Lynn Saxberg – Ottawa Citizen
Singer Maria Hawkins knows what it’s like to have no money and no paying gigs on the horizon, a situation many performers are finding themselves in during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To complicate matters further, Hawkins lives with a hereditary eye disease that would have left her blind without a cornea transplant, which involves a series of surgeries. The first eye was done four years ago, and she’s on a waiting list for the second.
In 2016, the year of the first surgery, Hawkins had drifted to New Brunswick to stay with a friend, hoping to find more gigs there. But then the call came that a cornea was available.
“I had been floating around,” she says. “I went out east because it seemed musicians were still surviving there. But I did not have a residence, and when I got the call saying we’ve got the cornea, I had to quickly get back to Ottawa and find a place to live, toute suite.”
Her credit card was maxed out, her belongings were in plastic tubs in her van and winter was coming. She was 59 years old.
“The feeling, oh my God, was panic, feeling that I can’t go through eye surgery without a stable place to live. I couldn’t live in a van,” recalls Hawkins.
A friend told her about PAL Ottawa, and she reached out for help. “They saved my life,” she said from the cozy home in a seniors co-op they helped her find and furnish. She moved in on a Friday; her first surgery took place three days later.
PAL Ottawa, which stands for Performing Arts Lodge, is a not-for-profit corporation with charitable status that aims to provide senior members of the arts community with essentials, including personal care services and affordable housing.
And now they’re stepping up to help senior members of the arts community struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A PAL supporter who wishes to remain anonymous has designated close to $50,000 through the Ottawa Community Foundation to offer immediate financial support to 50 freelance artists or arts workers aged 55 and over in the city. Each grant will be $900, and administered by the Ottawa Arts Council. The deadline to apply is 11:59 p.m. April 3. Go to ottawaartscouncil.ca to apply.
“It’s so somebody can carry on writing a book or working on a play or a painting or any of the things that can be done in isolation,” said Peter Haworth, chair of PAL Ottawa’s board of directors. The money can be spent on art supplies, living expenses or any other necessities of the artistic life. Techs and administrative workers are eligible, as well as performers.
“As someone who has lived as an artist, I know what the beginning of the month looks like,” added the actor. “There’s a scramble to get the rent together. We recognize that once somebody loses their housing and decides maybe they’re going to sofa surf, they immediately start to run into psychological and other health problems, and the cost to society is great.”
Successful applicants will be determined by a jury of three or four arts professionals. “They will figure out who seems to be in the greatest need,” says Haworth.
Hawkins, however, has no intention of applying for the money.
“The reason I won’t be applying is that I can pay my rent, my bills are all up to date and I have a nice stockpile of groceries,” says the 63-year-old grandmother who spent much of her music career performing for students in the school system.
“There are people I’m truly worried about that I’m in contact with every few days to keep them in an uplifted place. They’re scared to death. They don’t see there being an end. Even if we can flatten the curve by the summer, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to be back to rocking it in the fall. These things take time to plan.”