PEOPLE & PLACES
Cheesecake Medic brings help to First Responders
Story by Katie Ryalen | Photos by Wynne Feret
Durham Region is full of crafty, creative individuals who are turning their passions into their businesses and bringing a whole lot of heart to our community. But there is something extra special about a business that arises from a tragedy to become a beacon of hope for others who are in desperate need of help.
Cheesecake Medic is one case in point. Founder and operator of Cheesecake Medic, Carol Rix, takes baking to new heights. With a diverse and unique selection of cheesecakes for order, including such flavours as PB&J, carrot cake and butter tart pecan, cheesecake lovers can indulge in handcrafted desserts for any occasion. Cheesecake Medic, however, is more than just a home-based baking operation. As the name suggests, it is also a vehicle for providing assistance to first responders suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In June of 2017, Carole’s brother Chris sadly decided to end his life. A paramedic with Peel Region for nearly 20 years, no one knew that he was suffering from PTSD. “One of the last sibling rivalries we had was over who made better cheesecakes,” she recalls. “Chris insisted his were better, and I, being the stubborn, spoiled baby sister, insisted mine were. To settle the argument, we planned a bake-off at our upcoming family reunion that summer.” It was while she was overseas with her two older boys that Carole learned of Chris’s tragic passing. “We never got to have our bake-off,” she says.
For a period of time, Carole found herself struggling with grief. “I spent weeks not really functioning as a human,” she recalls. Baking was a way for her to cope, and to help her through the grieving process. But as she baked, her tables and her fridges began to fill with cheesecake until she asked herself why she was doing all of this. She says, “Eventually it just kind of dawned on me—I woke up one day and realized that this was a business. I could be doing so much more with this.”
Originally, Carole partnered with the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, to which she would donate a portion of her proceeds. The charity was founded in memory of Miss Conter, a 25-year-old fashion buyer, who in 1988 was found slain in her Toronto apartment. Metro Ambulance first responder Vince Savoia was on the scene that day, and never forgot what he saw. Several years later, he established the foundation to raise awareness of critical incident stress on paramedics. The organization had a well-earned reputation as a pioneer in advocating mental health support for first responders, but sadly shut down operations in October of 2018.
“A couple of months ago, I finally connected with Wounded Warriors Canada,” Carole explains. “Now, a portion of the proceeds from Cheesecake Medic go to Wounded Warriors to help other first responders and their families.”
Cheesecake Medic operates online through Facebook, Instagram and email. Orders can be picked up either at Carole’s house, or she will deliver within Durham Region. Cheesecake Medic can also be found at local craft shows.
It has only been a year but business has grown considerably, and Carole is amazed by the impact she’s been able to have. “It has taken off to a level that I never anticipated,” she exclaims. “First responders will come up to me when I’m at craft booths and they see my brother’s paramedic helmet. Or they’ll be intrigued by the name and want to know what the story is. But to have first responders open up to me, or break down at my table and allow me the opportunity to offer them help—that side of it was something I never considered would be possible.”
The awareness of the impact of PTSD on first responders and military personnel has increased dramatically in recent years, as more and more cases of suicide amongst this demographic make headlines. Today the condition is well-documented and there are networks and resources for those who need help. The former Ontario government even introduced legislation in April of 2016, mandating that PTSD diagnoses in first responders is presumed to be work-related, and therefore does not need to be proven as such.
Yet still, many first responders continue to suffer in silence. According to the Centre for Suicide
Prevention, as many as 70,000 first responders in Canada are currently suffering or have suffered from PTSD in their lifetimes. Sixteen active and 15 retired RCMP officers died by suicide between 2006 and 2014 and between April and December 2014, 27 first responders died by suicide.
“We’ve made leaps and bounds in creating awareness,” Carole explains. “It’s the mentality that has to be broken down. There’s this old-fashioned perception that if you ask for help, you look weak. If you’ve had a bad call, you’re just expected to go back out on the road again. And treatment is not mandatory. So even if there are things in place to get help, no one is going to make you.”
Initially, Carole had concerns about the viability of her business, and whether she could even start one. “It was mostly the business side of things,” she explains. “It was going through the health inspection and all the approvals. But I don’t want to say these things were hurdles. Once I realized how important I could be in the lives of people who are suffering, I looked at these challenges as just more things that needed to be done.”
