April 5, 2012

By Barbi Lazarus with assistance from Gregory Wasney

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It’s days like these that make me wish I had a blog, so that I could spontaneously write to the world about people, events or news that I want to share.  But alas, I don’t have a blog, so please stay with me as I share with you the impact that Agnes Kwasnicka, a cherished TVA volunteer and donor, has had not only on the Toronto Vegetarian Association and on animal activism, but also on me personally in my role as TVA’s donor and volunteer resources coordinator.

Agnes and her equally fantastic husband, Greg Wasney, began volunteering with TVA back in the early 2000s, tabling at punk and ska shows on behalf of the organization. But I first met Agnes at a volunteer training session exactly one year ago from the day I am writing this story.

As the person responsible for ensuring that TVA outreach events are staffed by friendly, knowledgeable and trustworthy volunteers, it is always an absolute pleasure to meet people like Agnes and Greg who arrive eager to get involved. I can still picture them clearly, coming up to me at the end of the session and asking questions. I remember Agnes mentioning her professional background as a medical doctor and that she wanted to get involved with the organization in other ways as well. They were smiling and bright. I instantly had an “ahhh” moment, thinking to myself “Now here’s a set of people I can totally trust representing TVA at outreach events.”

Agnes and Greg volunteered that month at the Green Living Show, and were immediate ambassadors for TVA and vegetarianism in general. They were engaging, calm and knowledgeable. Lisa Pitman volunteered with them on that first shift at the Green Living Show and remembers:

“We connected right away. Our shift disappeared quickly as we laughed, chatted to the people wandering past and challenged the vendors around us to give the veggie challenge a go. I knew after that first day I’d see Agnes tabling again. Her obvious ease and authentic enthusiasm made her an ideal spokesperson for our movement.

Every time I saw Agnes at an outreach event she was beaming. It was clear that sharing her knowledge and experience with people, answering their tough questions, and entertaining them with stories of her dogs or favourite vegan recipes was a passion.”

Agnes and Greg next came to the rescue at our Compassion Marketplace in June. Once again, they used their fabulous outreach skills to engage people coming through the Wychwood Barns Farmers’ Market and to educate them on all the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Having someone like Agnes with a medical background is always a bonus at outreach events. People are looking for credentials and for people they can trust to hear that a vegetarian diet is healthy. They’re looking for people who can answer all of those questions we so often get about where to get your [insert nutrient here!].

agnesk3But I remember them really saving the day at the end of the event when the ride to get our table materials back to the office fell through and they stepped in and offered to drive it all back. For me, one of the most challenging aspects of my job is drumming up the courage to ask for favours of people. Working in a small non-profit, this happens often. We’re always short on resources, and as much as I know it’s a good cause that people are eager to support, no one likes to feel like they’re imposing on someone or putting them on the spot when help is needed and I’m no exception. When Agnes and Greg offered to go out of their way driving the materials back to the office, after a long day of volunteering already, it was a huge relief. They insisted it was not an imposition and brushed off my “Thank you thank you thank you!”s,  Agnes all the while with her beaming smile.

For many people, summer is a time to take it easy, to use a few extra vacation days, and to lap up the sunshine. Agnes and Greg themselves took part in Toronto’s first vegan scavenger hunt, as members of the Kale Kommandos team. They ran around the city energetically, giving it their all to meet all the challenges and complete all the adventures.

But, with the Food Festival happening at the very beginning of September, my summers are anything but relaxing. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about how fortunate I am to work for the Toronto Vegetarian Association. But that being said, with food festival volunteer recruitment in full swing, and TVA’s presence at outreach events at a peak, summer is certainly the most stressful time of the year for me and days lazing in the sun seem few and far between.

It’s for that reason that I will never be able to thank Agnes enough for helping me with an extremely frustrating, onerous and tedious task last summer: ordering books for the food festival bookstore. Agnes (along with two other fabulous TVA volunteers, Valerie and Udai) offered to come in to the office on a couple of occasions to place book orders. This may not sound like a big deal on the surface, but believe me when I say the world of book publishing is surprisingly complex and the process of finding out who sells what book, how to reach them, what their return policy is, whether or not they do whole sale pricing, and sitting on hold to place orders is extremely time consuming.

Agnes, Valerie and Udai’s commitment to take over this process last summer had an enormous impact on my ability to stay on top of other tasks. It was as if a gigantic weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and it saved me days of work and allowed me to actually go home for dinner and get a good night’s rest. I was even able to make a bit of time each evening sitting on a park bench reading or going for a bike ride.

