Funeral workers launch peer support group to help their mental health


Organizers of a peer-counselling group for funeral home workers in Ottawa say they had a hard time finding help for their industry’s mental health challenges, so they made their own service.

« We’re trying to create a network, » said Melanie Giroux, an embalmer with Ottawa’s Hulse, Playfair & McGarry funeral home and co-founder of Ottawa Funeral Peer Support.

« We want to be able to bring people into our group, to allow them to grow this in other parts of Canada, so we can help every funeral director in Canada. Everyone needs it. » 

There is not a lot of research into the trauma experienced by people working in the death industry, but a peer counselling facilitator for the group said he’s been struck with how similar their stories are to the experiences of paramedics and police officers

« It’s a different level of trauma, but there’s been no support, » said Tom Kelly at a meeting on Tuesday night.

‘Vicarious trauma’

Giroux said she’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

« I think the injury is vicarious trauma, » said Giroux of the day-to-day experiences of workers.

« We deal with the trauma other people are experiencing. »

Melanie Giroux helped start Ottawa Funeral Peer Support. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Co-founder Michael Dixon was first diagnosed with depression and PTSD three years ago.

He is a supervisor for Ottawa Mortuary Services, which transports human remains —  often working with police and the coroner, sometimes attending horrific collisions and homicide scenes. 

Last month he went to the scene of the fatal bus collision at Westboro station

He said when he started sharing his experiences caused by on-the-job trauma, he began hearing from colleagues who wanted to share their own. 

During the same period, he said two colleagues killed themselves and others had left the business. 

Creating a service

When Dixon went looking for some kind of peer counselling, he said not only was there none in Ottawa — but he couldn’t find any in Canada. 

That’s when he and a handful of colleagues got together to design the group.

Now about a dozen members — mostly funeral directors and other employees in the death services industry — meet to share their experiences.

They talk about how they build support networks to talk about « a really terrible call » and if a colleague is in crisis, they can line up professional counselling.

Dixon said the group has changed the way he monitors his staff and checks in after disturbing jobs. 

Giroux said the meetings help her understand the power of mutual support.

« I’ve learned I’m not alone, » she said.

Giroux said the group has been approached by workers in other communities and some of its members are planning to travel to meet with them.


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Boozeless parties? Alberta women launch groups for sober fun


Kira Dunlop says she can’t count the number of times she’s been called boring.

She stopped drinking this past year but still likes to have fun. That concept, of socializing while sober, seems strange to many, she says, and outright offensive to others.

« You have a hard day at work, you go out for a beer. You know, your girlfriend dumped you, your truck broke down, you go out for a beer, » Dunlop told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday. « If I came, either it was a total buzz kill or, alternatively, like I just felt super, super uncomfortable and I had to leave. »

Dunlop, 23, founded organized a group in November called the Calgary Boring Little Girls Club, a tongue-in-cheek name. It’s dedicated to running events for young people who want to have fun without drinking, from skating to enjoying live music.

Kira Dunlop founded Calgary Boring Little Girls Club, a tongue-in-cheek reference to people who’ve called her boring for not drinking. (Kira Dunlop)

There is a similar group in Edmonton, Sober Saturdayz, that puts on bar events with nonalcoholic beverages.

The founders of both groups say they tried to curtail their own drinking, after seeing the negative impacts of it, but found their social lives disappeared. Dating, as well, became difficult for Sober Saturdayz founder Katie Degen, 26.

« People don’t know where to take you or how to talk to you. Suddenly it gets really awkward just because you’re sober, » she said. « Especially like at this age they’re like, ‘well, what do you do then?' »

‘Free-for-all’ drinking

In Canada, 78 per cent of people over the age of 15 drank sometimes in 2017, according to the Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey, a figure that’s remained steady in recent years.

Young people aged 20 to 24 show signs of riskier alcohol use, the annual survey consistently finds. Twenty-nine per cent of that age group exceeded the amount of drinking required to be considered chronic risk. According to the guidelines, chronic risk means drinking up to 10 drink a week for women and 15 for men.