Through her work, Carole has been able to reach many first responders. “I was at the International Centre [in Toronto] for the Seasons Christmas Show in November,” she tells. “A police officer was there with a service dog, and his wife completely broke down in tears at my booth when she heard my story. I remained in contact with them and have kept up to date on how he is doing. But it was just seeing him walk into that show, struggling with anxiety, and then meeting me and him leaving feeling more comfortable. To have that kind of a personal effect on somebody is so powerful.”
Recently, Cheesecake Medic attended a craft show at the Oshawa Centre when a paramedic and his girlfriend approached her booth. Carole discovered that this young man had responded the night before to a high-profile drowning incident in Toronto. “He was the paramedic who actually had to pull the boy out of the water,” she says. “As soon as I started talking to him, he began to sob. To see a grown man crying in front of a stranger, telling his story, and being able to talk to me… that was the moment I realized this was bigger than cheesecakes. It was bigger than just donating to a cause.”
Carole has no definite plans for Cheesecake Medic’s future. As an avenue to deal with her own grief, she wants the evolution of her business to be fluid, not forced. “I would love to be able to speak more publicly about my story,” she says, “and I would like to see it grow so that I can reach more people.”
To view Cheesecake Medic’s menu, or to find out more about Carole Rix’s story, visit online at www.cheesecakemedic.com.
Urban Agriculture Thrives in Durham
Story by Katie Ryalen
Durham’s roots have always been agricultural, and farms have historically been a major feature of our landscape. But with the city moving east, our once quaint towns are becoming bustling metropolitan centres, and our land is shifting from agricultural to residential, industrial and retail. That being said, it does not follow that urbanization and agriculture are diametrically opposed and that one cannot exist in the same space as the other. In fact, there is a large, citizen-led movement to keep urban agriculture a thriving part of our landscape—one which, in some cases, is supported and encouraged by our municipalities.
Growing food in urban areas is a centuries-old tradition. Just look at Cabbagetown in Toronto. It is a residential area named for the cabbages that grew in the front yards of the poor Irish immigrants living there beginning in Victorian times. In Durham Region, as urban areas were being built amongst the rural farms, it was natural to have food production happening next door to residential developments. “If you look in the archives, you’ll see people growing food in their yards a hundred years ago,” says Mary Drummond. “That tradition is carrying on in community gardens today.”
Mary is the president of DIG (the Durham Integrated Growers for a Sustainable Community), a not-for-profit organization founded in 2009, whose volunteers are passionate about urban agriculture. “Our mission is to support local community food production and food security through sharing information, knowledge and skills,” she explains.
DIG works collaboratively with urban agriculture and local food projects in a variety of ways. It is not focused exclusively on community gardens, but also on events like excursions and symposiums, and larger projects like research and policy scans. “We don’t do hands-on projects ourselves, per se,” Mary says. “We tend to be mentors, and we want to establish a continuing relationship with groups and individuals who are starting an urban agriculture initiative or food-related project. When these groups take ownership over their own project, that’s how they’re going to be sustainable in the long run.”
There are many community gardens and other projects here in Durham Region. Most are on private lands, but some are in partnership with our cities and municipalities. One of the larger ones is the Valley Plentiful Community Garden in Pickering. “We have over 100 gardeners of all ages,” says project manager Carolyn Kaspersky. “I think our oldest one is 97, and our youngest are toddlers.”
The City of Pickering has been instrumental in helping Valley Plentiful get started, and staff have approached the project with enthusiasm. “They were the ones who drew up the plans,” Carolyn says, “and we’ve had four extensions to our garden. The city supplies us with all the wood chips, the water… we couldn’t have done it without them. We are also organic. The city wants us to be that way, but honestly, I wouldn’t want to do this if it weren’t organic, because what’s the point of growing your own food if you can’t improve the quality?”
The city has also worked to make the garden accessible to persons with disabilities. Today, one gardener living with multiple sclerosis enjoys enhanced access to his bed, where before he was finding it difficult to continue with his traditional plot. “One of the seniors’ groups in the area built a raised bed off site, and last year [the city] put a rubber product in so that he can drive his scooter up to his site,” Carolyn says. “There is also now a porta-potty that is wheelchair accessible.”
