Tara McCallan

How To Have A Happy Soul

TBOP2017 ⋅ 30:22 ⋅ Filmed May 12, 2017

When her daughter was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, Tara McCallan admits she broke down. She felt fearful, angry, guilty, stressed and “in a fog”. Reeling from those emotions, she started to write. She doesn’t know if she was at the computer for a minutes or hours — but what poured out of her that night was the beginning of something magical.

Based out of Kingston, The Happy Soul Project and the #DifferentIsBeautiful campaign are now a global phenomena, with fans from all over the world. Tara’s honest and vulnerable blogging has made her an advocate and champion of the Down Syndrome community, and a hero to parents everywhere.

In this uplifting (and emotional) keynote, Tara tells the story of the roundabout way she made it out of the fog and transformed her vulnerability and confusion into something powerful, awe-inspiring, and global — and how you can too. From her ingenious Friends “hack” to pay her way backpacking through Australia to making a nun cry, Tara enumerates the many paths she has journeyed down, only to discover they weren’t the right path for her.

Whether you feel hopelessly lost, or just a little off course, this profound keynote is for anyone who’s ever felt like a vagabond in their own life — and why you need to give yourself the grace to explore so that you can find your “Full Circle” moment.

Further Reading

  • JMCC
  • World Down Syndrome Day
  • World Down Syndrome Awareness Month
  • Paint Your Nails
  • Kick-It-Capes
  • To the Radio Station that Describes Weather as "Retarded"


    What I'm going to talk to you guys about today, is quite literally how to have a happy soul. I know that says what the title is going to be (pointing to screen behind her) but I'm just going to wing it somewhere completely different. I'm just going to tell you a little bit about Happy Soul Project.

    [0:14] It's funny because everyone thinks Happy Soul Project is associated with our "Different is Beautiful" campaign, Down Syndrome and Pip and all those things you saw in the video. While it is, when you really look at it, it's quite literally is just one person's journey. One person's path one having a happy soul. What it really is, is my pledge to myself. My pledge to my children at no matter what life throws my way, I'm going to have a happy soul.

    The Birth of Happy Soul Project

    [00:48] Happy Soul Project started in a really really dark and vulnerable place. It started a few weeks after my little girl was born and we took her home from the hospital and we weren't sure about her Down Syndrome diagnosis. We were told it was positive and I kind of put myself in this fog. And I kind of put myself in this bubble. A couple of weeks after she was born, I remember putting her down in her crib after putting her to sleep. I looked up and right above was the sign that I had made. The sign said, "Life is more beautiful because you are here". I remember placing her in the crib and just falling to my knees in such, such sadness. It was the first time I actually realized what it was to weep. My entire body, my entire being, was just so sad and so shattered.

    [01:41] With Pip's diagnosis, there were so many levels of dealing with that grief. I mean, there was the sadness. There was the anger. The why me? And there was this whole area of guilt, if you will. I replayed the pregnancy. With my first son, I did everything totally buy the book. I didn't eat salami and I didn't take out the dryer lint and all that kind of stuff. With my second child I was more lenient, so as soon as they told me that diagnosis, I immediately thought back to all the things I did when I was pregnant. I ignorantly thought that I somehow caused Down Syndrome.

    [02:34] There’s this other part of this guilt with my little girl. She was a couple of days old and she was in my arms, and she was so beautiful and looking at me. She just so needed to be loved. I was so sad and so scared that she could sense all these feelings of anger and guilt and sadness that I was feeling. It was a weird time in this weird fog of emotion for me. I remember putting her in that crib placing her down and just falling to my knees being so sad but as I got up, walked to the computer.

    [03:17] In today's day in age with social media, everyone knew I was pregnant. Everyone knew I was having a baby. Everyone knew I was going into labour. I'm the mom who posted the picture I was about to her and before we even knew she was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, I was posting pictures of her so everyone knew we had a baby. And then all of the sudden I kind of just went dark. I didn't answer messages. I didn't answer emails. My husband had to call family. And had to call our friends and tell them that our little girl not only had Down Syndrome, but that she has major eye and heart issues and needed surgery immediately.

