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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Wendy Symes: working from the heart

By Carter Hammett
Special to the Toronto Sun

At an age where most people are quietly contemplating the onset of retirement, it seems like Wendy Symes is just getting warmed up.

Ten years ago, after arthritic back pain overtook her life, nearly immobilizing her, the 60-year-old former grade school teacher has managed to reinvent herself as a triple-threat entrepreneur. As a professional dog walker, a designer of popular greeting cards and a tutor with a growing stable of students, Symes' life has radically changed from the years where she had to lie flat on her back for hours at a time.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, wrote that "out of pain, comes knowledge," and, after coming to terms with her disability, and becoming aware of her limitations, Symes decided to take matters into her own hands.

The tutoring idea began to germinate several years ago when Symes was still convalescing.

"I was approached by some recent immigrants who wanted help with conversational English, and so I did that as a volunteer while lying on my back. Then, as I gradually got better, I started thinking I could maybe make a little money, so I started charging a nominal fee, and because it was so cheap, word spread and I got quite a few students," she says.

Today, Symes carries a revolving caseload of learners, composed of new Canadians, grade-school students and adult learners, while juggling lesson plans in English, French, math, history and English as a second language.

"What I realized teaching one-to-one was that one could be far more effective than teaching 30 at a time. The students are more in control of what their needs are, and what they want to learn. When I was working for the public system, you had to follow its curriculum. Now, students come to me with their curriculum. Each student has a completely different lesson."

While Symes was healing from her back pain, she tried art therapy as a way of coming to terms with her disability.

"At first, I started doing paintings and made these into cards. Those first cards were given to friends for holidays, and in some cases, framed and given away as gifts.

"I felt I'd like to continue with the creative side of myself, and put that to use commercially. So, I started to print some of my artwork and made cards, which I sold around Christmas. In fact, it snowballed to a point where I sold over 400 cards that year."

She built on that success, launching the micro-business Cards For All Occasions.

Born in Gorseinon, a town in South Wales, Symes was a young girl when her father, who worked in advertising, accepted a position in Birmingham, England, where the family settled.

After graduating from the University of Nottingham with a degree in Geography, Symes accepted a teaching post in Nigeria, where she lived for two years. Married, she next moved to Hinton, Alta. for the next decade, where she continued to teach, until a move to France after her marriage ended.

She came back to Canada in 1980, settling in Toronto for good. She began working as a teacher and administrator for the Metro Toronto Language School. It was there that her entrepreneurial seeds were first sown.

"I looked after the place when the director wasn't there, and realized I enjoyed working in the business world. I thought an enterprise would be nice, but I wasn't yet sure what I wanted to do."

Frustrated at a relative lack of control over curriculum design in the public system, Symes believed she'd have more say in a private setting. However, she quickly learned that in that environment, the bottom line took precedence.

"The school did the best job it could for the students, but the place needed to make money," she says.

Symes seems to have reached a point where her business and teaching goals are finally being realized.

"It's really a learning partnership, with the students learning what they need. Instead of someone telling them what they need, they tell me," she says with a smile as she realizes the irony of her own words. "I mean, the paradox is, if I do my job properly, I put myself out of business! So you're constantly having to seek out new clients and market yourself."

Fortunately, much of her business comes from her community and is spread by word of mouth.

"You really are working from the heart here," she says. "Entrepreneurship to me means creating your own business, but also doing something satisfying for both you and the recipient of your service. The goal is not to make a fortune, but to make a living."

For further information about tutoring or Cards For All Occasions, contact Wendy Symes at

(Toronto writer Carter Hammett [] is a Toronto-based writer, trainer and employment information officer.)

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