I truly owe Agnes (and Valerie and Udai) the world for giving me that extra bit of sanity during an otherwise hectic and overwhelming time.

On top of that, the weekend of the event I received one of the most thoughtful, encouraging emails I’ve ever gotten related to my work at TVA. Although Agnes had devoted time of her own to volunteering to make the food festival a hit, here she was writing to thank me for working hard over the summer. I was floored that she took the time to write and let me know that she appreciated my work and that her and her family were excited about the event. The news that she had even made her two dogs special vegan themed shirts just for the food festival completely brightened my day and made me even more excited for the event.

When the festival finally came around, Agnes and Greg were of course there. Cute as a button, Agnes got in touch with me several weeks before the festival to find out if there was a position available that could accommodate not only herself and Greg on the same shift, but also their two dogs, Fluffy and George! How could I resist? The four of them signed up to distribute programs, and once again, it eased my anxiety to see Agnes’ name down on that mighty volunteer schedule. Last minute cancellations and volunteer shortages are common at the food festival, and yet another big stressor for me. But I knew I could count on Agnes and Greg (and Fluffy and George) to arrive on time and fulfill their commitment. When their shift came around, I knew that was a good time for me to take a break and scope out some of the vendors myself.

agnesgregWhen the festival comes to a close, it’s finally time to relax. Fall and winter is a relatively quiet time at TVA, and gives the opportunity for staff to work on long overdue projects and new ideas.  This year, the Board of Directors decided that family physicians were long overdue to get some nutritional training. After all, it’s long been known that medical school includes very little, if any, nutritional training and instead focuses on treatment of disease with drugs and pharmaceuticals.

Being a physician herself, Agnes (along with Tushar, another great TVA volunteer and donor who is also a doctor) eagerly stepped in to help us with creating a section of our website and handouts just for doctors. Thank goodness, as I certainly didn’t feel qualified to be leading such a project! Her advice and suggestions were invaluable. She was able to give me guidance from her first-hand experience about what kind of information doctors would need, and in what format it would be most useful.

As you can see, Agnes has had an ongoing impact on my life and work at TVA since I first met her in April 2011. She’s been a reliable, trustworthy and capable volunteer, not to mention a joy to be around and a great person to talk to. With both of us being guardians to miniature dachshunds, we had many chats about weiner dog meetups and did a temporary DVD swap of two documentaries that only dachshund lovers would appreciate: “Weiner Takes All” and “Lord of the Weins.” It was always a pleasure when Agnes would come in to the office and she’d brighten up my day.

It’s for that reason that I was crushed when I heard Agnes and Greg were leaving Toronto and headed to Vancouver. Then yesterday, only a few months after their move, I received the devastating news that Agnes passed away after living for a year and a half with cancer. The news could not have come as a greater shock. I would have never guessed she was sick. Each time I met with Agnes, she was vibrant, glowing and energetic.

What amazes me is how dedicated she remained to vegan activism while living with cancer. If I imagine myself being diagnosed with a terminal illness, I picture saying “no” a lot more. I imagine that I would feel the urge to make sure that for my remaining days I was putting myself first, focusing on my own needs and wants. But in the time I knew Agnes, she was always eager to help and made tireless contributions to Toronto’s vegetarian community. Clearly she remained committed to helping others and making the world a better place.agnesk1

She continued to eat a vegan diet right up to her last meal, and even educated several hospital nutritionists and doctors about veganism while laying in her hospital bed.  In fact, her husband tells me that she actually saw cancer as an opportunity to stop her hectic life of work and focus on other important things that she felt was ignored for all too long. She will forever be a role model for me and remind me to stay positive and make the most of each day.

In addition to her work with TVA, Agnes committed herself to helping others throughout her academic and professional career, including weaving her vegan activism into her work wherever she could. In the past, she completed a fellowship in Addiction Medicine and held a position at the Sherbourne Health Centre, working with homeless and otherwise marginalized people. In her position there, she promoted and helped facilitate many individuals whenever she could to acquire vegan meals because she believed that every plant-based meal counted in recovering their health.  While also completing a fellowship in Academic Medicine, she was able to teach young medical students at U of T and impress upon them the importance of patient-centred medicine through compassion and understanding.

With the loss of Agnes, the Toronto Vegetarian Association has lost a committed activist and a joyful companion. But we have also gained inspiration to push forward, to make the most of our limited resources and to continue to work at inspiring people to choose a healthier, greener, more peaceful lifestyle no matter what obstacles come our way.

We miss you already Agnes, but you’ll remain in our hearts and our minds, and will remind us that we can make a difference. Thank you.