Vilia's Celebration of Life
How would a person sum up Vilia Tosio in one word? I don’t think that’s something anyone could do if they tried. There would be many: thoughtful, witty, selfless, and beautiful. The one you would see most often: Passionate.
My first experience with Vilia happened a few weeks after I had my first daughter. I was struggling with breastfeeding and second guessing myself, as new mothers often do. Upon a suggestion from my friend, I emailed Vilia for help. I expected a quick email back with some suggestions but was surprised when her response, less than 5 minutes later, was “what is your address?” Within 30 minutes, a stranger was entering my house asking if she could put the meat she just purchased in my fridge so it wouldn’t spoil. Her confidence calmed me immediately and it was like we had known each other for years instead of seconds. She walked into my living room, picked up the notebook where I had been tracking my daughter’s feedings and told me to throw it away. She piled pillows on my couch and asked me if she could hold my daughter, cooing about how beautiful she was. She instructed me to lie down on the couch and relax, then handed me the baby so I could feed her. She watched me and commented on how beautiful my daughter and I were, how beautiful it was that I was breastfeeding her. She reassured me of what a wonderful job I was doing, she told me to relax my shoulders and breathe. After 45 minutes at my home, Vilia drew a quick picture of breasts for my husband (with a joke of “thanks for sharing!”), took her meat purchases from my fridge and left in a whirl. When I think back about that experience, Vilia didn’t really show me anything new, she didn’t teach me anything I hadn’t already read in a book. What she did was so much more. She encouraged me; she instilled confidence; she empowered me. She had no expectations from me and was rewarded solely by the care I was giving my baby.
That was Vilia, to me. Selfless and passionate, creating relationships among new mothers, inspiring women to be confident and beautiful, and to stop second guessing our nature.
Vilia was known around the community as “the crazy breast feeding lady” (in the most endearing way possible!). She was vivacious and driven, determined to educate the community in Fort McMurray on the necessity of midwives in the region and the importance of breast feeding. Everything Vilia did, she did with her whole heart and her own funds. When she spoke, you could feel her passion reverberating in every word. Vilia believed that every woman had a tribe, a network of support and strength, you may have heard about this in her TedX Fort McMurray Speech last year on breast feeding and the modern woman. As Russell Thomas, local artist and Communications Director for the Fort McMurray United Way, said of Vilia “some people walk through the world and create gentle and soothing ripples, others stir the waters and create impressive waves”. Vilia did just that. She had a vision and a plan for our wonderful community, which is rich with new mothers and babies. Her vision involved creating birthing options for women, new mother support and breast feeding education and assistance. A vision that, sadly, she will not get to witness.
On Sunday, March 6th, I heard the heartbreaking news of Vilia’s passing after her battle with cancer. As I logged on to social media that day, my Facebook newsfeed flooded with tributes to Vilia and remarks of her passing. 2 things were clear to me: 1) Vilia had touched many people in this community 2) I could see how many people I was connected to because of Vilia.
I attended the Celebration of Life for Vilia on March 13th, a room full of people who collaborated with Vilia, were mentored by her, lived near her – no matter the connection, it was strong. The service had a lot of tears but mostly a lot of laughs which, I believe, is what Vilia would have wanted.
There are few people in this world like Vilia. She had an energy and a passion that was unmatched. Toni Anderson, a Doula at Higher Health and a close friend of Vilia’s, remarked that it takes about 10 people to do the same duties that Vilia once did in regards to the Breastfeeding Support Groups and the Breastfeeding Initiative. In Toni’s speech to Vilia she mentioned the moment she met her, at one of her prenatal classes, she knew that this woman would impact her life. Toni, a mother of two young boys (4.5 and 3), used to work in trades in industry, she has since become a birth doula, a breast feeding advocate and a part of the Breastfeeding Initiative. Meeting Vilia changed her trajectory to follow her passions in life.
Jennifer Stephenson, with the Fort McMurray Doula Association, spoke of how Vilia brought her out of the darkness while dealing with tough times. She brought Jennifer into the breastfeeding group where she mentored and supported countless moms. She spoke of Vilia’s passion for breastfeeding and the confidence she instilled in new mothers, her stories brought me right back to my first encounters with Vilia. I couldn’t help but smile. Jennifer ended by saying that no matter what our religious beliefs are, she believes that Vilia is on the other side, helping the babies coming into our lives. She is telling them to relax, not to cry, to look at their beautiful mother and to latch.
Lucie Lapierre, a nurse at Public Health, said she heard Vilia every time she spoke to a mom about breast feeding. Through overcoming her own issues with Vilia’s assistance, Lucie grew to bring her knowledge to those in need, as an advocate for the breast feeding community. It was clear, hearing these women speak, that Vilia’s dreams live on in those around her, Vilia’s ideas for a Birthing Centre and breast feeding education and support will come to fruition. Through the tribe that she created with love, respect, and support, these women will continue to carry the torch in Vilia’s honour
To Vilia’s family – her husband, Mike, her children, Jon and Laura – thank you for supporting Vilia’s thoughts and dreams. I can think of countless mothers who thrived because of Vilia, her encouragement helping them to move forward, learn, and grow.
Vilia has created her own community in Fort McMurray, one where it does not matter who you are, what language you speak, or the colour of your skin. She has taught us that a community built with love and support is the strongest one.
I will leave you all with a final quote from Mayor Melissa Blake on the day of Vilia’s Celebration of Life. We were all told to wear our brightest, most cheerful clothing as that is what Vilia would have wanted. Mayor Blake gestured to her bright yellow jacket as it reminded her of sunshine. “The sun, whether you see it or not, is always shining behind the clouds – that will be Vilia, whether she is here or she isn’t, her presence will continue to be felt long after”