We’ve got grit

In the last 18 months, people all over the world have stepped up to help their communities. Health care providers, police, emergency services and front line workers in so many different industries have shown the best of humanity in the worst of times. The Manitoulin community is no different. Over the next little while, The Expositor will be highlighting some of the Islanders who have made a difference when it mattered most. We’ve Got Grit is a series that will highlight people and organizations on Manitoulin Island who have stepped up during the pandemic. Community leaders, business owners and others who have given up time, resources and energy to help those around them.

Stories of resilience and determination on Manitoulin

by Mike Brock

Kathy Antonio 
My Ol Blues, Gore Bay

Some of the most essential workers have reminded us how important they are, just by continuing the great work they have done every day, pandemic or not. But there are some who have had to change what they do in order to have a greater positive impact. Our first profile is an example of that. A fixture in the Manitoulin business community, and a cornerstone of the Gore Bay community in particular—Kathy Antonio, proprietor of My Ol’ Blues.

My Ol’ Blues is a brand built on recycled materials—or taking something that’s already there, and making it into something new. Last year, when the world changed, Ms. Antonio and her team took their skills, their passion and their desire to give back to the community, and pointed it in a new direction, too.

Always with a keen eye on the textile and clothing markets from Asia and Europe, in January of 2020, Ms. Antonio was one of the first to understand that a monumental alteration to her business was coming. With manufacturers on the other side of the world being closed down by outbreaks, the gaps in the supply chains were starting to show, and she knew that she was going to have to do something quickly. 

“When you see that happening, you think, ‘when is it coming here?’” Ms. Antonio shared. “I just kind of had it in the back of my head that something would have to be done.” And when the first shutdown did come to Ontario in the middle of March, it’s a good thing she was ready, because everything happened quickly. “I guess we ended up shut down around March 13, and it was like a domino effect. My wholesale customers were cancelling orders. Government shut down. Thankfully, I had put myself on the Canadian registry for production (of personal protective equipment [PPE]).” 

One of the nice things about being a smaller operation, like My Ol’ Blues, is that it is a little easier to be flexible, to pivot. However, when your small business is based mostly on loyal, community customers who have been with you for decades, it’s also a little trickier to find new revenue streams quickly. Luckily, Pro Stitch, an outfit in Sudbury had some PPE contracts, but needed help filling the orders, and suddenly, My Ol’ Blues was making their new nursing gowns. Thanks to Ms. Antonio’s foresight and willingness to learn, she was not only able to provide a valuable service, she was able to keep her team working—and hire two new people! 

When the nursing gown orders were finished, Ms. Antonio set to making masks—again not as simple a task as it might seem. But with her willingness to learn, and her relentless spirit, she was able to come up with a design that worked, helped keep the community healthy and keep her business alive. One of the reasons that Ms. Antonio came to Manitoulin in the first place was to have a certain amount of balance between life and her work. The community and land of this place has greatly inspired her to build her business based on a set of values, including persistence, adapting to challenges and helping others achieve their goals. Fittingly, for her efforts over the last year, Ms. Antonio has been nominated RBC’s Canadian Women of Influence Award in the micro-business category.  

“These are my values, and when I look back this year, I’m still doing that. I have really stayed true to my beliefs and my values and my directions. Even with all these hills and valleys throughout the years…even when you have days where you just want to throw it in, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

Perhaps the measure of a true community helper is that the gratitude glows from them, first. Ms. Antonio knows how lucky she is to have a supportive community around her and her business. Their website, www.myolblues.com, has a “Thankful Tree.” It’s not a space that will raise money for the community, but perhaps provide something almost as important, a place where anyone can put gratitude out into the world. As Ms. Antonio says, “It’s a neat way of not asking my customers for money, but to stop them in their tracks and say “I am thankful for my family, I am thankful for living on Manitoulin Island.”

Well, Manitoulin Island is thankful for you, too.

Do you know a person, an organization or a business from Manitoulin that has stepped up to help the community during the pandemic? Let us know. Email editor@manitoulin.com.