The positive response to the events has been overwhelming and unexpected, Degen said. She’s heard from people of all ages who love the bar scene but not the drinks.

« No one teaches you how to drink. They tell you you can’t drink until you’re legal and then all of a sudden is a free-for-all, » she said. « Until it’s a problem — and then suddenly you’re supposed to be embarrassed about it. »

The two groups are teaming up for a joint event. Each city will host Love Fest, a night of live music with complimentary hair and makeup, plus non-alcoholic cocktails and treats. Calgary’s event is on Feb. 9 and Edmonton’s is on Feb. 23.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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Sex-ed rollback, launch of snitch line, created ‘chill’ among teachers, court hears


Ontario’s elementary teachers are legally challenging the rollback of the modernized sex-ed curriculum because it has caused a “chilling effect” among educators and put students at risk of harm, a court heard Wednesday.

Lawyers for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), a union representing 83,000 educators, say the repeal of the 2015 Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum, and the creation of a website for parents to report non-compliant teachers, was unconstitutional.

Teachers take part in a rally at Queens Park to protest the rollback of the modernized sex-ed curriculum in August. Ontario elementary teachers have taken the government to court over the rollback, saying it deprives students of important information and puts them at risk.
Teachers take part in a rally at Queens Park to protest the rollback of the modernized sex-ed curriculum in August. Ontario elementary teachers have taken the government to court over the rollback, saying it deprives students of important information and puts them at risk.  (Eduardo Lima / Star Metro File Photo)

“This case is not about the curriculum, it’s about the directive and the reporting site,” said ETFO lawyer Adriel Weaver in Divisional Court. She said there’s been a “chill” among teachers making them afraid to teach the 2015 curriculum, which ultimately deprives students of information, putting them at risk.

ETFO lawyers say the directive by the Progressive Conservative government violates the rights of teachers by limiting their freedom of expression, and the rights of students.

The two-day hearing is tackling two separate legal challenges to the province’s rollback of the 2015 curriculum, which included such topics as same-sex relationships, consent and gender identity. The other application was made by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). Both groups want the government directive quashed, but the province, which will make its arguments Thursday, says the applications should be dismissed.

In August, Premier Doug Ford scrapped the 2015 HPE curriculum for elementary grades because some social conservatives felt it wasn’t age appropriate. It was replaced with a curriculum issued in 2010, which contains sex-ed material from 1998. At the time, he warned teachers who did not comply would face repercussions, saying: “Make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act.” His government also launched a website called, which some critics likened to a snitch line.

ETFO says the reporting website, which is no longer active, had the effect of intimidating teachers, constraining their professional judgment, and ensuring students don’t learn the 2015 curriculum.

The panel of three judges asked the ETFO lawyers if any teachers had been disciplined or if they had any data, or teacher surveys, indicating a chill effect. But they did not.

Prior to proceedings, Cindy Gangaram, a co-applicant in the ETFO challenge, told reporters she has experienced a chill effect, saying the directive “coerces me as a teacher to not teach important topics that had been included in the repealed 2015 curriculum.”

Lawyers representing the CCLA and co-applicant Becky McFarlane, who’s a queer parent of a sixth grader, focused their arguments on the curriculum change. They say the interim curriculum doesn’t include sexual orientation, gender identity and same-sex relationships, which alienates the LGBTQ+ community and violates their constitutional right to equality.

Stuart Svonkin, who represents the CCLA and McFarlane, said the directive is discriminatory against those who are LGBTQ+ because they have been “erased” from the curriculum. When the judges asked if there had been an infringement of rights during all those years when that sex-ed material was taught, from 1998 to 2014, Svonkin replied, “The world has changed … The Human Rights Code has changed.”

His comments were echoed, in part, outside the courthouse by Michael Bryant, executive director of the CCLA.