    [03:55] In that moment, after I placed her in the crib, I went to the computer and instead of answering all the messages and answering all the emails I just decided I was going to create a blog and I already had a little mummy blog. My friends, girlfriends and my aunt read this blog so I thought I would just write it there and everyone could then find out about everything. It's the only time in my life that I actually sat down and I don't remember one moment of it. I remember crying but I don't know if I was there for 4 minutes or if I was there for 4 hours. I left everything that I was thinking and I just let the words flow. This really vulnerable and honest point of view from a Mom who threw it and it's not the first time that words have helped heal me. It's not the first time that words have been my safety.

    [04:50] My parents tell me that my entire life, no matter what even as a little girl, I always would tell people I wanted to be a writer or a ballerina. Even to this day if you told me what do you want to do with your life, I would tell you that to see my name on a book in a bookstore would just fulfill everything in me possible. It's funny because our ‘Different is Beautiful’ calendar that you saw in the video and our apparel line, all of that is sold in bookstores and shops. I walk into Chapters and I see our calendar there and I couldn't be [more proud] but the thought of having my book there with my name as the author, it just does it for me.

    Setting the Foundation in the Early Years

    [05:35] That all being said, parents say I took my writing quite seriously and from an early age — I don't know if you can see that but this is from grade six, I believe. I'm literally grading the boys in my class based on personality, appearance, everything. So I took my writing quite seriously as you can see and thankfully moved on to journals and academics. I excelled at that kind of thing.

    [06:04] In high school, I decided that another piece of me was kind of being pulled in a different direction. Like I said, words in a way have always been my thing where I feel the most myself when I'm in tuned with writing. In high school, I kind of got pulled in this other direction. I got pulled in this direction of wanting to help people and really wanted to explore that side of things. As far as knowing where to go career-wise.

    [06:35] So, I was in high school I volunteered a community center and I worked with kids that were from the rougher part of town and we gave out breakfast every Sunday. It was the first time in my life that I actually got to realize, how much of an impact one person can have on another person.

    [06:55] In high school I also got this wild idea that I was 16 I wanted to move to Toronto and work in a homeless shelter. I'm originally from Windsor and that's about 4 hours away from Toronto. I approached my parents and told them that this is what I wanted to do. Obviously they were like, [no] but thankfully, my parents knew that I was the type of person that needed to do something like that. I needed to follow the path and the voice that I had inside of me so they set up safeties and boundaries and they let me do it. It led to me deciding that I wanted to take Social Work.

    [07:34] So I knew I was going to take social work. I applied, I got a scholarship and got into Social Work. The summer before I went to do that, we had to do a co-op in high school — the very last year of school. it didn't matter to me because I already got accepted and I was already going to a program the only thing I wanted to do was be with my best friend. My best friend wanted to work in an office and I just said I'll go wherever. They put us in a place in Windsor and it was called the Children's Rehabilitation Centre. My best friend worked in the library and I worked in the classroom.

    [08:11] It was the very first time, I got to see just how magical kids with extraordinary needs could be. it was the very first time I got to see the relationship between parents and children. It was the very first time, now looking back, I got to see that fate or the universe with setting the foundation of what my heart needed to be.

    [08:40] I went on to do other things and I started doing social work and maybe at about year one or two, I remember the exact class, it was about policy and legislation. [I said to myself], holy sh*t this is not for me. Literally being in the class and knowing fully that social work just wasn't the path for me. I could have easily finish the course. I could have easily graduated. I could have easily gotten a job and continued on that path but I knew something in me knew that just wasn't what I was supposed to do.

    Thinking Outside the Box

    [09:22] To my parents dismay, I dropped out of University and I decided to travel. I traveled for a few years, back in scrapbooking years, I traveled all around, I lived in a few countries and I worked abroad in those years of my life. That's what I would encourage you the most to do. Those years of my life, I think,really made me who I am. They made me fearless, they made me independent and they made me confident. They made me the type of person can think outside the box.

