By Neale McDevitt
A mother driving with her five-year-old daughter in the backseat takes a wrong turn and ends up in a dark back alley, forever altering the young girl’s life. It sounds like the ominous beginning of dramatic film but quite the opposite is true – this is a real-life story about a little girl whose unwavering compassion for human beings serves as an inspiration to us all.
The little girl in the backseat of that car was Hannah Taylor, now a 19-year-old Arts undergrad finishing her first year at McGill. Taylor remembers that fateful day like it was yesterday. “It was December in Winnipeg so it was freezing cold and snow covered. I looked out my window and I saw a man searching through a garbage dumpster for food,” she says. “I asked my mother why he was doing that and she said he had to do that to eat.”
“I had never seen homelessness and I was struck by it,” she says. “My five-year-old heart just wouldn’t let it go.”
And when Taylor says she wouldn’t let it go, she means it. She questioned her parents almost daily for a year. Why did people have to live in the street? Where did they sleep? Wasn’t there enough food and homes for everyone? Why didn’t anyone help?
“I worried about this man and, as I learned more about homelessness in Winnipeg and in Canada, I began to worry about everyone living in those conditions.”
One night, Taylor – who had just turned six – asked her mother another question about homelessness as she was being tucked in for the night. “My mom said to me, ‘You know, Hannah, maybe if you do something about it, your heart won’t feel so bad.’”
And that set the wheels in motion, wheels that, 13 years later, show no signs of stopping.
Taylor did a presentation about homelessness to her Grade One class and organized a campaign to collect food, coffee and clothing for a local shelter. To her delight, her classmates matched her enthusiasm. “I saw that people wanted to help – they just don’t know how to start,” says Taylor. “In the case of my Grade One class, when they were given the opportunity to help, everyone immediately came up with their own great ideas.”
But for Taylor, this was not a one-and-done project. Buoyed by the success of her fledgling initiative, she kept at it, raising both money for and awareness for a cause that was so close to her heart. Over the ensuing years, she met with business leaders and politicians, flew around the country for speaking engagements and collected money in jars decorated with ladybugs – her good luck charms.
Jars of money become a Foundation
In 2004, Taylor had raised enough money to launch The Ladybug Foundation, a non-profit charitable foundation that support other charities across Canada in providing food, shelter and support for the homeless. She was eight. Today, Taylor is the CEO of the Lady Bug Foundation, which to date, has raised over $4 million for dozens of frontline soup kitchens, emergency shelters, food banks and youth shelters.
Also in 2004, Taylor founded her second registered charity – The Ladybug Foundation Education Program, a kindergarten to grade 12 classroom resource designed to teach kids how to affect change in their own community, country and throughout the world. “When I speak at schools, I see kids have that light bulb moment where they say ‘Hey if she can do it, so can I.’ We don’t give kids enough credit, but they do care and they are driven to help change things. They just need the tools.”
And Taylor knows that, in order to effectuate change, the best tool one can have is knowledge. “Education – formal and experiential – is the key,” she says. “That’s why so much of the work we do with the Ladybug Foundation is to raise awareness. Before people can do, they need to know.”
Which made McGill the logical place for Taylor to pursue her studies. “It has such a great reputation – and rightfully so,” she says. “I love it here. Classes are always great and I’ve met so many wonderful people,” she says. “So far I absolutely love the university experience.”
Since starting at McGill last September, Taylor has had to curtail her Ladybug Foundation activities somewhat in order to concentrate on her studies – although she has still managed to do a few speaking engagements via Skype. Having declared her major in International Development, States and Governance, he plan is to get a Law degree. Not surprisingly, she wants to work in human rights.
Find your passion
In talking with Taylor about her life’s work, one can see that this is something she needs to do. “Everyone has to find something that they are passionate about, whether it is being a fantastic father, or working for the environment or loving your job as a bankruptcy and insolvency lawyer,” says Taylor. “My passion is helping people, especially homeless people. It’s just something my heart made me do and it’s like breathing – it doesn’t stop. Some people spend their lives trying to find that passion but I got lucky and I found it when I was five.”
That passion is never more obvious than when Taylor discusses the people she has met in her coast-to-coast travels.
She talks about watching Brian, a homeless man at a Winnipeg shelter, give his new vest – that he had just received for Christmas – to another man who was distraught. “He said ‘You need this more than me,’” says Taylor. “Despite how hard life has been on him, he was so generous and kind. How can you not be inspired by that?”
Then there was the time Taylor took a tour of a Toronto children’s shelter and ended up hanging out with the kids for much of the day. “I was getting ready to leave and this one tiny girl who had been there the whole time but hadn’t said anything stepped out from behind the crowd and gave me a hug. She said ‘Before today I thought nobody loved me. Now I know you do.’
And then there is Rick. “Rick is a former residential school student who was homeless for about 25 years. He now has a place to stay and is retired from a job, so he’s doing well,” she says. “He is so wise and special and kind and loving. When things get especially tough or busy, I call him and we talk and it reminds me how much work like this matters.
“I’m lucky to have such an amazing friend.”