“The official curriculum in Ontario has been changed — it used to be diverse and now it’s heterosexual only,” he told reporters. “Obviously, this is about homophobia. If the government is going to be homophobic with its curriculum, you can bet the Constitution will have something to say about that.”

According to court documents filed by the province, sexual health topics in school are not matters of constitutional law. Furthermore, their lawyers argue that teachers have a great deal of discretion when it comes to lesson plans and have a duty to teach in a way that’s inclusive of all students, including LGBTQ+.

Outside court, ETFO president Sam Hammond told reporters the province is being hypocritical, by saying teachers have discretion when the government issued a warning to them and created a “snitch line to solicit complaints.”

“Thousands of frustrated Ontarians have called for the reinstatement of the (2015 curriculum), he said. “We have collected thousands of petition signatures calling for the sexual health component of the 2015 curriculum to be restored.”

The province recently wrapped up a public consultation on education issues, which will inform its creation of the next HPE curriculum to be issued for the next academic year. Between September and December, it received 72,000 submissions through web surveys, online comments, and telephone town halls.

At Queen’s Park, Progressive Conservative MPP Paul Calandra (Markham-Stouffville) said the government is “fairly confident” it will win the case.

Calandra noted the Tories consulted the public extensively as it prepares to revamp the health curriculum.

“I never in my wildest imagination thought that there would be 72,000 engagements in the process. It has gone very, very well,” he said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, NDP MPP Terence Kernaghan (London North Centre) said when children see themselves reflected in the curriculum, they “thrive both educationally and socially.”

“By deliberately removing LGBTQ identities and families from the curriculum, the Ford Conservatives put students at risk,” Kernaghan, the NDP’s critic for LGBTQ issues, said in a statement. “Any person, and any parent of a child who’s been a victim of cyber bullying, a survivor of sexual violence, or subjected to discrimination because of their LGBTQ identity, can tell you how devastating it is for a child’s mental and physical health to be denied information, empowerment and a safe space.”

With files from Robert Benzie

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74


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Facebook chooses Canada for Dating feature launch today


Mark Zuckerberg is ready to play matchmaker for Canadians.

His company Facebook Inc. will aim to make its social media platform’s users more than just friends with a new dating feature that will mark its North American launch in Canada on Thursday.

Facebook Dating, which was previously piloted in Colombia, operates with users creating profiles that are separate from their Facebook ones and kept out of sight of friends.

The more you share about yourself, the more there is potential exposure from a privacy point of view.– Imran Ahmad, cybersecurity lawyer

The company will recommend matches that users aren’t already friends with, but who share dating preferences, interests and if they’d like, mutual friends or groups and events.

The offering will support text-only conversations between matches in an effort to minimize « casual encounters » by building long-term relationships instead and will attempt to reduce catfishing — using a fake online identity to trick prospective love interests — by importing ages and locations from a user’s traditional Facebook profile.

« We were really thinking about how inauthentic experiences are making online dating really difficult… and preventing people from trusting online dating and forming a meaningful connection, » said Charmaine Hung, Facebook Dating’s technical program manager. « We wanted to make sure you could build that trust with someone. »

Privacy concerns

Facebook Dating’s Canadian rollout comes as the technology giant is embroiled in privacy concerns following a series of data breaches. The most high-profile came last winter, when the company admitted the data of up to 50 million Facebook users was misused by analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. User privacy was at risk again this September when the company reported a major security breach in which 50 million accounts may have been accessed by unknown attackers.

The company will recommend matches that users aren’t already friends with, but who share dating preferences, interests and if they’d like, mutual friends or groups and events. (Facebook)

Some experts said the dating offering will raise privacy concerns of its own and is unlikely to assuage worries about the platform — even if Zuckerberg previously claimed « we have designed this with privacy and safety in mind from the beginning. »

Tamir Israel, a lawyer at the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa, said he had concerns around how separate someone’s Facebook and Dating profiles will truly be because they’re contained within the same app.

