Women’s health champion passes away

Community pays tributes with messages of love, sadness and inspiration

By DAWN BOOTH, Connect Weekly

Vilia Tosio, a woman who played a pivotal role in local breastfeeding and midwifery support, died on March 6. Residents share tributes of her inspiration, motivation and how she created leaders within the community. Supplied photo

Community ambassador and educator Vilia Tosio, a woman who played a pivotal role in local breastfeeding and midwifery support, died on March 6 in Jasper, AB, after battling brain cancer at the age of 54.

Tosio is survived by her husband Mike, son John and daughter Laura.

In August 2015, Tosio had a brain tumour removed. The eight-year Fort McMurray resident moved to Calgary in the fall of 2015 shortly after being diagnosed with brain cancer to receive chemotherapy treatments.

Post-surgery, Tosio was last in Fort McMurray on October 29, 2015 to attend the Diversity Summit. She flew in solely for the event to raise awareness on bringing a birthing centre to Fort McMurray.

On February 20, Tosio’s trusted friend and Leadership Wood Buffalo Program Coordinator at FuseSocial Alexandra Tarasenco was in Calgary to visit her.

“She was weak, but so full of energy and ideas, as ever,” said Tarasenco. “She kept saying: ‘This world needs more kindness. One can never be too kind.’”

Tarasenco further explained how Tosio, at the time, was arranging to have fresh fruits and vegetables delivered to a pregnant local woman in need. Tosio always had her mind set on helping others.

“Vilia shared with me that there was a pregnant lady who reached out to her from Fort McMurray and she needed help, so she arranged to have something delivered. She gave me her contact details to follow up with her.”

On March 6, Tarasenco received a text message from Tosio at 11:30 a.m. (less than an hour before she passed) to let her know she was in Jasper Park with her son John, and her two sisters.

“I am only consoled by the idea that she was happy at that moment, as she was surrounded by beautiful nature and with family around,” she shared.

“I am only consoled by the idea that she was happy at that moment, as she was surrounded by beautiful nature and with family around,” she shared.

Founder of the Fort McMurray Breast Feeding Support Group, Tosio had been spearheading the idea to develop a birth centre in the city. She continued to voice the potential and positive effect it would bring in many of her platforms.

She’s also played a key role in leading the support to bring midwives to help with the high-demand of the region’s prenatal care needs.

As a South African-trained RN with diplomas in Psychiatric, Community & Occupational Health Nursing, Tosio had previously worked at Keyano College as a prenatal educator, until 2014.

Around the same time, she was a lead organizer in the “Bring Midwives to Wood Buffalo” rally, which brought an estimated 120 residents in support. Shortly after completing the Leadership Wood Buffalo program, Tosio became a regional representative for MaternityCare Consumers of Alberta.

Her philanthropy efforts have awarded her a nomination and special recognition in the 2014 Mayor and Council’s Toast of Champion, as well as, the Volunteer Recognition Award in honour of Bill Bloomfield at the 2015 Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards.

Vilia Tosio with her husband Mike at last year’s TedXFortMcMurray conference on February 21, 2015. Photo by RUSSELL THOMAS

Vilia Tosio with her husband Mike at last year’s TedXFortMcMurray conference on February 21, 2015. Photo by RUSSELL THOMAS

Evaluation specialist at the Wood Buffalo Primary Care Network and a research consultant for Children First Behnoush Ahranjani was a friend and neighbour to Tosio. Ahranjani volunteered with her in a wide range of local initiatives from the midwifery mission to the birthing centre.

“Vilia could make everything out of nothing and it was not something that many people can achieve,” explained Ahranjani. “Vilia was about love and helping people unconditionally. Hundreds of mothers and families admire and love Vilia and she changed so many lives because she created the circle of love and support from one material and that was love. The community has and will have respect for her, as she always said ‘You have to work hard to have people’s respect.’”

Ahranjani believes the community could have done more for her, as she dedicated countless volunteer hours.

“Vilia is the only person I know who worked full-time as a volunteer for many years. I wish she would have received what she deserved as a professional,” she said. “Through her adventures in Fort McMurray, she kept giving and received little in return. This was only over the past year she received recognition, and the Volunteer Recognition award, after almost a decade of giving tireless services. Vilia has gone, but I’d like everyone to take a moment, put aside the clichés, and think carefully about this wonderful lady’s difficult journey in the town we call home.”

“I woke this morning (on March 6), thinking about Vilia. Mostly because I had watched the video she made for me with Alexandra only two weeks ago,” Bos explained. “The reoccurring centering thought about her was the ‘Impact of a Leader’.”

Meranda Bos, local representative for MaternityCare Consumers of Alberta Network and Doula with Higher Health Doula Cooperative, has created a close relationship to Tosio throughout the years. In her last days, Tosio shared an inspirational video with Bos. In the message, Tosio told her to keep focused in her leadership and to continue being a voice for the need of a birth centre in Fort McMurray.

