Sandra Tisiot is a savvy businesswoman, a mom and a former professional dancer.
But, what a lot of people don’t know about the Ottawa mortgage agent and founder of the annual Women in Business Conference is that she lived — during a brief but pivotal point in her life — in supportive housing at the Y.
Tisiot was the guest speaker at a reception the YMCA-YWCA National Capital Region hosted Wednesday for its most valuable donors, at the downtown Grounded Kitchen & Coffeehouse.
Jim Taggart, chairman of the Taggart Group of Companies, and his nephew, Dan Taggart, attended, as did the chair of the Y’s board, Ross Quane, and past chair, management consultant Janet LeBlanc. Also seen were Ottawa's 2011 CEO of the Year, Jean Laurin, insurance broker Brian Scott, who’s also an award-winning volunteer fundraiser for the Y, and Bob Gallagher, president and CEO of the YMCA-YWCA National Capital Region.
On hand to welcome guests was the Y’s vice president of financial development Jack Silverstein. He told everyone how he found himself seated next to Tisiot at a charity gala dinner, and struck up a polite conversation. That led to a deeper discussion between the two.
“She shared with me her Y story, as almost everyone has some kind of Y story, I’ve come to know,” said Silverstein.
The room heard how Tisiot was born and raised in a family of six children in Hamilton until the age of 16, when they moved to California.
“It was a beautiful place but it was an extremely tumultuous time of my life,” she recalled.
About two years in, Tisiot and her siblings found themselves on a plane back to Canada. Their mother had suffered a nervous breakdown and could no longer care for her children. Tisiot ended up in Ottawa with two of her siblings while her personal belongings ended up scattered along a California freeway during a botched moving job that had relied on a pickup truck.
“We landed here with, literally, the clothes on our back and no money,” recalled Tisiot, who spoke without the use of notes. “We had nothing and we found ourselves on the doorstep of the Y.
“I remember the Y being a warm, loving place, where it was easy, where there were hardly any questions asked, and there was a place to stay,” said Tisiot while describing some of the details, from her bed's white linen and fluffy pillow, to the presence of a desk and phone, to the freedom she was given to come and go as she pleased.
“I remember that every night I had a place to sleep.”
Most importantly, the 18-year-old was safe and secure, living for a week — if not longer — at what is now the Taggart Family Y on Argyle Avenue.
“Who knows what would have happened if I was out on the street,” she mused.
Tisiot quoted actress Ingrid Bergman, who once said happiness is good health and a bad memory, meaning that one has to be accepting of life’s situations rather than hold on to grudges and anger.
“In that building there are many stories: stories you will never hear, nights where people cry themselves to sleep,” she told the room full of donors.
“But, there’s hope and there are dreams, and they do come alive because you have given that opportunity for safety and security.”
Tisiot and her siblings moved out of the Y and into a rental apartment after they found work (she got a menial job at the Montfort Hospital). Her mother's mental health improved and Tisiot did return to California for a time. She went on to earn two degrees, create her My Life Locker organizational tool, write a book, co-found a charity to help women transitioning back into the workplace, teach fitness classes and launch her decade-old Women in Business Conference.
She's also this year's artist-in-residence for medical students at the University of Ottawa, helping them to explore their creative side and relieve stress through movement.
“From my younger self, who didn’t know how to do it then, I want to say thank you for that very soft landing during that period of my life that was very, very confusing for me and very, very delicate,” said Tisiot, while also expressing her appreciation with a namaste gesture.
In Ottawa, more than 300 people live each night at the Y, whose core values are caring, respect, honesty, responsibility and inclusiveness.