« People will think there is a degree of insulation because they are deciding what goes into their (Dating) profile…but we have seen over and over again that those types of divides are difficult to maintain, » Israel said.

« It looks like, in spite of the challenges, they are making an effort to silo this a bit from the rest of their ecosystem, but the problem is they have a bit of a bad track record of eroding that over time. »

Privacy concerns are why Facebook has introduced Dating with a slew of measures aimed at « integrity and safety, » said Hung.

Users will have to opt in

For example, users will have to opt-in for the dating feature instead of being automatically enrolled. When they opt in, they will need to initialize their location services to verify they are in the city they are purporting to be in, but they can rescind that access once they’ve signed up.

There will also be a feature that allows people to be blocked and prevents users from messaging potential interests more than once, if the other person hasn’t reciprocated with a response.

If a user is overwhelmed with matches or wants to take a break from dating, they can pause Dating and if they decide the app isn’t for them, they can opt out and all their Dating data will be destroyed, Hung said.

« Good on Facebook for having thought through some of these issues, given some of the concerns they have had on privacy, » said Imran Ahmad, a partner at Miller Thomson who leads the firm’s cybersecurity practice.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks about the dating feature at Facebook Inc’s annual F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S. May 1, 2018. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

« The more you share about yourself, the more there is potential exposure from a privacy point of view. »

He said he was going to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt because it has pledged to address its privacy issues and has helped create a culture where social media users are becoming more attuned to privacy concerns.

« Arguably folks should be more comfortable with Facebook now given all the scrutiny they have gone through in terms of their recent missteps because everyone is watching everything they have done, » he said. « Their information is probably more secure than it was in the past. »


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Ottawa urged to launch new charm offensive in U.S. to sell trade deal


OTTAWA – Canada-U.S. trade observers say the Trudeau government should launch a whole new charm offensive to teach an incoming crop of rookie lawmakers about cross-border economic integration after American mid-term elections gave Democrats’ new powers to control the North American trade deal’s passage.

But Canada’s federal government is dismissing concerns about Canada’s ability to close the deal on a new NAFTA, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

The Democratic party, which traditionally embraces trade protectionist sentiment, gained the upper hand in the House of Representatives and is set to take control of key committees in charge of deciding how quickly implementation legislation for the USMCA will advance, or stall, through Congress.

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The federal Liberal government says it doesn’t plan the kind of all-out full court press of new Democrat legislators that it carried on to woo American support throughout the NAFTA talks.

“They may not be the biggest free-traders in the world but I think they see this agreement is good for Canada, it’s good for the United States,” MacNaughton said on CBC’s Power and Politics.

MacNaughton and other Canadian officials said they saw President Donald Trump’s reaction Wednesday to midterm results as a positive signal too.

During an extraordinarily acrimonious news conference where Trump slammed the media for not giving him credit for the booming economy, the U.S. president brushed off his past verbal slams of Canada’s prime minister.

He declared his rift with Justin Trudeau is repaired — “We have a very good relationship” — and said he would be able to work with Democrats to advance their interests in infrastructure and health care, and his interests in areas like border security and immigration. And, he said pointedly, the USMCA “has gotten rave reviews. Not going to lose companies anymore to other countries.”

Trump credited his use of tariffs on imports for retaining companies in America by giving them “a tremendous economic incentive, meaning it’s prohibitive for them” to move into other jurisdictions, and for reaching better trade deals. He said as a result America’s steel and aluminum industries which “were dead” are recovering and “our miners are working again.”

The USMCA is completely different than NAFTA, he claimed. “It’s not going to be like NAFTA which is one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen,” and he extended an offer of bipartisan co-operation.

“Now is the time for members of both parties to join together, put partisanship aside and keep the American economic miracle going strong.”

However academic and business experts suggested the Canadian government cannot become complacent now.

Chris Sands, director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said in an interview that trade was not a big issue for either party in most midterm races, but it is likely to become a bargaining chip between Democrats and Republicans in the Trump administration.

