Anxious, alone, and stranded on the other side of the world, Zachery Dereniowski was at his lowest. Just months into what was supposed to be a dream move to Australia for medical school, the 27-year-old Windsor native found himself at a breaking point as COVID-19 began its rapid spread across the globe.
“That was always my dream; to be a doctor and live in Australia,” he shares. Between Covid lockdowns, the stress of medical school, and the breakup of a long-term relationship, Zachery says he fell into a deep depression, bordering on suicidal.
“At that time, it was my identity and my happiness and I didn’t really know who I was,” he says. “Shortly after all that, I tore my ACL so I couldn’t workout or play sports and that was like my therapy. Medical school was challenging, Covid left me uncertain as to when I could come home, and it also didn’t allow me to make real friends because I couldn’t go out. It (the depression) was building and I was getting farther into where I didn’t know how far down I’d go, or if I’d ever get up.”
It was through that experience the entire trajectory of Zachery’s life changed; from a student struggling with his mental health to the globe-trotting friendly stranger behind “MD Motivator”; a social media platform featuring videos of Zachery reaching out to passersby for help and in turn blessing them with everything from a flower and a shoulder to cry on to gifts, adventures, and thousands of dollars.
“I vividly remember: I went for a walk and it was the middle of the day and I just stopped and started hysterically crying at a busy intersection and businessmen and women walked right by me,” he recalls. “It was like I was invisible. That was the moment I felt the most alone I’ve ever felt in my life and it was more so the moment I thought, ‘This isn’t right.’”
As his depression continued to spiral, Zachery sought help through his university’s free counselling services. One of the coping mechanisms he learned through therapy was to journal his thoughts when he felt anxious.
“I bought myself a journal and I did it for a few days and thought, ‘You know what? I can’t be the only one who feels this way. There’s probably somebody who felt this way before and has a solution.”
With that thought in mind, Zachery turned to social media; creating a TikTok video in hopes of finding someone dealing with the same mental health struggles. Unbeknownst to him, the video went viral almost instantly. Not only had he found a friend; he’d found an entire community of people. A support system, he says, at a time when he needed it most.
“I was busy with school and when I came back to my phone later that day, the video had a half a million views and thousands of comments,” he says. “I was trying to respond to all of them and I was just blown away; people of all ages, ethnicities, financial status had these stories that they were willing to share. They were all going through similar things behind closed doors.”
Zachery continued creating videos into 2021, looking for new ways to connect with others through his work. Eventually, he began to realize that medical school perhaps wasn’t his true calling in life.
“I just fell more in love with the ability to build communities centred around vulnerability and relatability. I created a formula; vulnerability equals relatability equals empowerment,” he explains. “That’s the whole premise of all the content I create. If you can be vulnerable, you can relate. If you can relate, you can empower. Through all this, I was recognizing that I could do medical school but that it wasn’t the ‘be all, end all’ for me.”
In August 2021, Zachery decided to withdraw from medical school and move back to Windsor to continue growing his concept on social media.
“I was really scared at the time because I had dedicated almost nine years with my undergrad and my masters and medical school and now I’m saying to my parents from halfway across the world that I want to come home and make TikTok videos in their basement? Like, how do I explain that to my family?”
It was a decision that ultimately paid off. Just two days upon arriving in Windsor, Zachery had a full-time videographer, Patrick Glaz. Shortly after, he created his first local video: filming people’s reactions as he stood outside Devonshire Mall with a sign that read: ‘Your Vaccination Status Won’t Change How Much I Love You.’
“To be honest, I didn’t know which direction this content would go; I just knew that something about tapping into vulnerability and connecting with strangers was something that I loved,” he recalls. “Overnight, that video got 20 million views on TikTok and I thought, ‘Ok, maybe we’ve got something.”
In just a few short months, “MD Motivator” has grown exponentially. Zachery currently has over 1.5 million followers on Instagram and 8.7 million on TikTok.
“The ability to create vulnerable, viral videos that allow people’s lives to change overnight is something that’s so gratifying; it’s something that’s once in lifetime,” he shares. “The millions and millions of views, I’ll never really know the impact they’ll have. I’d never be able to reach that many people in person; social media can be really powerful in the right way.”
As the concept has evolved, so have Zachery’s ‘blessings.’ While he may be giving away larger gifts, the interaction between him and the strangers remains simple.
“Although these things get more extravagant, the interaction of me with the recipient only matters as much as what it means to that person at the time,” he reflects. “If someone hasn’t seen their family in over two years, a hug is way more important than a car. So it isn’t really about what the ‘thing’ is; it’s about finding the gap in someone’s story and using my platform to help them.”
Since his journey began, Zachery says there have been countless people that have changed his life. While there are a few stories that stand out as being especially touching, he says there seems to be an overall theme in the situations he encounters.
“The people who have the least, give the most,” he says. “That’s a reoccurring theme through any video I’ve done.”
People who have the least also seem to have a deeper appreciation for life, he says, pointing to his experiences during a recent trip to South America.
“I learned that people living in extreme poverty with absolutely nothing were living with happiness that we in North America could never achieve,” he says. “I went in there thinking ‘Oh I’m going to help them’ but not realizing how wrong I have it. I’m questioning everything that we’re doing here now.”
Faith is also a topic that comes up often in his interactions.
“One of the things that overlaps the most is when I ask people why they helped me or what they think the world needs, it always seems to come back to faith and love. That’s universal,” he explains. “I’m still discovering my faith because I feel like there’s something there; I’m just trying to find it.”
Zachery continues to lead with love on his journey and although he has some plans on how to reach more people with his message, he’s also happy to see where his platform takes him.
“Through this, I’ve become so much more intuitive and self-aware about my own feelings. Just being ok with the uncertainties of life and just going with the flow and saying yes to things. I don’t even know where I see myself in a year’s time. I just think, ‘How can I keep scaling impact?’”
The money and gifts Zachery gives away in his videos are essentially crowd funded or donated through sponsorships and partnerships. He is currently in the process of developing a non-profit to be able to grow and allow for tax write-offs for businesses and individuals who donate to his projects. He says he receives upwards of 100 emails per day from people or companies wanting to help, and thousands of donations online through the link in each of his posts.
“In the past few months I’ve given out probably over $200,000 and it’s not my money; it’s anonymous random strangers willing to give their hard earned cash in hopes that that money will help another person,” says Zachery. “That blows my mind to this day. That just shows you how many good people there are in this world.”
And while “MD Motivator” has taken Zachery from Australia to San Diego, Los Angeles, New York, Mexico, Arizona, and everywhere in between, he’s thrilled that some of his most impactful videos were filmed right here at home in Windsor.
“I think the coolest thing is that some of the biggest videos we’ve done were right here in Windsor,” he says. “Having young people come up to me and say, ‘Oh you’re doing this for Windsor. You’re making Windsor cool. ’ And to get kids excited about emotions, feelings and kindness it shows you can do anything anywhere and it’s not the location, it’s the people.”