Q&A with Danelle Smith McManus, Executive Director of Arts Express

Danelle McManus profile photo

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.

AW: Tell us about your career journey so far and what keeps you motivated day after day to continue with your business.

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.

An Arts Express class in action

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:

  • Expanding Arts Express into Peel, Durham, York, Halton, and Ottawa regions with talented Regional Coordinators leading the way;
  • Significantly broadening the menu of arts-related services offered to school communities, including a Literacy Storytelling series, Managing Meanness by Cultivating Kindness workshops, Tackling Anxiety and Stress through Arts and Mindfulness (TASAM™} workshops, and daycare enrichment programs in the arts;
  • Expanding the reach of Arts Express to tens of thousands of children every year;
  • Establishing a Partnership Agreement with the Toronto District School Board

AW: You’ve been an entrepreneur most of your life. What have been your 3 biggest challenges in building Arts Express?

  1. One of my biggest challenges in my business is running a small company that works in partnership with large bureaucracies such as school boards. Each school board has a different set of rules, and policies and procedures change without notice or explanation, and a lot of time it is necessary to adapt on the fly. Also, because we work directly with schools there are always budget considerations and pricing each program is a difficult task in order to encompass quality, equality, demographics and accessibility.
  2. Another challenge that we have faced is finding the right database system to fit with the very unique qualities for the Arts Express programming and clientele. It is not a “one size fits all” company and needs a lot of tweaking of technology for proper record keeping. I have had a very difficult six year period trying to develop the proper balance in a database tool to meet our needs. It is difficult to find the proper support in an area that I am not very comfortable or confident with. I can see a light at the end of this tunnel now, but it will forever be evolving to keep up with advances in technology, and our needs.
  3. Thirdly, finding the balance between developing and selling our programs can be difficult. Obviously, both are very important for the growth and sustainability of the company, but you have to listen to your instincts to know when to pull back on the development of new programs and trust in the ones that are currently ready for market. This is important so that you can pay back the investment that you put in to developing a program before you move on to the next development project. Sales to schools and school boards are tricky as it is a very niche market. Principals of schools are very busy people who wear a lot of hats. Finding a few minutes just to talk about our programming can sometimes be the biggest challenge. When we are able to have a conversation with the school administration 85% of the time in ends up with some sort of engagement.

AW: If you were to give 3 pieces of advice to other entrepreneurs just starting out, what would they be?

Be brave, surround yourself with people you trust and always let your integrity rule your decision-making.

AW: Tell us more about where Arts Express is headed in the next 5 years.

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.

AW: You recently celebrated a very important milestone in your life – 100 systemic therapy treatments to help manage the cancer you have been battling for over 6 years. Can you tell us more about this journey?

Danelle with her husband Pat, just after having rung The Bell

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.

AW: Tell us about how you’ve advocated for and helped other cancer patients at the Princess Margaret Hospital and the University Health Network.

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.

AW: What has your health journey taught you about yourself, and others?

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.

AW: Simultaneously being an entrepreneur, facing stage 4 cancer, being a mother to two small children all require tremendous amounts of bravery, resilience and strength. Where do you think your bravery comes from, and do you recognize yourself as being brave?

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.

AW: What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in life?

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.

AW: Do you have a “bucket list” and if so, what’s in the top 10?

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.

AW: You have teenage kids – what aspect of raising teens or teen life keeps you awake at night?

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.

Originally posted on Alpha Woman