The Democrats may want to leverage it in order advance their policies on immigration, infrastructure and health care, he said.

“I give the Trudeau (government) — Canada generally, a lot of credit. They’ll go down in history for the amazing effort they had to reach out to the Americans with data to say look how much Canada contributes to your district in terms of jobs, investment and trade. And they had the numbers and they were persuasive. They were cross-country, it was Congress, it was governors, it was state legislators.

“Now we have a lot of new faces, we have to start over.”

Maryscott Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian-American Business Council, said: “The Trudeau government’s charm offensive is going to have to double down.”

“I have a feeling there’s a lot of education that’s going to have to be done.”

She said the ratification of the deal will become the subject of a lot of arm-twisting between the Democrat leadership in the House and the Trump administration.

“The question becomes what will the Democrats ask in return for their support for the deal. It’ll be a horse-trade and it’ll be a negotiation,” she said.

“And that could take some time, and it’s complicated by the fact that the environment will be particularly contentious because the Democrats will be investigating the bejeezus out of the Trump administration.”

“That being said, it’s in no one’s interest to run the economy into the ground,” said Greenwood.

A senior Canadian official, speaking on a background basis only, said the Canadian embassy in Washington already has plans to reach out to congressional newcomers in the coming weeks.

But he emphasized that the reality in Washington is that seniority equals power, and Trudeau, his foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland and MacNaughton among others, already know many of the key players, and have met with them on several occasions.

Those include Nancy Pelosi, expected to become Speaker, Massachusetts’ Richard Neal, the ranking Democrat on the powerful ways and means House committee likely to become its chair, and Bill Pascrell, a Democrat from New Jersey, likely to become the ways and means trade subcommittee chair.

The other key element, of course, is Trump himself. He has shown a willingness to use whatever executive powers he has, such as ordering tariffs levied in the name of national security.

The Trudeau government is coming under increasing pressure from steel and aluminum workers in Canada, not to ratify the USMCA deal while tariffs remain, and not to agree to to any caps or limits on Canadian metals exports in exchange for their removal.

Trudeau said earlier this week he is unlikely to withhold Canada’s ratification of the deal over the question of tariffs, but will continue to press for their lifting.

MacNaughton said Wednesday Trudeau is unlikely to appear at a signing ceremony to celebrate the USMCA as long as the tariffs stand. A Canadian official later said Trudeau would sign it, but would hold off on celebrations until tariffs lift.

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc


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Ambassadors from Canada and U.S. launch town hall meetings to allay USMCA fears


Mounting concerns on both sides of the border are prompting the U.S. and Canadian ambassadors to meet with businesses in the wake of a new trade deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s The House, U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft said she and her Canadian counterpart, David MacNaughton, will embark on a series of town hall meetings to assuage fears from investors over the USMCA.

Craft also relayed a message for Canadians.

« I understand your frustrations, » she said of the fallout from sometimes fractious trade talks, while standing in the famous University of Kentucky athletics centre named after her coal magnate husband, Joe Craft.

The tensions created by the upheaval of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the birth of a new provisional pact (called the USMCA by U.S. President Donald Trump) have ignited uncertainty among investors.

Craft explained she and MacNaughton will travel around Canada and the U.S. speaking to cross-border industries and small businesses about the USMCA in an attempt to let them know the governments are listening.

The current plan is for two meetings each month, starting in December.

‘It’s not finished yet’

Touted as a solid deal for Canada by Trudeau government officials, Trump also hailed the USMCA as a big win for the new era of « America First. »

While both governments sort out the details and look for ways to use the deal to beef up their eventual re-election campaigns, businesses are still confused by what this means for them.

The USMCA still is not a « done deal, » said Ed Webb, the president and CEO of the World Trade Centre Kentucky. « It’s not finished yet. »

Canada is Kentucky’s largest foreign trading partner, with exports totalling almost $8 billion a year — more than the state’s next two largest partners combined.

