Blues harmonica player fundraising for men’s shelter at Thistle and Rose

April 28, 2022   ·   0 Comments

By Sam Odrowski

An event in support of combatting men’s homelessness in Orangeville is coming to Thistle and Rose in mid-May. 

On May 15 from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., blues harmonica player Nelson Sleno will be performing inside the venue, while selling his two non-fiction books “Shaking Hands” and “Beyond Shaking Hands”. The books look at Sleno’s life and his battle with Parkinson’s disease, which began 21 years ago. They’ll be available for a minimum donation of $5.

Sleno said he’s hoping to fundraise $500 from the book sales and donate it to Choices Youth Shelter for their new men’s emergency homeless shelter, which is slated to open June 1.

“Because the shelter is just opening up, I want to help it take off and get on its feet,” he noted.

Sleno told the Citizen his support for the men’s shelter stems from knowing someone impacted by homelessness first hand.

His first partner he began playing gigs regularly with, Rob, had a drug dependency and alcohol abuse issue, which ultimately split the two up.

“I didn’t see him for 10 years,” said Sleno. “But I was walking through the Walmart parking lot and I see this scraggly guy toting two shopping bags, and I looked at him – the gap tooth you can’t mistake it – it was Rob.”

Sleno said he bought him lunch and caught up with him, but at the end of the day he had no concrete way of helping.

“I had nowhere to send him, I was unable to bring him home,” he recalled.

Sleno said this is what motivated him to organize the event at Thistle and Rose May 15 and fundraise for Choices’ new men’s shelter.

Sleno has been playing blues on the harmonica since he was 18. However, it wasn’t until he met Hal Henry after retiring from his teaching job at Robert F Hall School, that his musical talents greatly excelled.

“We started jamming together. I go over to his place, he come over to mine. And we’d play Blues harmonica together. I improved really quickly,” Sleno recalled.

He said his very first gig was with Hal during the Headwaters Hospital’s Auxiliary Luncheon and since then he’s backed up countless bands with his harmonica.

“I started going to jams all over the place. I started going from bar to bar at Friday and Saturday nights to see if there’s anybody playing,” Sleno noted. “I honed my craft by playing with different people in different styles.”

In the face of Parkinson’s disease, Sleno has remained incredibly active and done his best to not let it slow him down.

Eight years ago, when Sleno was 60 and had already had Parkinson’s for 12 years, he got into competitive weightlifting, and went on to compete in the Canadian Powerlifting Union’s Central Canadian Championships.

He also has done rock climbing as recently as three years ago at the Georgian Bay Cliffs.

When describing Beyond Shaking Hands, Sleno said, “It follows on the tail end of the first book. It picks up where the first book left off, but it’s a viable read without reading the first reading the first one.”

“I profile several warriors [with Parkinson’s] against what I call the ‘darkness’, and their battles, how they come out. I also profile all the successes that I’ve had, and what it’s meant to me to do this,” he added.

So far Sleno’s been able to fundraise $165 and is hoping to close the gap on Sunday, May 15 during his three-hour performance.

He said he’d encourage anybody interested in his books or hearing some blues music on the harmonica to stop by his event, which runs 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.

“Come on down,” Sleno enthused. “Thistle and Rose is an awesome bar with awesome people.”

He added, “Make a contribution for the men’s shelter and you’ll get a good read out of it for as little or as much as you want to spend – about $5.”

Going forward Sleno will also be performing at the Blues and Jazz Festival. He said he’ll be on Mill Street Saturday, June 4 at 3 p.m.

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