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Calgary volunteers recognized with national Sovereign’s Medal honour

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Volunteers across Canada were recognized in October, for their exceptional contributions to their community.

Thirty-one Albertans were presented with the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers, the highest volunteer award presented in Canada, and eight of them were from Calgary.

We’ve brought you stories on three of them to highlight the great things they’re doing to help build a stronger community.

Michael Permack won the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers after his work on the board of the Canadian Cancer Society’s Cancer as well as the Cancer Connection program. (JENNIFER FRIESEN / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY)

Michael Permack

Michael Permack was only 29 years old when a few seconds changed the rest of his life.

One moment, he was driving to a meeting in Edmonton with a colleague, and the next he couldn’t talk. They made it to the hospital, but he couldn’t remember his wife’s name. He couldn’t remember his children’s names. After a lot of confusion and a battery of tests, but he was told he had a brain tumour.

“You have two years to live,” his doctor told him.

“I went into a fog,” he recalls. “It wasn’t even a delayed fog – it was immediate. It’s like you’re in those cartoons and everything you hear is ‘wa-wa-wa.’”

But 25 years later, Permack has defied all the odds and walked across the stage in Edmonton last month to collect the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers in honour of his contributions to the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS).

“Going up there was a proud moment in my life,” he said. “I did put in a lot of hard work, but I never expected an award.”

It all started when Permack was asked to come speak about his story at the opening of Calgary’s new CCS office in 2008. He was moved by the scope of the organization, so he asked if there were any board seats available for him to take.

“Little did I know where that question was going to lead me,” he laughed.

He soon got to work on helping expand the reach and impact of CCS, and eventually became vice chair in 2014 and board chair in 2015. He also spent three years volunteering as a support system for Canadians diagnosed with brain cancer through the society’s Cancer Connection program.

By offering understanding and a safe place to talk for people going through struggles similar to his own, he says he hopes to be able to positively affect the lives of others – because they have affected him as well.

“I look back (on my volunteer work) and I think there was some meaning to my suffering,” he said. “My experience with the Canadian Cancer Society brought back my confidence to be a better human being by volunteering. It’s about the patients and their families, but I needed it, too.”

Katrina O’Reilly has been a police officer for 22 years, but won the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers because of her commitment as a coach for the Special Olympics. (JENNIFER FRIESEN / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY)

Katrina O’Reilly

When it comes to her impulse to help others, Katrina O’Reilly laughs and says she “came by it honestly.”

O’Reilly started her career as a police officer 22 years ago, but says her early memories of joining her mother volunteering at homeless shelters inspired her to give back – something she believes led her to her profession.

“I guess that’s why I got into policing,” she said. “My mom is a social worker in Calgary, and she was always volunteering outside of her role, so I always wanted to give back to my community, too.”

She’s served on three police service honour guards since she began her career, and joined the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics in 1996.

O’Reilly had been an athlete her whole life, but described that original torch run as her first real introduction to the Special Olympics. She soon began volunteering more, however, has been coaching basketball and softball teams ever since.

She has recently become an investigator with Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), but O’Reilly still makes plenty of time to coach. Over the past 15 years, she’s witnessed the athletes improve their skills, joined them while they travel the world, and watched as they placed in international competitions.

“At the end of the day, it’s just incredibly rewarding,” she said. “The athletes are more similar to me than they are different from me. They want to do this for the team, for friendship and to be healthy. I love that connection. It’s just been a tremendous ride.”

As one of the eight recipients of the 2018 Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers, O’Reilly said she was honoured to have received the award, and hopes that others also make the time to explore their communities.

“Going out and coaching for the Special Olympics was one of the best decisions of my life,” she continued. “It’s made such and impact on me, personally, but the people around me as well.”

Chandrakant Lad won the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers because he’s been involved in the Gujarati Mandal of Calgary and Calgary Indo Canadian Centre Association for more than 25 years and has worked to improve education around the world. (JENNIFER FRIESEN / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY)

Chandrakant Lad

Ever since Chandrakant Lad’s son asked him seemingly innocuous question about their family’s roots 20 years ago, he’s helped change the course of countless lives in India.

As the president of the Calgary Indo Canadian Centre Association and founder of the Shree Prajapati Education Foundation, Lad has been working to help provide better education and healthcare for people in India for decades.

Lad’s family was originally from the Indian province of Gujrat, but he grew up in Tanzania. He moved to Calgary in 1979, but had never been to India before his son’s question spurred him to search for their history.

“Once we started communicating with our past and helping others, I just got addicted,” he said.

As soon as he arrived in Gujrat, Lad noticed a need for more funding for education, and he worked toward making a difference for students.

Through the Gujarati Mandal of Calgary and Calgary Indo Canadian Centre Association, he helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a variety of charities: some helped schoolchildren get eyeglasses, others built schools and others funded cancer screening.

Lad became the president of the Calgary Indo Canadian Centre Association in 2007, but also founded the Shree Prajapati Education Foundation (SPEF) in 2001 in support of students in India looking to achieve a university education.

“Students just need one kick-starter, and they’re on their way,” he said, reflecting on how a friend in Tanzania once helped him pursue his own education. “All I needed was a start, and I was able to make my way here.”

During his annual visits to India for SPEF, Lad visits every student in their home to see what their needs are, and has seen dozens of rural children move on to succeed in their careers.

“I find a very kind of personal satisfaction through this,” said Lad. “I feel good to help someone, but I could not do this singlehandedly. We need the support of the other volunteers, and I hope that someone I’ve helped will help other people the same way someone did for me.”

More Calgary contributions (descriptions courtesy Alberta government / Lt. Gov of Alberta)

Five other Calgarians were bestowed the Sovereign Medal for Volunteers.

Bill Cox – a dedicated member of the Royal Canadian Legion who has served as president of the North Calgary Branch #264 since 2010. He sits on the planning committee for the annual Field of Crosses M

31 Albertans, including 8 Calgarians received the highest volunteer honour in Canada. (JENNIFER FRIESEN / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY)

emorial Drive project and organizes the daily breakfasts served at the branch after each of the November sunrise ceremonies. He has also volunteered with Scouts Canada for over 35 years.

Krista Hill – After 12 years with the Community Volunteer Tax Program, Krista Hill has become a mentor and resource person for new volunteers in Calgary. Other organizations have also benefited from her enthusiasm and expertise, including St. Francis of Assisi Parish, the Women’s Centre of Calgary and the First Lutheran Church.

Katt Hryciw – For more than 10 years, Katt Hryciw has volunteered with the Children’s International Summer Villages youth exchange program. She is also one of the founders of the Cum Vino Cantus choir, which performs at various events in the community.

Pauline Mathezer – Pauline Mathezer has been volunteering for over 38 years, notably with the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program, to help low-income individuals file their income tax returns. She often travels to different seniors’ centres, such as The Good Companions, to help hundreds of people with their taxes.

Don Wall – Don Wall has been with the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program for over 41 years, helping people file their taxes and serving as a mentor and resource person to other volunteers. He also provides tax return guidance to newcomers to Canada through Immigrant Services Calgary.

Together, their contributions help shape the city we live in and make our neighbourhoods better.