But many investments have been halted until the new trade deal comes into effect and stability is re-established. That’s frustrating businesses in Kentucky  — and beyond. 

We need to be patient, we need to trust this will change.– U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft

The state was also carefully targeted with retaliatory tariffs on products such as steel, playing cards and bourbon after Trump’s spring announcement that Canada would be subject to steel and aluminum tariffs.

Imposed by the U.S. administration on national security grounds, steel and aluminum tariffs became intertwined with the NAFTA negotiations, but Canadian officials failed to secure an exemption in the new text of the USMCA.

For the ambassador, it’s about playing the long game.

« We need to be patient, we need to trust this will change, » she said.

« The tariffs will at one point lessen. »

Car concerns

It’s not just the retaliatory tariffs Kentucky is concerned about. As in Canada, the possibility of a future bite from 25 per cent tariffs on autos is a staggering thought for the car industry in the Blue Grass state, which swaps millions of vehicles and parts across the northern border every year.

« We’re definitely concerned about how it affects our business with Canada, » Bruce Breitholle, the vice president of business operations at ATech, a company that builds training modules for auto manufacturers, told The House.

That concern was so overwhelming that it overtook the conversation at a business dinner Breitholle attended at the Kentucky Governor’s residence last month. The discussion quickly shifted to reassuring the Canadian attendees there was no animosity and that the Canadian market is a keystone of life in the southern state.

ATech automotive builds training modules for vehicle manufacturers. The company is concerned about what the USMCA will mean for their industry. (Elise von Scheel/CBC News)

ATech’s anxieties confirm the fears of Janet Harrah, a trade professor at Northern Kentucky University. She explained business is up in the state, but much of the growth is likely just inventory that was built up in anticipation of long-lasting tariffs — and that will harm Kentucky.

« If the cost of doing business here gets too high, people go somewhere else to do business, » she said.

Though the president has given Canada an exemption on auto tariffs — for now — it doesn’t come without conditions. If the U.S. moves forward with the imposition of worldwide Section 232 national security tariffs on autos, those would also apply to Canada.

Ottawa has effectively scored a temporary exemption, because Canada would still be able to export cars and parts tariff-free up to a certain amount well above what Canada currently sends south of the border.

Laura Dawson, Director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center speaks with CBC News Network about the new USMCA. 7:31

Even if the auto sector escapes punitive tariffs, the remaining steel and aluminum duties will drive up the cost of vehicles.

Cars are Kentucky’s biggest export to Canada. Auto manufacturing employs nearly 95,000 people in the state, according to the Kentucky Automotive Industry Association. The sting of new auto tariffs would be felt on both sides of the border, as about 130,000 jobs in Canada are based on vehicle manufacturing.

The Trump factor

As the U.S. leader throws jabs at Canadian officials, some in Kentucky’s business community expressed their embarrassment at the president’s behaviour.

« We don’t want to be seen as that big bad country, » Breitholle said.

« That’s the arrogance coming from way at the top. »

Despite the strain created by more than a year of negotiations, both Webb and Breitholle were optimistic no permanent damage would be dealt to the Canada-U.S. relationship.

The economic impacts, however, will be unavoidable.

How that trickles down and when those consequences will hit is the next big worry, Webb cautioned.

The USMCA still has to be approved by Congress, and ratified by all three North American nations.


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The Runaway Experience: How Moving to Jamaica Helped This Entrepreneur Launch Her Travel Brand | Healthyish


In Entrepreneurs Run the World, Ali Francis gets advice and insight from game-changing entrepreneurs with big ideas. This week we talked to Kalisa Martin, co-founder of The Runaway Experience, a travel service that really gets us.

Whether I’m surfing in Barbados (while renewing my visa), smearing cream cheese on a St-Viateur bagel in Montreal, tipsy from mulled wine and pierogies in Krakow’s Old Town, or slurping a bowl of Hanoi’s finest phở at 8 a.m., I can’t help but return to the same question: “Could I live here?” And then, more practically: “What would I do?”