Of course, gardening for food appeals to different people for different reasons, as does joining a community garden versus gardening in one’s back yard. Some of the older gardeners at Valley Plentiful have moved into condos and no longer have their own land. There are people who love to garden, but their own yard is too shaded to support vegetable growth, which requires quite a bit of sunshine.
Then there are people who love the social aspect of a community garden. “It’s funny,” says Carolyn Kaspersky, “because people say they’re just going to the garden for twenty minutes. But two hours later they haven’t done anything but stand around and chat, or see what everyone else is growing.”
There has been significant discourse in recent years about local food. People today are becoming more conscious of where their food comes from as they gain more access to information. “People want healthy food for their families,” Mary Drummond of DIG says. “Once they taste that local, fresh, out-of-your-garden or picked-at-the-farm flavour, there’s really no going back.” Also, she argues that grocery stores need their produce to be marketable and make a profit. “You will find a lot more biodiversity in a community garden or in your back yard,” she says. “A lot of these urban agriculture projects are interested in heritage varieties. And there could be cultural crops, as well, that wouldn’t make a profit commercially, but you can still grow them here in Canada.”
Cathy Bartolic is the executive director of Ontario Farm Fresh, an organization which works with farmers who sell directly to the consumer. She agrees that part of the draw of fresh, locally-grown food is that it is often picked at the peak of its maturity, which translates to a wonderful flavour, and that locally grown food means unique varieties can be found which cannot be found in a grocery store. “A lot of times, fruits and vegetables are selected because they might have a tougher skin or they’re able to deal with shipping better,” she says. “There are a lot of varieties [of produce] out there that are not in a grocery store, and sometimes it’s just because they’re not grown in a volume that’s needed to supply a large commercial operation.”
Whatever a gardener’s individual reason for supporting urban agriculture, it is clear that the movement as a whole is driven by our Durham residents wanting to become involved in producing the food that nourishes them. “People want to get in touch with nature again,” Mary Drummond states. “They’re concerned about the environment, and they want to teach their kids where their food comes from. We need to start thinking about urban agriculture as infrastructure. Just like we do with our roads. It’s part of who we are as a community. As development intensifies it will be important to be able to see food growing and know that food grows. It doesn’t just appear on the shelf.”
“Supporting local food is an investment in the future,” adds Cathy Bartolic. “We have seen quite an increase in interest of supporting local foods. The provincial government, for the last ten years or so, has made quite an investment to increase the awareness of local food.”
For more information on urban agriculture projects and community gardens here in Durham Region, visit online:
Durham Integrated Growers
Ontario Farm Fresh
Valley Plentiful Community Garden
Medea Kalantar’s recipe for readers
Story by Katie Ryalen | Photos by Wynne Feret
This spring, Whitby’s newest author released her debut children’s book to a flurry of praise. Honeycake: A Family of Spices is the first installment in this new series of five books, and is based on author Medea Kalantar’s real-life family. Of course, having a book published is quite an accomplishment for any author. But what makes this book even more notable is the fact that writing was never something Medea had considered would be in her future.
In Honeycake: A Family of Spices, a grandmother (the literary version of Kalantar herself) teaches the fictional character Nala how to bake a honey cake. She also teaches Nala how, through imagination, each delicious ingredient represents the different ethnic background of a family member. This is why she calls her grandchildren her “Honeycakes.” The book is a story about acceptance and celebrating the backgrounds that make us unique. Like the spices in a honey cake, our different flavours blend together to create the single beautiful entity that is humanity. At the end of the book, there is a recipe for readers to follow so they can make their own honey cake.
“It has many different meanings,” Medea says of her work. “It’s more than just a recipe. It’s a recipe for life as well, because it’s teaching all about diversity and multiculturalism. The main subject of the book is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what colour your skin is. We are all a part of one race, and that’s the human race.”
The idea for the book came to Medea last June when she discovered she was going to be a grandmother. In honour of Medea’s own grandmother, she decided to bake a honey cake—a traditional Jewish cake from her native Georgia which is typically baked for Rosh Hashanah and other special celebrations. “It was a full -circle moment for me,” she recalls, “because my Bebi taught me how to make a honey cake when I was a young girl.”
