The thought of a losing a loved one is terrifying. What would life be like without them? Who could ever fill that void? These were the questions racing through my mind as I drove my dad to the hospital while he was suffering a life-threatening heart attack.
It was winter vacation in January 2002, and I’d just come home from university. It was a long-needed break after a stressful semester, and I was looking forward to being with my family in Thunder Bay. I was expecting family visits, home-cooked meals, and movie marathons. I never thought I’d be driving my dad to the hospital, wondering if he would make it through the night.
I still remember the panic I felt – like the world stopped around me. The drive seemed to take forever, but we soon made it to Port Arthur General Hospital, which is now the the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC).
Immediately, a team of doctors and nurses began working to save my dad’s life. The sounds of chaotic yelling along with the sight of a mad scramble to get the procedures in place are forever etched in my memory. At the end of it all, I was grateful that I never had to answer those questions about losing a loved one. The incredible team of doctors and nurses at TBRHSC saved my dad’s life.
I left the hospital with a newfound appreciation for life, and a strong desire to find a way to give back to a place that helped my family and so many others in Thunder Bay – a hospital that I would come to find, first-hand, helped to save the lives of children I’d never met yet, but that now mean the world to me.
My name is Vince Mirabelli, and this is my Real Heart story.
Volunteerism has been a part of my life since I was a kid. This is thanks to my mom. She instilled in me the values of treating everyone around you with respect and doing your best to build others up, even if they don’t ask for it.
To this day, she still takes the time to handwrite letters and send donations to children in a Roman Catholic-run orphanage. It’s this unconditional desire to help others that I love about my mom, and I’m grateful she passed it along to me.
“Treat everyone around you with respect and do your best to build others up.”
Although I grew up with these values, it wasn’t until four years after my dad’s heart attack that I took my first step towards getting involved with volunteering.
When I was 26, I enrolled in a leadership program called Leadership Thunder Bay. The program is designed to teach emerging leaders how to take on community issues and develop the skills to resolve them. One of my assignments was to facilitate a mock charity event for the community. In the four years since my dad’s heart attack, the idea of giving back to TBRHSC never escaped me. I just didn’t know how to do it or where to start. I was in my early twenties and not able to donate a bunch of money, so I needed to be creative. This assignment was perfect for me.
I initially met with the hospital’s special events committee, and it was nerve-racking. Here I am, a 26-year-old, enrolled in a leadership course and proposing a new idea to a room of Thunder Bay hospital and business executives. I was scared and inexperienced, but thankfully, the presentation went smoothly and the committee was on board.
Pushing me through this challenge was the memory of my dad’s heart attack –how those doctors and nurses did everything in their power to save his life. I knew a successful event would provide them with even more resources to continue the work they were doing.
My fondest memory of preparing for that first gala was procuring prize donations. At the time, I was also getting my real estate license. I was in London for phase two of the course I was taking, and I carried a Thunder Bay telephone book with me. I used to skip class (kids, if you’re reading, stay in school) and call local businesses non-stop. I needed to sell them on why they should donate to the gala. This was the scariest part. These people owned some of the biggest businesses in town and here’s a lanky 26-year-old asking them to donate their money to a first-time event.
The thing about Thunder Bay is that it’s a giving community. Everyone really helps each other out here, and for such a small community, people really care. I received over 50 prize donations, and more importantly, the support of Thunder Bay.
The first gala, now called the Save a Heart Ball, was a tremendous success. It was a sold-out event of 350 people who helped raise $37,000. Fast-forward 15 years later and the event is still going strong, now having raised over $1,000,000.
Standing by my dad’s hospital bed in 2002, I didn’t know if I’d see him again. Looking back, at the first Save a Heart Ball, I can’t help but think how lucky I am – how lucky I was to have this hospital save my dad’s life and then be able to show my appreciation through the gala. To this day, that’s what makes me the proudest.
I stepped down as the head of the Save a Heart Ball five years ago, but to see it constantly evolve under a new passionate team is incredible. Thanks to the success of the event and the support of the Thunder Bay community, the TBRHSC’s cardiac department went from only being able to do heart angiograms to now having the ability to perform open-heart surgery. As much as I hoped these events would be successful, I never could have imagined the impact they would have on the people of Thunder Bay.
The success of the first Save a Heart Ball was all because of the people of Thunder Bay. It was a chance for the community to come together, have fun, and support a much-needed cause. It became the talk of the town and quickly became the social event of the season.
The event wasn’t only about raising money, it was an opportunity to give cardiologists and the people responsible for saving my dad’s life the chance to talk more about their work. We heard first-hand stories of patients whose lives were saved because of the cardiology department at TBRHSC.
