they deserve.
The foundation runs differently. There’s no boss because we’re a team. I’m perceived as the person who drives the charity because I’m at the forefront of the media; it’s my story and I founded it. But the reality is that there’s a Board of 21 leading business people including Diane Lang, Geoff Dawe, Edward and Suzanne Rogers, Roger Rai, Paul Sparkes, Marc Joubert and so on. Everyone drives the boat. I still want to motivate and lead, but I want the foundation to run without me. This is the legacy I want to leave, otherwise I’ve failed miserably.
H&L How did the foundation people get involved?
Joey Most everyone is from my business relationships. The first big moment was when I sat down with Edward and Suzanne Rogers (Rogers Media) in 2005 with a germination of an idea and no sponsorship. I shared my story and vision and they offered $150,000. This is why they’re both honourary founders; since the beginning they’ve been as integral to the foundation as I have. Then Geoff Dawe sat down with CTVGlobeMedia and asked for advertising support and they agreed. Now all these media giants sit at the same table creating change together. That’s another miracle.
H&L How did you attract the high profile celebrities like Matt Damon?
Joey Matt worked with Marc Joubert who produced Running the Sahara and Matt was executive producer. They were looking for a vehicle to start a foundation around water. Matt hosted the 2006 ONEXONE and promised to come back the following year with the movie, and they did. Matt joined the ONEXONE family and is integral to our success; he is a true humanitarian. Ben Affleck hosted the inaugural event in Calgary.
H&L The foundation attracts some pretty amazing people.
Joey Everyone who comes to us, or we to them, there’s an emotional attachment. It’s like a tapestry that’s being constantly woven. When it’s not right, we instantly know it. I believe this goes back to my original philosophy about opening up your heart. We’re meeting people willing to give of themselves and a connection is made immediately. I often say we ride the wings of angels. We’ve grossed over $7 million in three years. The people with the foundation now genuinely care about what we’re doing and want to make a difference.
H&L Were these the initial programs?
Joey In 2005, the foundation’s money supported organisations like War Child and Right to Play that were already doing fantastic work. We continue to support them and have taken our organisation to the next level with major projects like this clean water program. It wasn’t a popular subject except for very few, one of them being Matt Damon. And, it’s very close to his heart. People now realize that the lack of fresh water is a fundamental problem in these countries. Children die from dysentery drinking ‘dirty’ water. These remote regions have no medical care; there’s absolutely nothing!
Did you know that in North America we have the highest percentage of children living in poverty of the industrialized nations? There’s over a million Canadian children living in poverty. And I’m sure this statistic is low. Kids go to school hungry. They may have basic shelter, but they’re not eating right and can’t learn. This is a real issue and a big reason why ONEXONE has in its by-laws to distribute 50% of its funds here in Canada. We have a responsibility at home as much as elsewhere. We’re working on a system where people can adopt a First Nations community and help feed the children.
Our family has always been philanthropic and in the past would make donations by writing a cheque. With the foundation, I’ve implicated myself. Boy, have I learned a lot!
H&L What have you learned?
Joey When you write a cheque there’s a distance between you and the recipient. Being a part of an organisation, on the ground doing the work and creating the programs, it affects you more; you’re closer, it’s more personal, and it’s painful. This has been an extremely painful experience – there’s 70% pain and 30% joy.
H&L You run the foundation with passion.
Joey I’m passionate about everything in my life, about everything I do including the business. I don’t believe in doing anything if you’re not passionate. Live life to the fullest or you’re cheating yourself and others. I’m passionate in taking emotional risks.
H&L What do you mean by that?
Joey Most people use ‘passion’ as a verb. To me it’s a noun about someone opening up their heart. The most successful people in all walks of life are passionate about what they do. That’s not a monetary thing, it’s emotional. They know they have to completely expose themselves to reach their goal. It’s the same with love in a relationship. Passion’s not sexual, it’s about opening up your heart to take huge risks – to fail and be hurt. Whether it’s between a parent and a child, between a husband and a wife, or between friends you have to give yourself to that person.
If you go through great catastrophes you can’t stay angry, because anger is the true destructor. You’ve got to stay focused on what you want in life. You can’t ask ‘why’ or ‘why us’. There’s no answer. After Lou died, I was so angry I went to a lawyer. But I realized if I spent my life chasing the people I believed were to blame I would destroy my life. When you get past the anger and the bitterness you’re able to see the miracles and there were so many.
H&L What kind of miracles?
Joey Lou surviving 14 surgeries under horri-fic conditions and the drugs as long as he did – miraculous. Having him leave the hospital and be home with us was beyond miraculous. Walking on a prosthetic – a miracle. Smiling, laughing and spending a fabulous summer with me and his kids – a MIRACLE! Look for the good and you’ll see the miracles. The best thing that happened out of all of this was that it taught me to live in complete truth and how to live completely for someone else.
When you truly love someone, you do for them because you love them, not to get something in return. This is unconditional love – one of the most freeing experiences people can go through. I learned to live in complete truth. I’m a different person now.
H&L Most everyone wants to do something to create change but get overwhelmed about the finances.
Joey So true. But the truth is most people can’t comprehend what saving 75 cents a month can do. At the end of the year, it’ll be close to $10. In Africa you can buy a bed-net and save two kids’ lives. In Canada, $10 will feed a First Nations child for a week. A dollar makes a difference. Raise a dollar at a time. That’s the type of solution I’d like to see. It’s not how much you give but what you want to give. It can be a gift of time. Volunteer at a Boys and Girls Club, a hospice, soup kitchen or sit with an elderly person who has no one for an hour a month. I don’t expect money from a family that has very little, but teach the children to volunteer, to do homework with an underprivileged child or walk them home. It can be a simple thing.
H&L Do you think that people have a fear of going outside their own door to do for others?
Joey It’s about committing. And committing isn’t always easy. I think the 15 to 25-year-olds today are much more socially conscious. I like what’s happening today in the schools where the students are learning the lessons of giving back and doing community service.
H&L You’ve affected a lot of people by what you’ve created.
Joey One always hopes so, but I don’t know.
H&L Certainly the women of Rwanda feel that way.
Joey The women in Rwanda – that is one of the great, inspiring stories. We’ll be showing a video of them at the Toronto gala in September. The people of Rwanda are a beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, warm people. It’s hard to fathom that 14 years ago they experienced the genocide of 900,000 of their countrymen. Amazingly, there isn’t hopelessness in Rwanda.
On the other hand I experienced what hopelessness looks like in Ethiopia. We met an Ethiopian woman carrying water, walking with her daughter and grandchild. She exuded a complete lack of hope, of ‘why am I on this earth? For what reason? To suffer? To wake up one day to my dead child because the water I’m carrying had bacteria that killed her?’ People need to have hope; it’s necessary in life. I’ve learned this first hand.
H&L Do you have any closing words?
Joey I look at change as one drop of water at a time. Sustainable change comes when there’s a strong foundation. One drop will make the water overflow to create that change. My message is to mobilize humanity, to take care of one another; that will change the world. We all can be that single drop of water.
I’ve been blessed with so much. I hope that God continues to give me the strength and health to go on with this work.
H&L As you can see, not only is this a love story between two people, but among many, for each other and the people of the world. H&L
Visit ONEXONE.org for more highlights.