But the correlation of the cake to her grandchild-to-be lay in the mix of different spices, which she realized was much like the mix of different ethnicities in her family. “I’m from Georgia and my husband is Persian,” Medea explains, “so my daughter Shanaz is a mix of the two of us. But my daughter’s fiancé, Brandon, is Jamaican, Guyanese, Portuguese and Chinese. There are all these different spices in a honey cake, like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, and here is my grandson with all these different mixes of ethnicities. As I was baking, I realized that he was going to be my little Honeycake.”
In her career as a Reiki master and practitioner, Medea teaches positivity and imparts wisdom for well-being. It was no great leap for her to decide that children should also be taught positive messages, and her series of books strives to provide young readers with the tools she regularly shares with her adult clients. The following books in her series focus on different messages as taught to Nala by family members. For example, the second installment (currently in production) is called Honeycake: Help, I Swallowed a Butterfly. “It’s all about how to deal with anxiety,” Medea explains. “Nala is at school, and she’s nervous about presenting in front of the class. The teacher assures her that she just has butterflies in her tummy. But as a young girl, Nala doesn’t understand what that means, so she runs home and tells her mom that she’s swallowed a butterfly.” Through this anecdote, Medea teaches children the first steps of meditation and breathing, and how to visualize positive outcomes. The remaining books in the Honeycake series teach kindness, trust and gratitude.
The importance of showcasing and celebrating diversity has always been important to Medea and her family. Growing up in Whitby ahead of the urban expansion boom which the town has experienced over the last decade, her children often received questions about why they looked different from their friends and classmates. “Like I said, I’m from Georgia and my husband is from Persia,” Medea explains. “So the kids couldn’t figure out what ethnicity my children were. But my kids were always taught not to look at gender or colour or culture. They were taught to look at human beings, because that’s what we are.”
Medea certainly has lived her messages of positivity. She left a career in the corporate world to become a Reiki Master, and has never looked back. Like her books, her career change was not planned. “The universe showed me the way,” she states. “I had to follow my instinct, and I’m so glad I did. I feel like a totally different person and I see things in such a different way. Imagine if we gave children these same tools at a young age. They would have less stress, less anxiety. They would focus less on materialism, and more on acceptance and kindness and compassion towards others.”
The fact that Medea had no formal training as a writer didn’t stop her from trying. “I don’t have a writing background,” she admits. “I always wanted to write my biography someday, later down the road, because I’ve had so many experiences in my life. But I never had any intention on writing—especially not a children’s book.”
But as she says, the messages were in her to share, and they simply had to come out. “I wrote five books in four days,” she adds. “I couldn’t stop. Clearly, the universe had something planned.”
The biggest challenge Medea had to face was, she says, fear: Fear of failure, and fear of a financial impact on her family. Clearly, neither has been the case, and the book has been extremely well received. “I’m beyond grateful,” she exclaims. “I can’t even explain how happy this makes me feel. The book has been welcomed with open arms and I’ve received such positive feedback. It was an Amazon best-seller for a month, and it only came out March first!”
Recently, Medea participated in a book signing in Oshawa, at which she was approached by a school principal. “She said she was so happy that I had written this book,” she tells, “because her school has many kids with diverse backgrounds.” After purchasing six books to bring back with her, this principal invited Medea to come to her school and speak at an upcoming family event. Medea says, “I’m really excited about that, excited that the community is welcoming me and sees value in what I have to share.”
What advice does Medea Kalantar have for new writers? “It’s a question I’m asked a lot,” she says. “I always say that you have to be passionate about what you’re writing. If you are, then it will just come out naturally. You won’t be stuck for words. Be authentic and true to yourself. Don’t try to be like someone else, be who you are. That’s what we should all be striving for.”
It’s fitting advice. That is, after all, the lesson of Honeycake: A Family of Spices… with a delicious recipe thrown in for good measure.
Honeycake: A Family of Spices is available online at Amazon and Indigo/Chapters. To learn more about Medea Kalantar and her books, visit www.honeycakebooks.com.