When Evan Malach, 26, found himself lost in the wilderness without food or shelter, in desperation he recalled survival tips offered by host Les Stroud on the reality TV show Survivorman.
Malach was able to start a fire, find a trail and make his way to the nearest village before hypothermia set in, using what he had learned watching the legendary outdoorsman’s show.
“I was a pretty hard-core snowboarder at the time, and I had gone off on my own in the out-of-bounds area of Whistler’s Blackcomb Mountain,” Malach recalls. “But I quickly realized I was lost and didn’t have an exit plan.”
After hours of fruitless wandering, Malach found himself completely unprepared to brave the wild for the night. “I tried to get rescued by waving at gondola riders, but I wasn’t able to get spotted. I was freezing and I was scared, but then I thought of Les Stroud – if he could do it, I could too.”
Malach made a fire that night and built a makeshift bed out of pine needles. Just before his phone battery died – before it occurred to him that he might need to call for help – he received a text message that would change his life.
“My friend wrote to me out of the blue, saying, ‘What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us. What we have done for others and the world lives on and is eternal.’ I knew I wanted to spread that message.”
Twenty-eight hours later, he was able to get back on track by following footprints to a nearby village. And today, having safely returned from his Whistler snowboarding misadventure, Malach, a Thornhill native, is working in Toronto to give survivors of all types of journeys a chance to travel the world.
“After surviving the cold, I realized how important it is to open our eyes to the majestic beauty this world has to offer,” he says. “I’ve been so lucky to have the opportunity to travel. Travel is a significant rite of passage, but so many people don’t get that chance.”
Inspired by his ordeal, Malach, who is no stranger to the concept of tikkun olam (he was featured in Heebonics in 2009 for organizing a fundraising rock concert for the victims of the Darfur genocide), beat out hundreds of other applicants in the American Express Canada’s Room for Thought program.
The program called for submissions from people who wanted to turn a big idea under the categories of community, music or travel into reality.
One winner from each category would be given the opportunity to work with mentors Free the Children co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger, Metric lead singer and songwriter Emily Haines and Stroud.
Malach’s idea to create a program that offers underprivileged youths who’ve overcome major obstacles a chance to go on an adventure abroad was selected as the winner for the travel category, giving him the opportunity to work with Stroud.
The two are currently developing the Second Chance Travel Co-op program. One aspect of the initiative will send volunteers – who have survived hardships themselves – to work with those struggling with their own quests for survival.
“We want to bring survivors in as ambassadors to help with water-filtration projects in Africa, build schools in Equador, that sort of thing. I want people who’ve gone through any sort of hardship – cancer, addiction, abuse, you name it – to have a chance to propel themselves forward in positive ways and help others with their own survival journeys,” he explains.
Malach says that travelling teaches people about the many things that unite them, rather than what sets them apart.
“So I want to provide a chance for worthy survivors to use the lessons they’ve learned, their sense of gratitude to be able to make the world a better place.”
Aside from Stroud, Malach says his family was a major source of inspiration for his charity work. His dad, who died last year, volunteered for many years, and his grandparents were Holocaust survivors.
“They endured so much and are a constant source of inspiration,” he says.
Last summer, Malach decided to volunteer at a camp for children with cancer, an experience he found particularly rewarding.
“Working with young people who have had to stare mortality in the eye makes every waking breath and moment all the more inspiring,” he says.
“They’re so positive and grateful, open to learning, and excited for every day even though they’ve had almost everything taken away from them.”
Malach’s survival experience also led him to write a spiritual memoir, Now Boarding, which will be released next year on his late father’s birthday.
Lisa Shanker, also a member of Thornhill’s Jewish community, was chosen as the winner for the contest’s community category for her idea to create a “survivor garden” for people recovering from cancer and other serious illnesses.
“I had a stem cell transplant 2-1/2 years ago,” she says. “When I was in the hospital, all I could do was look out the window. I couldn’t wait to go outside and be in nature, but I had no gardening skills at all.”
With the help of her mentors, the Kielburgers, she set up an outdoor space for survivors to interact through gardening.
“We are trying to give people recovering from serious illnesses a space to learn gardening skills in an environment that is peaceful and social, so people aren’t isolated and alone.”
Shanker says she isn’t looking to change the world, just to give back some control and companionship to people who have been sick.
“Healing is a lot more than coming out of a doctor’s office, it’s emotional, too,” she adds.
Shanker’s project was displayed earlier this month at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, and Malach’s project will be featured from Nov. 20 to 22.
For more information about the Room for Thought program, visit www.blogto.com/events/47409.