In late November 2015, PAL Ottawa met with “Blues Lady” Maria Hawkins in her new residence: a modest one-bedroom terrace level apartment in an Ottawa Co-op.  It was one of Maria’s last free days before she would begin a multi-phase surgical process to treat a grave eye condition: Fuchs endothelial dystrophy. For this reason, Maria distributed surgical masks which we wore for the length of our meeting. With so much riding on this procedure, we could not run the risk of her getting a cold pre-surgery.

But the real risks and challenges for this procedure center on Maria’s extensive recovery period.  Doctors explained to her that long after she recovers from the surgery itself, she must cut down, and even refrain from singing altogether, possibly for months. For an artist who lives off her her voice, this spells crisis.

“Sent into a tailspin”

Maria had known for years that she had Fuchs endothelial dystrophy – it’s a genetic disease that also struck her brother.  For a while, she was able to postpone treatment. But by summer of 2015, putting off surgery any longer risked doing permanent damage to her vision. So when Dr. Baig at the Eye Institute at the Ottawa General invited her to participate in a clinical trial for a new corneal transplant procedure, she knew it was time to act. But the implications were dizzying.

“This kind of diagnosis sends you into a tailspin when you’re an independent artist and you’re living from paycheque to paycheque…  and I do mean gig to gig.”

Part of living gig to gig has meant that Maria has had to be flexible and incredibly frugal. Over the last several years, in order to cut living costs to a bare minimum, she has stopped renting. Instead she housesits, stays with friends, and when necessary, lodges in rooming houses.

Maria knew that her transient living style would not provide the stability and safety she needed to recover from surgery. And beyond her need for housing, she now had to confront the problem of future lost income when she’s unable to sing. (The vocal vibrations will impede the fragile corneal graft from fusing properly to her eye.)

With this new, seemingly insurmountable financial challenge ahead, Maria knew she needed help, and a lot of it. “I felt that my safety and my sanity were at stake.”

“The Blues Lady”

For anyone who has seen Hawkins perform – for example at the Rainbow, where she has hosted jams for the past 15 years –the reality of her recent crisis might come as a shock. As a performer, Maria radiates energy and confidence and challenges the stereotypes of poverty.

For 30 years, Maria has been using her music to entertain, educate, and motivate across the Ottawa Valley. Her own training started at age 5 with a Royal Conservatory vocal teacher, and it is fitting that she knows how important and powerful musical education can be for children.

Her work within Ottawa’s schools has brought her the most acclaim and it is school children who gave her the title “Blues Lady.”  In 1999, Maria developed “Blues in the Schools,” a program to promote, preserve and perpetuate the art, culture and heritage of Blues music. Maria’s efforts in partnership with RBC Bluesfest earned the 2002 Keeping the Blues Alive Award (formerly the WC Handy Award),  a title conferred by the Blues Foundation. Maria then turned to anti-bullying initiatives, using her music and leadership to help school children strategize to protect themselves and each other from bullying. More recently, she’s expanded this program to adults with developmental disabilities. It’s efforts like these that garnered her city wide recognition such as YM/YWCA Woman of Distinction and United Way Community Builder.

“We are here to help you and we will help you.”

These gestures of recognition, welcome though they have been, have done little to help Maria create any kind of financial cushion. So when she received word that surgery was inevitable, she needed new avenues for assistance.

It was at the Musicians’ Union office on Metcalfe where Maria picked up a PAL Ottawa brochure. She wasted no time in making contact, explaining her situation to Michael Namer, Chair of the Supporting Cast Committee, and Coordinator of the Supporting Cast programme.  “He was very supportive right from the get and the go,” Maria recalls about Michael. “He understands that as an artist in my category, not a mainstream big-name, having-made-it artist that I certainly did not have the wherewithal to go through this alone.”

Michael spearheaded a process seeking funds to help Maria subsist, in stable and safe housing, for the duration of her surgery and recovery. He reached out to both the Actors’ Fund of Canada (AFC) and the Musicians’ Union, and was successful in obtaining a stipend that covers her basic needs during this stressful period.

A big component of the application process came down to Maria’s documentation of her situation, going back through four years of financial records.  The task was especially overwhelming and at one point Maria wanted to give up. But Michael urged her on:

“Maria, this is worth doing. We are here to help you and we will help you. This is just a formality… And you will be safe. This is only change.”

These words comforted Maria and gave her the energy to keep going. To remind herself of Michael’s encouragement she taped them to the wall of the room she was staying in at the time: “You are safe. This is only change.”

And while the financial support is crucial and has given Maria safety and security, at least for the next 6 months, it is the emotional support from PAL that she finds as important, if not more so. “This is all just stuff. Stuff comes and stuff goes. I’m very glad to have it, but what lasts is how you make people feel…. PAL has the support of people out there who believe that artists have value…. That’s a big part of what has improved my spirits and improved my chances of a full recovery. And I needed that so badly.”

UPDATE: as of January 20, Maria has been through 3 surgeries to the left eye and awaits an additional surgery in March to complete the treatment of that eye before moving on to the 4 surgeries on the right eye.