A big part of who I am comes from the people here in Thunder Bay. The community constantly comes together to support each other, whether it’s to raise money for a hospital, or to volunteer at a soup kitchen.
Thunder Bay’s slogan used to be, “We have a giant heart.” Although it’s not our slogan anymore, I think it sums us up perfectly.
Here in Thunder Bay, we truly have a giant heart.
“Here in Thunder Bay, we truly have a giant heart.”
Following the success of the first Save a Heart Ball, I was motivated to do more. Seeing the money raised and the community’s reception made me confident that I could expand my work into other areas.
I began volunteering with Camp Quality, a national charitable organization that provides free, uplifting camp experiences for children affected by cancer and blood disorders. I started working with kids at the camp who were diagnosed with various forms of cancer. At the same time, my dad was also diagnosed with prostate cancer, so it hit home even more.
The kids at Camp Quality taught me so much. Their resilience and perseverance in the face of their diseases was moving. Of all the kids at the camp, there was one camper, Connor, that I connected with, and who changed my life forever.
When I met him, Connor was six years old and dealing with a rare form of Rhabdomyosarcoma, a disease that affects someone’s bone marrow, lymph nodes, bladder and lungs. He was told as a SickKids patient that he’d only have three weeks to live. He was never discouraged. He was never defeated. I’ve known Connor for over 14 years now and worked with him up until his graduation from Camp Quality at 18. I consider him one of my life-long friends and my little brother. Throughout the years, I’ve learned more from him then I think he has from me. He successfully fought his cancer and is now a second year nursing student at Lakehead University. He’s challenging himself to become a medical professional so he can one day save someone’s life, just as his doctors did for him.
When I turned 29, I joined the Board of Directors of TBRHSC. Connor and the countless other kids at Camp Quality inspired me. I started my own Paediatric Fund for paediatric patient care at the hospital. I put in $25,000 at its inception and now, through donations and fundraisers, the fund has raised over $150,000.
Staying motivated isn’t always easy. At times, it’s challenging to balance your life, your career, and all that comes with volunteering. I have a lot of down days, but, at the end of the day, I love doing this for my community. That’s what keeps me going.
There’s one particular story that I always think about during these down periods. During my time volunteering in paediatric outpatient care, I met Alex, a 12-year-old with a brain tumor. Over the years, he dealt with a lot of problems and although he was a typical teenager and not much of a talker with me, I knew his condition was taking a mental and emotional toll on him. We talked, and I asked if he’d consider joining Camp Quality to get the support he deserved. He accepted, and I immediately saw an improvement in his overall demeanor.
When it was time for his operation, he needed to fly to Toronto, and I was by his side. As I sat there with him, preparing him and myself for what was about to happen, he told me I was like a father to him.
My number one tip to those looking to volunteer or fundraise is to start out small. Choose a manageable goal and get comfortable with it. No good can come from overwhelming yourself.
You don’t have to start with organizing a 350-person gala. It could be something easy. I personally value the small type of volunteerism from people – helping at a local shelter, donating clothes, working at a food bank, and doing other things just to be involved in your community.
“Choose a manageable goal and get comfortable with it. No good can come from overwhelming yourself.”
Since COVID-19, I’ve prioritized supporting the community in little ways, like delivering meals or giving back to local charities. A charity here in Thunder Bay had their freezer break down and I bought them a new one. A child in my neighborhood had their bike stolen, so I donated one to them. Just think about the members of your community and what they need, or think about ways in which you’d appreciate being supported. I’ve learned that the little things go a long way.
My other piece of advice is to be genuine. When I started the Save a Heart Ball, I wasn’t a REALTOR® yet. I didn’t make the event for networking or for anything to do with real estate. I did it because I genuinely wanted to give back. From there, I gained momentum and the confidence to do more. If you start small and do it for the right reasons, you can’t go wrong.
One thing I love about REALTORS® is that they give back. They care about their communities and are an extension of them. As a Real Heart Ambassador, my hope is not only to inspire others to take up volunteering or get involved with a cause that’s close to their heart, but also to motivate those who are already active in their community to begin sharing their story. Through this collective storytelling, we can do more to involve others in the real estate industry and beyond to see the value in giving back.
That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. Giving back to your community and supporting those around you, even if they don’t ask for it.
To learn more about Camp Quality and how you can get involved, please visit: https://www.campquality.org/
With COVID-19, this year’s Save a Heart Ball has been postponed, however, if you’d still like to donate to TBRHSC, please visit: https://www.healthsciencesfoundation.ca/resolute