A Quebec woman is proving through her actions not only why she was nominated by a group of her peers as a hometown hero, but why she was the right choice.
Amazon employees in Greater Montreal were asked to nominate a coworker who stood out for their involvement in the community.
“We kind of gave like a general descriptor as to what our hometown hero was,” said Amazon spokesperson Andrew Gouveia, “but we kept it very vague in terms of what the person would be getting.”
One thing was clear, though — Jolene Donatelli’s name kept coming up.
Donatelli, a site manager, spent 10 years abroad working for organizations like Unicef and Save the Children before returning to Montreal, where she became involved in foster care programs.
“Jolene actually got quite a few nominations,” Gouveia said. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow! She sounds amazing. So let me reach out to her and just talk to her.’ And then that’s basically how it happened.”
As the hometown hero winner, Donatelli was gifted a home makeover by celebrity designer Camille Charland-Perez and Quebec singer-songwriter Coeur de Pirate.
“I felt that there was the kind of opportunity that could change somebody’s life completely,” Donatelli said, adding it led to some reflection on her part.
“I’m a fortunate person. I have a good job. I am well surrounded by friends and family.”
That’s when she decided she would prefer to pay it forward to somebody whose life it would truly impact.
After some back and forth, and with help from her community contacts, Donatelli settled on Maison d’Hérelle, a Montreal organization working with people living with HIV/AIDS.
While it first offered palliative care services when it opened in the late 1980s, Maison d’Hérelle’s focus has shifted over the years as new therapies allow people to live longer.
“It made us become a little bit more of a home for people who have issues with health but can survive now with AIDS,” said executive director Michèle Blanchard.
While many of the home’s residents are aging, Maison d’Hérelle is home to a diverse crowd.
Blanchard explained many residents arrive from overseas, often with very limited resources.
“So we have a variety of people, but we help them to get back, at least health-wise, so that they can live in the community,” she said.
Maison d’Hérelle has four different units providing housing services to around 40 people a year, while another 30 receive help while living in the community.
The main residence, located on St-Hubert Street in Montreal’s Plateau, has 17 rooms.
“It is an old house,” Blanchard said, adding that any funds the non-profit gets go towards providing better care and services, as well as paying employees.
“Basically, we’re helped by a bunch of volunteers because we wouldn’t be able to handle all this work,” Blanchard said. “They’re just a great bunch, but we’re always trying to save a penny.”
Needless to say, there’s not usually anything left over for things like living room makeovers — the heart centre of the home — according to Blanchard, where residents can host parties, have meetings, take part in workshops or just relax and watch TV.
“The last thing we spend is on furniture…so this was like just a real nice gift for everyone,” she said.
Five days after clearing the mismatched and used furniture, collected over a 31-year span, residents at Maison D’Hérelle were in for a treat.
“They were just stunned,” Blanchard said. “To have new things is not our habit.
“So a little bit of beauty, a little bit of nice things, a little bit of attention is huge for them.”
Blanchard said at first residents were even a little hesitant to come in and sit on the new furniture but are settling in nicely.
That was music to Donatelli’s ears, who says it made her feel a bit like a fairy godmother — especially around the holidays.
“That was the greatest feeling,” she said. “These are people who are neglected in many ways by our society and the people that do the work, they’re doing a lot of the thankless work that many of us are not paying attention.
“To see them all congregate in this new renovated design space, it felt like, you know, like everybody deserves to be living with integrity and sitting in this space felt that way.”
Blanchard credited the designer with understanding their needs and pairing the pretty with the practical.
“We have issues having a lot of people coming in and out. It needs to be easy to clean. It needs to be solid,” she said.
Even the home’s birds were treated to new digs.
“They got their kind of condominium and everything looks nicer,” Blandford said, adding that some residents had commented on how even the birds looked happier after the transformation of their space.
“So it’s very concrete for them,” Blanchard said. “I think the staff is also uplifted by it. And if the staff is uplifted, it has an effect on everybody in the house.”