TORONTO – Mike Strobel is a (kind of) retired Toronto Sun editor and columnist with 40-some years in the newspaper business who hangs his hat for a good part of the year in Kagawong these days. You might think all that time in the media business following stories in our nation’s largest city would leave a person utterly jaded and cynical. You’d be wrong.
Mr. Stobel published ‘Small Miracles: The Inspiring Kids of Variety Village,’ a collection of his columns featuring the remarkable people he has met at Variety Village, just before Christmas as part of his annual fundraising efforts. Those efforts raised a record-breaking $117,124 this year.
Mr. Strobel’s fundraising co-chair, eight-year-old Madison “Madi” Ambos, perhaps said it best with his reaction on hearing the news that was quoted in the January 5 edition of the Toronto Sun: “Wow! That’s a lot of money. This is amazing news because it will help me and my friends continue activities like rock climbing, going to summer camp, swimming and Volt hockey.”
“I retired from the Toronto Sun in 2017, but I come out of retirement at Christmas every year,” Mr. Strobel said in conversation with The Expositor. What draws him back is the Toronto Sun’s Christmas Fund (which Mr. Strobel took over managing in 2008), well that and the kids at Scarborough’s Variety Village.
When The Expositor caught up with him just before Christmas, the veteran journalist was setting out to meet Zach Rayment, 12, a youth with cerebral palsy whose life has been positively impacted by Variety Village.
The annual Toronto Sun Christmas Fund was founded in 1983 to bring hope to kids with disabilities and families struggling through the holiday season, explains Mr. Strobel. Variety Village programming empowers children with disabilities to be seen, participate and feel included. The organization aims to “bring accessible facilities to life with sports, fitness, activities, summer camps, skills training and coaching for competitive and Paralympic athletes. Through local partnerships, Variety Village extends its reach through accessibility training and education.
Mr. Strobel later informed The Expositor that, upon arrival for his interview, he discovered that Zach had just taken his first ever unaided steps. “Imagine you woke up one morning and discovered you could fly,” he told Mr. Strobel.
The veteran journalist first discovered Variety Village seeking to increase his own physical fitness. The innovative community centre hosts a pool and fitness centre that is open to the public but caters specifically to those with physical challenges.
“I would be swimming in the pool and in the next lane would be a kid with no legs, in the lane next to him someone with Down Syndrome, in the next someone who was blind,” he recalled. “Everyone swimming and getting along—it didn’t matter.”
“That is what impressed me the most,” said Mr. Strobel. “Politicians tend to talk about inclusiveness, but you walk into that place and there is no difference, no stress—and no staring.”
Mr. Strobel pointed out that when a person with a visible disability is seen on the street, people tend to stare at them. That peepshow fascination that afflicts even normally compassionate human beings (commercialized by the likes of PT Barnum) apparently remains strong among many of us, despite our parents’ admonitions and the pain that it causes the subjects of our gaze.
The sights and sounds of people with disabilities are so endemic to the hallways and gym areas of Variety Village that all sense of “strangeness” or “other” has long since evaporated. People have simply become people; kids are simply kids.
“There are no barriers in Variety Village,” continued Mr. Strobel. The entire facility is built with inclusiveness and accessibility. “That is extremely rare in this day and age,” he said. “That is why I am still doing it.”
Mr. Strobel’s book is a fundraiser for Variety Village. “All of the revenue, not just the ‘net profits,’ but all of the money that comes in goes to Variety Village,” said Mr. Strobel. The book can currently be purchased exclusively from the Variety Village website (varietyontario-sunfund.square.site) and retails from $35 for the softcover and $45 for the hardcover edition. “Apparently my signature on the book is worth another five bucks,” chuckles Mr. Strobel, noting the price set on a signed edition.
Mr. Strobel has started up his own publishing company as part of another “retirement” project. “Well, ‘publishing company’ is a bit of a grandiose label,” he laughs. His plan is to publish titles linked to Manitoulin Island and the North Shore, hence the title of the house North Channel Press.
The new Island publisher pointed out that (full disclosure) The Expositor was heavily involved in both the design of the book cover and the logo for the publishing house. Kendra Edwards (Kendra Edwards Design) designed both for Mr. Strobel and the printing was done by Espanola’s OJ Graphix. Former Expositor copy editor Kate Thompson of M’Chigeeng did the final editing of the book. There is even an Island connection inside the covers. “Tom Imrie, my neighbour in Kagawong, his grandson is one of the youths featured in the book.
“Kendra did an amazing job,” said Mr. Strobel. He said that he intends to keep as much of the publishing process going forward as local to the region as possible.
“There is an amazing amount of talent here on Manitoulin,” he said. “I want to include as much of that as I can.” He notes that there are many fascinating stories here on Manitoulin that the outside world is just waiting to discover.
Meanwhile, within a few days of its publishing, his book has already sold over 50 copies, but don’t despair. “We can print more on demand when needed,” Mr. Strobel assured The Expositor.
‘Small Miracles: The Inspiring Kids of Variety Village’ can be purchased online at varietyontario-sunfund.square.site, but you will want to reserve your copy soon, they are almost sold out.
Over the years the Christmas Fund has raised over $1.7 million and Mr. Strobel explains that this year’s record haul is especially timely. “COVID has hit Variety Village and people with disabilities everywhere, harder than most,” wrote Mr. Strobel in his Christmas Fund column. “So before I slink back up to my retirement cabin on Manitoulin Island, let me thank the kids—and kids grown up—we profiled and the Sun news staff, Post Media’s marketing team and the Village elves, notably Erin Rivet, Chris Yaccoto and Judy Black. Mostly, let me thank you readers who donated to the fund or bought books and rooted for these kids.