    [10:00] I'll give you an example of that. I got off the plane [in Sydney, Australia], I was 20, I only had enough money to get from the airport to a hostel. The cab driver dropped me off. I had a big backpack and all my bags to carry for a few months. He dropped me off at the hostel and I paid. I got up to the front and they said, "I'm sorry you're at her sister hostel across town". So with all of that on my back I had to meet the Australian son and walk about 45 minutes. When I got there it was in the roughest part of Sydney. It was an area called King's Cross and for the most part it was surrounded by strip clubs and bars. Everyone in the hostel either worked at a strip club or in a bar. My roommate actually was a stripper. What I discovered was there was a bunch of girls there that needed their hair done, so thinking of outside of the box, all of a sudden I became Tara the hairdresser from Canada. I literally bought scissors from a drugstore and then travel the entire East Coast of Australia from jumping hostel to hostel to hostel cutting people's hair like Rachel. I just did that the entire time the whether you had long or short hair, you had Rachel from Friends - that's all you got. (laughs) It taught me to think outside the box and be fearless. It pieces of that, that make me who I am today and I couldn't encourage you more to do that kind of thing.

    Journalism & Barbara Walters

    [11:30] While I was traveling, I really was writing the most I had ever written. I was really leaning more towards that direction of life. I decided to move back to Canada and I went to school for journalism. I graduated from journalism and worked from worked for numerous newspapers and discovered that I'm an absolutely horrible writer. To the to point where I'm actually a disgrace to the profession. I would make up names. I would put boyfriend's names in as quoting things — just not good. The other piece of what I really wanted to do was that I really just wanted to "Barbara Walters" people. I had an interview with a Nun I worked in Ireland for National Catholic newspaper and there was this really important interview with a Nun and I wanted to do it. I got there and really took this poor lady to town. I had her crying. I had her questioning her faith, talking about past boyfriends. Nothing I could put in the article but I felt really good. I felt I had gotten there and really Walters-ed the crap out of her. It's to the point actually, my husband and I, will be at a party or a dinner party and he'll see that I'm really engaged with someone and he'll either yell across the room or come and whisper in my ear like, " enough Walters, enough". I took the time and really tried to figure out what path I wanted to go on.

    Give Yourself Grace to Explore

    [13:04] From journalism and discovering that I was a horrible writer, I decided that Human Resources was more my style. I got into that and I went back to school. I worked for Public Health and I became a Manager of Human Resources. And I think that was the time in my life where I really got to realize and figure out and pin point how to be somebody else's voice. How to kind of meditate between two sides.

    [13:34] I'm in this really strange and cool place right now where I'm standing, where I'm the founder of Happy Soul Project where all these elements and all these pieces of my life, from some strange reason seem to align. Back to the panel talk where I didn't want to say anything, what I want people to know and what I want young people to know, is to give yourself grace to explore. Give yourself time to figure who you are. Give yourself grace to go down one path and if that doesn't work, go down another. So much in life, people pigeon hole you or put you in this box if people just start giving themselves grace to figure out who they are, you'll get to that path much sooner.

    Find Your Full Circle Moments

    [14:22] The other piece of them for me, in discovering who am I and where I'm meant to be right now, [are] these really big full circle moments that I've been having. I talked about it briefly just about, you know, sometimes in life when you get down or not realizing what you're supposed to be doing or getting discouraged and how the universe kind of plays it's part in letting you know you're in the right direction. For me, I've been having these really really really big full circle moments where all of a sudden I feel like I'm in this really sweet spot of purpose.

    [15:00] My little boy, the other day, he kept calling my name and I was making breakfast and I was kind of ignoring him and finally, I looked over and he was carrying my little girl this (referring to image on screen behind her) and I looked over and it was like lightening struck me and I could barely breathe. It so déjà vu-ed into this moment and it so flashed forwarded this full circle purpose in my life.

    [15:25] That co-op I told you about where I worked at the children's rehabilitation centre. After I was done, I met a family there, and they asked if I would with their little girl. She was a teenager, her name is Emily. I worked with her for a whole summer and she just happened to have Down Syndrome. I used to take her to dinner or to the movies and I would constantly take her to my family's house to play board games or do something. She had the hugest crush on my little brother and he was maybe 14 at the time. Every time she came running into the door she'd run over to him and jump in his arms like that. I just flash forward to my brother carrying Emily in that position and I don't know, all of a sudden it all kind of made sense for me.

    [16:15] My mom tells if I had chosen the ballerina route instead of the writer route, I maybe might still be standing here because the ballerina route, I guess I took just a seriously. Apparently, I learned to walk on the tips of my toes to the point where doctors has to send me to that exact same children's rehabilitation centre where I had to learn to walk flat-footed.

