This weekly column features community-minded Vancouverites that are making a difference at a grassroots level.
When Mary-Jo Dionne sets out to begin a new project, she asks herself a few pertinent questions.
While there are always considerations of creativity allowance, learning potential, and compensation, she says one thing stands out.
“Absolutely everything I do comes down to this: How can I share the good fortune? How can I step up?”
Speaking with the Straight at a Commercial Drive coffee shop, Dionne, a writer, editor, public speaker, podcaster, philanthropist, and performer, sums herself up as a “poly-hyphenated creative communications junkie”.
She says her unrelenting desire to give back is rooted in her upbringing.
“I was raised by a single mom, who I don’t want to say tricked me—but she led me to believe, through the entirety of my formative years, that we were very, very wealthy—despite the fact that we were the exact opposite,” Dionne says.
Growing up in a low-income neighbourhood in Winnipeg, Dionne’s mother drilled into her head just how fortunate they were, despite the fact that they toed the poverty line.
“Every single day leaving the house, my mother would say, ‘you know what we are, Mary-Jo? We are too, too lucky’,” she says.
“We didn’t have a car, so we’d pull our groceries home by toboggan, and my mother would say, ‘your friends have to empty groceries out of the trunks of boring, old sedans—you get to pull a toboggan’. So I did it with my head held high.”
At Christmas time, the two would buy gifts and deliver hampers to families in need, despite their own limited means. One December, Dionne recalls delivering a hamper to a home on her block:
“I remember dropping it off and not being able to wrap my head around it. I didn’t realize that we weren’t in a rich neighbourhood.”
Dionne says that idea of abundance consciousness—a state of mind whereby prosperity is perceived through awareness, rather than what one might physically possess—has guided the course of her life ever since.
“When you’re raised with such unshakeable certainty that abundance is yours to be had, and the way to ascertain that abundance is by doing for others, you can’t help but see the world through those eyes for the rest of your life,” she says.
Her willingness to share has materialized in a multitude of ways over the years.
She’s spearheaded initiatives that raised funds for cancer agencies and non-profits, and supported a number of animal rights organizations, even starting her own line of t-shirts dedicated to responsible pet ownership.
But after the birth of her daughters, Dionne says she was “hit by the love truck”, and felt the call to refocus her fundraising efforts.
“I was normal until I was 40, and then I turned totally kid-kooky, so now the focus is on families and children,” Dionne says.
By funneling five percent of every invoiced project into the Mary-Jo Dionne Productions fund, which she started in 2015 with the help of the VanCity Community Foundation, she’s focused on providing resources to grant-based initiatives in Vancouver that will assist children living in poverty, and children fighting critical illness.
But it’s about more than dollars, Dionne says.
“Every single thing that we do, whether it’s professional or personal—if we exert that five percent rule where we look at the situation differently—whether it’s five percent of our time, our dollars, our day, and we give that to someone else, there’s no measure to me, of what we could be doing,” Dionne says.
Take, for example, the way Dionne uses her one-woman Fringe Fest show, Glowing: A Reproduction Production, to collect baby food for local food banks.
Or, the way she’s kept a Christmas tradition that started with her mother alive with her husband and two daughters.
“Every December 23, my mother and I would have our own ‘cupcake Christmas’, where we ate cupcakes and watched movies,” Dionne recalls.
“She’s now in the Maritimes, so every December 23, my family and I bring cupcakes to the Downtown Eastside.”
One year, Dionne shared a video of the experience on Facebook.
She says since then, she’s been able to recruit families and friends across North America and Europe to do the same thing in neighbourhoods in their own communities.
“It’s all comes back to that five percent thing,” she says.
Government and politics aside, Dionne’s biggest concern for those in need is how we can ensure that they are seen, heard, and cared for, especially in a city like Vancouver.
“How do you legitimately get people in need back on the radar, knowing that each of us possess a small way to alleviate their stress?
“I’m not going to say we’re going to solve everything, and certainly cupcakes won’t do that, but I think it’s a symbol to let people know that they’re on our radar,” she says.
Despite a schedule loaded with projects, podcasts, and performances, not to mention the raising of two young daughters, Dionne’s commitment to supporting her community won’t be coming to an end any time soon.
By planting those same seeds of abundance consciousness in her daughters, she hopes that they will grow into the belief in the same way that she did.
“Someone recently asked me when I realized my mother was lying,” says Dionne near the end of our interview.
“My mother wasn’t wrong. We were rich.”
Know someone doing important work in your community? Message Amanda Siebert here.