DANELLE Smith McManus is a graduate of the University of Windsor B.F.A. Music Theatre Program. She has worked extensively throughout Ontario over the past thirty years as both a performer and a teacher. Danelle has combined her love of the arts with her love of children to develop and nurture quality arts programming for her company, Arts Express.
Danelle believes passionately in using the arts to promote self-confidence and self-esteem and strives to ignite the imagination of every child who participates in the Arts Express programs. The company’s success has been driven not only by innovation and focus, but also on the deep commitment to quality programming that is never compromised. Danelle has been blessed with the talents of many, many artist/educators over the years who have significantly contributed to the company’s achievements and reputation in the communities it serves, not to mention the lives of children it has enriched through the arts. Alpha Woman had the chance to interview Danelle about the future of Arts Express and the things that make her a brave and resilient entrepreneur.
Fresh out of university I was committed to becoming a musical theatre performer. I spent 8 years auditioning and getting summer stock gigs across the province, and in between I learned to teach the arts to pay the bills. In 1998, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune neuromuscular disease called Myasthenia Gravis which made being a professional performer impossible, as it at times made it difficult to breath and caused the muscles around my vocal chords to stop working with overuse. I would be no good to anyone in an eight show week.
Thus, I began my journey with Arts Express as a teacher in 2000, working for the original two founders of the company. Over the next few years, circumstances presented opportunities for me to become the sole shareholder in the company and I have nurtured it along with my own vision and determination since 2004.
Since then, I have forged Arts Express into a social enterprise with a focus on the arts to the benefit of elementary school children. Milestones that have been achieved since taking over management of the company include:
Be brave, surround yourself with people you trust and always let your integrity rule your decision-making.
Arts Express is excited to be starting its first programming at a Senior’s residence and we have developed a corporate T.A.S.A.M.™(Tackling Anxiety and Stress through Arts and Mindfulness) “Edutainment” workshop that we are launching this fall. Our current goal is to use the plethora of high quality workshops and programs that we currently have and expand our outreach across Ontario in schools, seniors centres and the corporate world. We are looking to develop unique financial partnerships to reach more people with our programming that is geared towards exploring the process of the arts while building self- confidence and self-esteem in people of all ages.
In 2013, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer stage 4 metastisized Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I have received 5 rounds of chemotherapy, 10 rounds of radiation on my iliac bone, a double mastectomy, 25 rounds on radiation on my left chest, DIEP flap reconstruction surgery, an incisional hernia repair operation and a complete hysterectomy. I get an IV drug called Herceptin every 21 days, another IV drug called Zometa every 3 months and take an oral drug every day.
To stay on top of my disease I get CAT scans every 3-6 months, bone scans every year and a MUGA test for my heart every three months. Last Saturday, I had my 100th treatment of Herceptin. I rang the bell at the chemo daycare to celebrate this milestone. Most times that the bell gets rung in chemo daycare it is because someone is finished with their treatment. My treatment will be indefinite until it stops being effective. I felt it was my turn to celebrate my journey thus far.
In 2015, I joined a volunteer organization called Patient Partners at the University Health Network in Toronto. I wanted to give back and help be a voice for patients in the medical system. This initiative by UHN is forward-thinking, insightful and extremely necessary. I have told my story at training sessions, corporate meetings, nurses’ conferences and I have sat on numerous committees within the organization that want to make decisions with the voice of patient and their families being heard.
As a patient, the buzz words on the street that you hear every day are “you have to advocate for the treatment that you need in the medical system” but what does that mean, exactly? In my opinion it means that you must be true to yourself, trust your instincts and work and communicate in partnership with your medical team. All of this communication can be done with integrity, kindness and compassion.
It changes your perspective. Having Arts Express to focus on was very important in some of the low times and having it as a focus was sometimes what kept me going. I have learned that everyone’s journey is their own and it is not for us to judge, it is for us to support. I was born with a healthy dose of resiliency and I am lucky enough to be able to tap into that on a daily basis. This has made my journey easier for me than others I think, and for that I am very grateful.
My father was diagnosed in 1962, at 21 years old, with Hodgkins disease. He was given 2 months to 2 years to live. My mom married him 2 years later and he was around for another 40 years. He was a guinea pig for chemo in the 60’s, and the after-effects of Cobalt radiation are what we figure eventually weakened his heart, causing him to pass just before his 61stbirthday in 2001.
Both my parents raised me to believe that cancer could be conquered against all the odds. I wasn’t told this, I lived this, it was part of our path, it was our family’s story…and my parents tried to appreciate each day, because they had learned very early on that you never know what is around the corner.
I grew up watching how important attitude was to your outcome. So strangely, I learned how to live with cancer being a part of my life from childhood and that is the approach I took with my own kids. We communicate openly and honestly about what is happening with my health and therefore there is no mystery. As far as my business goes, again, my father’s example of working hard and passionately every day was the template for my work ethic and joy for my business. I believe bravery was instilled in me at a very early age.
In 2006, during my second pregnancy, I ended up in a Myasthenia Gravis crisis, admitted to Toronto’s Mount Sinai hospital on the high-risk pregnancy floor, in and out of ICU, not being able to move, open my eyes or even breath some days. My daughter was fine – she was getting all the nourishment that she needed. At last check in, I still hold the record for the longest stay on the high-risk pregnancy floor at Mount Sinai, 128 days straight with 28 more days earlier in the pregnancy, 156 in total.
I had incredible support and encouragement from the nurses and staff at Mount Sinai and 13 years later, I am still connected with a few of them. This was also a crash course in the politics of a hospital and how it works. I made it through that with a beautiful reward, who weighed 6 lbs, and just turned 13, and my business intact. My brain still worked and I used it all through that journey. This experience enlightened me about the medical system and gave me knowledge and confidence to deal with my breast cancer diagnosis.
I really don’t have a bucket list, I TRY to live each day grateful and hopeful. I take opportunities as they present themselves and trust that I will be in the right place at the right time to fulfill all of my dreams.
How are we going to help all of the kids deal with their anxiety and manage to grow up to be confident, well-rounded adults? It’s a new world, one we did not grow up in, and as a parent, one of our biggest difficulties is that technology is moving so quickly that no one is checking in to see the effect it is having on us as humans and on the environment. This is what drives me each day in my business, creating simple tips and tools to teach our youth and using the arts to deal with their emotions, anxiety and stress.
Danelle, So wonderful to read this, knowing your resilience. You are making a difference in so many peoples lives with the Arts which will in turn makes a difference in their children’s lives. God bless you.