    [16:43] In 2 weeks, I'll be going back to that exact same children's rehabilitation centre and I'll be opening a wing, a whole entrance, that will be a Happy Soul Project entrance. This mural (referring to image on screen behind her) that my Dad and I made will be hanging on the walls and I can't tell you how fulfilling that is. How monumental it is to push me forward and to know that what I'm doing right now in life is meant to be. So I guess, I would encourage you, they might not be as outrageously full circle as this but just to find your Full Circle Moments, whatever they may be.

    [17:28] The other one that really changed my life is, when you're first given the diagnosis that your child has Down Syndrome, you're given this brochure or this New Parent Package and it could be before the diagnosis or right as soon as you receive it. We received this package and my husband, he really loved that kind of thing, it provided medical information and factual stuff and maybe community stuff about who you can contact for local support. But for me, it was missing a real and raw look from another parent and fast forward maybe two years, I was approached by the Canadian Down Syndrome Society to see if I would like to write a letter to these parents. So now every single package that a new parent receives, who has a baby with Down Syndrome, receives a letter from a Mom. A letter from me just kind of telling them that the feelings their having, the emotions their having, the circle of grief that they're going through is all OK.

    [18:39] For me, this moment in my life, I think will go down as the most powerful (getting emotional). I think will go down the most humbling. And for me, this moment, this moment brought redemption. Those first few weeks when I was so sad. Those first few weeks when I was doubting the purpose when going to have in my life. This moment brings redemption for that. I just really want to leave you with that - and tears, tears and wind a really great combo I've got going up here — I really want to leave you with those two points to start: 1) Give yourself grace to explore who you are; and 2) Find your full circle moments.

    Turn & Tune

    [19:33] The 3rd thing I want to talk about and we kind of talked about it on the panel, is turn and tune. And what that means is just turn off the noise and tune into your voice. I think in today's society, there's so much noise out there. there is so much stimulation, whether that's Netflix or social media. I mean, I'm clicking things like watch a man create a little mini Ukrainian Easter egg. There's so much stuff out there that watching or you're seeing. Every night I feel like I'm just filling my mind with all these things. You can ask 7 mins later what I just watched or what I just read and I probably couldn't even tell you. I'm interested at the time but I feel like we're putting so much noise into each other that we don't really get a clear path on what the voice is.

    [20:32] I'll give you an example. The Down Syndrome community is super big and super vibrant and it's very celebratory there's so many elements to it. In one year's time, the Down Syndrome community does so many events, there's World Down Syndrome Day, there's World Down Syndrome Awareness Month, there's Paint Your Nails, there's Wear Crazy Socks, there's so much that they do within the community. The first few years of my little girl's life I did everything. I killed myself trying to write a blog every single day when it was Down Syndrome Awareness Month. I tried to do everything that you possibly could.

    [21:15] At one point, a local radio station here in Kingston, used the word "retarded" to describe the weather. Our local Down Syndrome community was up in arms and numerous people contacted me. It was a big fight needed to be had. One family in particular, they were driving, and they had their son who had Down syndrome in the car and a few other siblings. The other siblings had never heard that word before and kept asking the parents what it meant. So there was a lot of outrage about it. Numerous people asked if I'd use my platform, Happy Soul Project, to approach the radio station. So I did and it went viral. The article went on to Huffington Post and everything became a really big deal.

    [22:05] While I think that's important, while I think the conversation needed to be said and while I'm glad the radio station apologized, it wasn't necessarily my fight to fight. It wasn't Happy Soul Project's message and I think I've learnt that along the way. I learnt to tune in and be true to what I want my message to be and not necessarily pick up everyone's sword just because it needs to be fought. I think that's a huge part in just turning off the noise and tuning into yourself.

    Refuse to Sink

    [22:41] The main thing that I think my little girl, Pip, has taught me in life (voice quivering) is just refusing to sink. All of us go through a lot in life. All of us have stages where we feel in ruts and we have burnouts and our careers don't feel fulfilling or what not. I think for myself, I said it in the panel, but running nonprofit can be really tiring and it can be really thankless.