“I woke this morning (on March 6), thinking about Vilia. Mostly because I had watched the video she made for me with Alexandra only two weeks ago,” Bos explained. “The reoccurring centering thought about her was the ‘Impact of a Leader’.”

Bos recalls the first time she met Tosio and remembers her saying: “Oh! Wow, you have five children.” But unlike many others surprised by Bos’ birth count, she said Tosio continued: “How wonderful. Did you breastfeed them all?”

Little did Bos know, this was the beginning of an impressionable relationship, which would lead her into the role she fills today.

“Honestly, before I met Vilia, I wasn’t overly concerned with Fort McMurray as a community. I just saw Fort McMurray as a place where we came to make money. She encouraged me to get involved. Vilia was ‘community leadership’. Even though her passion of choice was breastfeeding, it was always so much more than breastfeeding. Breastfeeding brought us together. Vilia was great at bringing people together.”

Ashley Laurenson agrees. Laurenson further said if it wasn’t for Tosio and her husband Mike, she and her family would have never moved to Canada from New Zealand.

Laurenson has been a resident of Fort McMurray since 2008. Today, she is actively involved and well-known in the local film industry as an actor, make-up artist, production designer and founding member of the Fort McMurray Filmmakers Association.

“I will be grateful to her for the rest of my life for the wonderful moments we shared and the times she pushed me out of my comfort zone to do hundreds of different things I would have never done,” she said. “She was and always will be my family. She was the aunty I wasn’t born with, and I will miss her and thank God for her every day.”

Tributes and special messages were delivered from fellow community leaders, colleagues, residents and members of the social profit sector from across the province.

Shizu Marayama is a local digital marketing analyst and strategist. She has been facilitating Tosio’s social media platforms. She first met Tosio volunteering and quickly became friends.

“She changed my life,” Marayama said. “She helped me through my birth at the hospital, and breastfeeding. She would come visit my place and gently supported every day for a short visit. She meant a lot to me and because like a big sister. She was the most kind and generous people I ever met. She was selfless… I would not have been as I am today if she had not helped me.”

Ken Chapman, Executive in Residence at GOProductivity and former Executive Director of the Northern Initiative for the Edmonton Economic Development Corp., has been a long-time breastfeeding awareness supporter.

“She was a woman of passion and compassion, as well as talent and tenacity. Her humour and humanity was ever present as she pursued her purpose of caring for mothers and children.”

He explains how Tosio’s passion and compassion has made him, and others, better people.

“It was with a heavy heart I ‎heard of Vilia’s passing. But because I knew her, my heart is also full of hope for the future,” he said, in an interview from Edmonton. “She was a woman of passion and compassion, as well as talent and tenacity. Her humour and humanity was ever present as she pursued her purpose of caring for mothers and children.”

Chapman also shared “she was advocating for others to the very end‎ of her life. I, like others, will miss her, but all who knew her are better people because of her. For that I am grateful and will look to find some way to keep her hope alive and her ambitions for mothers and children fulfilled.”

Melanie Doucette, a senior Northern Development Officer at Northern Alberta Development Council for the Government of Alberta, took part in the Leadership Wood Buffalo program, alongside Tosio. She said Tosio had a strong presence through her journey as a new mother.

“As with many other mothers in the region, Vilia has been a pillar of strength and wisdom for me,” Doucette said. “I was also fortunate to have Vilia as a friend and to share many successes and struggles with her. I always looked forward to having tea at her place, where she welcomed and inspired me. She had a way of making you feel like you had something special to offer and could do anything. I will miss her deeply.”

Local artist, Leadership Wood Buffalo Alumni and Director of Communications & Community Impact at United Way of Fort McMurray Russell Thomas said that, “Deeply passionate, fiercely expressive, and a determined advocate, Vilia was widely known for being a champion of mothers and babies. She never missed an opportunity to inspire the change she wanted to see in our community and did so with consistency, intelligence and grace.

As you look at the tributes pouring in as the news spreads (on social media), it is clear that Vilia will never be forgotten and that the torch she carried will be picked up. As a proud alum of Leadership Wood Buffalo, Vilia was always engaged, generous with her time and her enthusiasm. She delivered a brilliant TEDxFortMcMurray talk, and moved everyone in the room with her message. It is a message that will continue to resonate, even though she is gone.”

Fort McMurray Airport Authority Director and Secretary to the Board at Educare Early Intervention Jo Day said “Vilia understood. And she believed. She leaves an amazing legacy. A legacy of women who she brought together to share their fears, their pain and their suffering in those dark hours. Those women formed friendships that endure. Some of those women, with her encouragement and support, have blossomed and sought to improve themselves in ways they probably never imaged. They now have careers in which they love, guide and inspire others. This legacy will continue in Vilia’s honour. We owe her that much. We are all better and stronger people because of her. For that we will be forever grateful.”

For those who wish to share tributes are welcomed to on ‘Vilia Tosio Prenatal and Breastfeeding Education’ page on Facebook. A local memorial service is currently being arranged and an update will be posted on this page.

– CONNECT WEEKLY-