For The Runaway founders and soon-to-be married couple, Kalisa Martin and Jeff Belizaire, answers to both these questions came while they were on a last-minute getaway to Jamaica in 2014. “We were both at a place in our careers where we were ready for a change and burnt out from our daily grinds,” Martin, a former brand director at Tasting Table, explains. “The location was the perfect place to incubate our idea, and, by the time we left, we were at the beginning of an awesome adventure.”

The pair ran a Kickstarter campaign for the first-ever successfully funded B&B, with backers donating almost $47,000 toward the Jamaican island pad. The Runaway concept soon grew into a larger lifestyle agency, offering boutique travel packages around the world. Want to glamp your way around Morocco, learning to make Berber tea and tagine, sampling street foods, and shopping for spices in local souks? How about seven days of self care, sisterhood, and writing? The Runaway’s got you.

With her degrees in food science and nutrition from Cornell University, and chef training from the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, Martin knew that food would be an important pillar of The Runaway brand. “Our goal is always to take guests on a culinary adventure that is at the same time exciting, unexpected, and delicious,” Martin says. “To us, food is a major part of a travel experience, and we never want any guest to have a single bad meal.”

Part of Martin’s mission involves using food as a vessel to open people’s minds beyond cultural stereotypes. For example, in Jamaica, she cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner for her B&B guests using fresh ingredients from local farms. Likewise, in Cuba, Martin walked the entire island in search of destinations that would shatter rumors of “lackluster food.” “During our research, we ate high and low, chatting with locals about their favorite places,” she said.

We talked with Martin about monetizing a passion project, staying sane in startup mode, leaving time for self-love, and the morning routine she’ll never give up.

I’m always so fascinated by the moment people make the jump and start their own businesses. It’s hard! What was that journey like for you?

Exciting, energizing, and a complete leap of faith! Because of our unique approach and perspective on travel, there was no roadmap, no instruction manual, and no success stories we could directly emulate. Fortunately we had a ton of experience with startups and building companies from scratch. So while it was a new industry, we were able to apply the skills we already had to bring our vision to life.

How did startup culture prepare you for The Runaway?

Instead of being plugged in to a fully formed operation, we were part of teams that created the processes and the foundation that the business needed to run. We saw what worked, what didn’t, and were encouraged to optimize and evolve. We also felt the pressures of answering directly to investors, advertisers, and customers.

How do you and Jeff divide and conquer work?

I like to say that Jeff is the “What” and I am the “How.” Simply put, he’s more of a big picture creative and I am more of a detail-oriented project manager. While he’s identifying our brand positioning, strategizing on our marketing, and projecting our five-year plan, I’m calculating trip budgets, building research spreadsheets, and coordinating logistics with guests.

What’s it like working with your fiancé?

Starting a business with my significant other was like bootcamp for our relationship. We have very different working styles, and while couples usually smooth out their communication differences over time, we had to learn very quickly how to give each other space to run with our angles of the business while also collaborating effectively.

Real talk: How did you keep paying your bills while starting The Runaway?

We both had savings, plus, Jeff took on marketing projects as necessary to keep the lights on as we were building the brand.

How did you actually figure out how to start planning trips? Were you calling airlines, etc?

I’m a project manager at heart and each trip is essentially a major project, with multiple elements that needs to be planned. We research each market extensively. First remotely, connecting with partners and identifying trip elements, then we spend physical time in the city, walking the streets, meeting with people, eating everywhere, and literally testing out every experience we’re considering including in the itinerary.

What is your best marketing asset? In other words, how did people start hearing about you and caring about The Runaway?

Social media, press, influencer collaborations, brand partnerships, and definitely word of mouth! Not only do we have great repeat travellers but they also tell their friends.

When was your “Oh boy, this is totally a viable thing” moment?