    [23:12] We run something called Kick-It-Capes and this project started because my best friend had a little boy, Mason. She called me, she lives maybe 8 hours away, and called me and told me her little boy has cancer. I put a message out on Happy Soul Project. Just one little message and I just asked someone if they could make one cape. Right away numerous people were sending me messages and dropping off capes and doing all these sorts of things. From one little cape and one little boy, we all of a sudden has this really important non-profit project where we send these personalized superhero capes all around the world. We encourage kids to fight whatever we are fighting.

    [24:01] But at the same breath, my best friend lost her little boy and working on this project (crying), is really heart-breaking. We do it and it's powerful. And it's something so beautiful that I'm so honoured to get to do with her but in the same breath when you get message after message that kids need these capes or you get message and message of pictures of the capes on coffins, it does you in. There's this whole component of running a nonprofit that really drains you.

    [24:39] There's also this whole piece of being a blogger. Putting your life out there and sharing your life. The ignorant comments you get. The judging you get from other Moms. There's this whole cycle of what it is to be a blogger in life.

    [24:57] And then, there's the whole side of being a Mom and, you know, you saw a little bit but my little girl has not had the easiest path in life. Being a Mom to anyone, but being a Mom to a kid with extraordinary needs, is really heart-breaking.

    [25:20] My little girl in two weeks time, we're bringing her for her 11th surgery. She's 4 years old and she's going for her 11th surgery (crying). It's to the point now, where she knows what's happening. She knows a couple weeks beforehand that I'm rocking her extra long. She knows a couple days ahead of time when I'm rocking her so so long that I think she's sleeping and she just kind of reaches up and she wipes my tears away. She doesn't say anything, she just kind of wipes them away and we just stay like that for hours sometimes. she knows when, it's the day of the surgery and I'm picking her up and it's still dark outside and she's in her pjs and I'm not giving her breakfast. She knows when we go to that same receptionist and she has Snicker Bars me and teddy bear for Pip. She know when I'm taking her little contacts out and I'm putting her in a hospital gown. And she knows when we go into the Operating Room that I'm getting ready to pretty much put on a concert. My little girl loves music more than anyone I've ever met in my life. As a parent, you're allowed to go into the Operating Room and sign her child to sleep and when she was little could just softly sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” but as she gets older she's wanting like a full on — I had to go in the Fall and like mean Adele — like full on sang out “Hello” and I looked up and nurse are crying and doctors are like giving it wit me. In 2 weeks, I don't know what that song is going to be.

    [27:16] But regardless of all that, regardless of the surgeries, regardless of every single diagnosis my little girl gets, she refuses to sink. If I can I leave you anything, it would be that. Its would be, take each day as it is, refuse to sink whatever the situation is.

    Know Your Dent in the Universe

    [27:35] And the last thing I want to leave with you is to know your dent on the universe. What I mean by that is that each of us is here for just such a short time. Each of us is here for this tiny little moment in history and I think a lot of us don't realize the impact that we have. And you saw in the video, a story about two strangers. And I just want to leave you with that.

    [28:10] The first strange was a doctor. My little girl was 3 days old and Pip was in my arms and the doctor had the audacity to say to me that if I chose to have another baby, he could prevent this from happening. That doctor has no idea what seed he planted in me. He has no idea the fight that he created. I wouldn't be able to pick out that doctor, just like I wouldn't be able to the little lady who really changed the course of my life.

    [28:43] My little girl, when she was 5 weeks old, she had her first surgery. We were at the Kingston General Hospital and I left, she was in recovery a few days later, I left and went down to the hospital gift shop. It was the first time I actually said the words out loud to a stranger that my little girl had Down Syndrome. I had written it on the blog and I had set it to friends but had never actually said it to a stranger. And I remember saying it to her and she keep of put down what I was buying and she came around the counter. She grab my shoulder so tightly and she told me that I was so so lucky. She later went on to explain that her brother had Down Syndrome and he was absolutely the best thing that's ever happened in her entire life. And that little old lady, I don't know who she is, I go to that hospital all the time and I always peak my head in and I wouldn't be able to even pick out who she was, but she changed my life.

    [29:52] And I know feel like I'm her and I'm kind of shaking the world's shoulders and my hope is that I'm shaking enough to dent the universe. Thanks.

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