Francine Wiseman is a member of the Wexner Heritage Program, Montreal 09. She is a tax partner at Spiegel Sohmer Inc. and the President of Solomon Schechter Academy in Montreal, Quebec. Francine can be reached at

My parents separated when I was a child and I was raised by three lovable, wealthy and eccentric uncles. They had risen from the poverty of Montreal’s Main and over the years, through a combination of hard work and “schmooze”, had built a reasonably large real estate business. Their lives seemed riddled by contradictions, a notable one being the way in which they showered us with expensive toys while they themselves lived a frugal lifestyle. They rarely travelled, denied themselves even the smallest luxury and seemed to have an endless supply of mismatched blazers and ties.

My uncles’ main base of operations was a small, dusty office in a two story walk-up above a bakery. As a law student, I would often visit in the late afternoons. They held court around a large boardroom table, three uncles, three rotary phones and one large limping secretary endlessly screaming at the top of her lungs “take line one.”

Hardly the place where you would think one would be struck by a defining leadership moment. On an unusually quiet afternoon, as we sat together in the boardroom, we were interrupted by a quiet knock on the doorframe. There stood a woman and her son. The woman, though cleanly dressed looked weathered and distressed. Her son, in his mid twenties, was quiet and almost childlike in his demeanour. He never once looked up as his mother explained the situation. She had raised her son, who now suffered from mild schizophrenia, as a single mother working two jobs cleaning homes during the day and at a hospital at night. Her mother, a resident of Haiti, had recently suffered a stroke and she wanted to go home to care for her. Still, there was no way that she could leave her son who had lost his job months ago, could not find work and was already three months behind in the rent that he owed to my uncles. On the verge of eviction, she turned to what in my mind seemed like three very unlikely heroes. True they understood that they had to give something to charity but I never once saw them “get involved.” They just wrote checks.

“Are you dangerous?” one uncle inquired. The son assured my uncle that he was fine as long as he took his medication. Somehow, this did not make me feel at ease. That said, he was hired, no interview, no discussion as to what he would do, just three men in a room who understood this woman’s desperation and the need for her to ensure that her son had a roof over his head and his dignity. 

This to me was a quintessential moment. Not only did the experience teach me about being a “mench” but it also taught me an invaluable lesson. Charity is not only about writing checks. It is also about caring about others in a way that allows them to maintain their self-respect. It is not about seeing your name up in lights but about what I will call “underrated giving.” It is about stepping up to solve problems. Often it is the little acts of kindness that we do on a daily basis that can truly have an impact.

To this day, I wonder whose life was most improved by my uncles’ act of kindness, that woman’s son’s or mine.