Kickstarter was a great way for us to validate the brand from the very beginning. We’ve received such amazing support that we never doubted the concept. The challenge for us was narrowing down all of our “That’s cool!” ideas and focusing on a sustainable, scalable business plan.

The first iteration of The Runaway was a bed and breakfast in Jamaica. What was that move like from New York?

We’d both been in NYC for several years—and loved it—but we were ready, and honestly thrilled, by the change. In Jamaica, we lived on a hill with views of the mountains and the ocean, walked ten minutes to the beach, and bought our food directly from farmers. Not to mention it was 85 and sunny year-round! When we decided to move back to the U.S. to facilitate research and expansion to new markets, we chose Philadelphia instead of going back to the hustle and bustle of NYC.

Can you share any memorable advice you’ve received as an entrepreneur?

“There are a lot of good things you shouldn’t do.” My mom, a medical doctor with her own practice, actually said that to me when I was in college. I was super active in student organizations, sports, and community activities. That was my first major lesson in prioritization. There’s simply not enough time in the day to do everything, even if it’s a GOOD thing to do. This motto, as simple as it is, helps keep us on track as we operate our business.

What are the top three foods we’ll always see in your kitchen?

Since we work from home, I cook most of our meals, and the most exciting thing in the fridge is our weekly farm share. Matcha is a must. I switched from coffee two years ago and ceremonial matcha for home and instant matcha for the road have been essential ever since. [Martin loves The Republic of Tea.] And plain, nonfat Greek yogurt. Top it with some fresh fruit, chopped nuts, seeds, and a drizzle of raw honey—that is my kind of sundae.

Best meal you’ve ever eaten on a Runaway Experience trip?

Dinner at my absolute favorite restaurant in Cuba: El Partenon. This paladar, or private restaurant, is literally a house in a completely residential neighborhood 20 minutes outside of Old Havana. There’s no menu. They just tell you what’s available and it’s all served in multiple courses, family style. We start with fried yucca that’s been smothered in freshly grated garlic; tostones rellenos stuffed with ropa vieja (shredded beef); fish or shrimp ceviche; and, my favorite, grilled octopus with an insane pesto. Then the mains, desert, and digestifs! Not to mention the BEST frozen mojitos on the island.

Do you have any habits that keep you grounded and on track?

My morning routine. I keep my water bottle next to my bed so when I first wake up I drink a ton. Next, I make my morning shake or smoothie and hit the gym, if it’s a gym day. I also tidy up the kitchen so that each day feels like a fresh start. Before diving into work, I make my matcha latte and do my daily devotions.

Where and when do you do your best work?

When I’m fully rested! I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need 8 hours of sleep. Period. The “where” is usually the office in our apartment. I have my standing desk, a second screen I hook up to my laptop, and a big window to look out of. Since I work from home, it’s important to me that I have a designated work space that’s different from our living space. I try to keep those separate and sacred.

What’s one thing you wish you knew before starting The Runaway Experience?

If you told us where we’d be in 2018 back in 2014 I’m not sure we could’ve fully processed that at the time (laughs). That said, I do think some tailored financial advice would’ve been helpful early on. Tips and tricks on how the money we were already spending could do more for us. For example, how to maximize airline points and the right credit cards to get for our specific kind of business.

If you could pick one person’s brain about The Runaway Experience over lunch, who would that be?

Anthony Bourdain. I’ve always looked up to him as a pillar in the food, travel, and content space. He had a very clear point of view and never buckled under pressure to stick to the status quo or do what was expected of him.

What constitutes a perfect day off for you?

Jeff and I do a thing we call “Saturdates” almost every weekend. It’s basically a whole day date that involves doing all of our favorite things: a hike in the park next door to our apartment, picking up our farmshare, exploring a cool neighborhood by foot in our new hometown of Philly, and eating out at a few places along the way. We love Zahav (absolutely worth the wait to get a reservation), Double Knot, which is a secret izakaya in the basement with amazing cocktails, and Reading Terminal Market, the 125 year old indoor market with over 80 restaurants and merchants.


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