McMahon receives prestigious award

Duane Hicks

“An elder once said: If you don’t think it’s a privilege to work with the community, then you’re in the wrong job.”
It’s one of the thoughts Sheila McMahon had while en route home from Toronto after receiving the June Callwood Outstanding Achievement Award for Volunteerism from the province last Thursday.
McMahon, executive director of the United Native Friendship Centre here who also volunteers as president of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC), was one of 11 individuals and eight organizations recognized for her commitment to volunteering and longstanding community service.
The OFIFC nominated her for the award, and McMahon said she was shocked to get a call from the Ministry of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade notifying her of the honour.
“It surprised me—it’s something you don’t expect,” she noted Friday.
McMahon has helped shape the friendship centre movement in Ontario for more than 20 years, and thinks it’s important to highlight the role volunteers have played with friendship centres everywhere.
“With the OFIFC and, of course, our centre, there’s a lot of volunteer hours spent travelling to different communities and working with people,” she noted.
“There’s 29 friendship centres in Ontario.”
McMahon said she works with an excellent team of staff and it’s not uncommon for them to volunteer their time.
“We do a lot of other things outside of our work to help out the community,” she remarked, noting even the UNFC’s board of directors is comprised of volunteers.
“I guess people think of us as an organization and we’re paid to do everything,” she said.
“We’re not.”
Personally, McMahon helps aboriginal youth by teaching beading, cooking, and other traditional activities.
The UNFC here recently started to hold more community events, such as socials with live music.
“We’re just bringing back community activities,” said McMahon. “Those are things that we volunteer for.
“You know, when I first started 28 years ago, I said, ‘That’s what we’re about,’ because there wasn’t a lot of programming in the past,” she added.
But now offering more than 20 programs ranging from nutrition, health, and education to employment and youth justice, McMahon said the local UNFC is balancing the delivery of that programming while keeping a community focus.
“We want to be able to sit down with our community members that come in for coffee,” she reasoned. “They play Cribbage every day.
“That’s all part of the friendship centre—that’s really important to me.”
McMahon recalled that while visiting other communities in her capacity as OFIFC president, some people has said, “Oh, you’re so lucky. You’re the president.”
“But when you’re travelling back to Toronto at 4 a.m. to catch your flight at 6—Air Canada to get home—I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s really glamorous,’” she chuckled.
“That’s all part of the friendship centre movement,” McMahon added.
“Even when our friendship centre opened up in the early ’70s, it was all volunteers,” she noted.
“Our first executive director was a volunteer—never got paid.”
The June Callwood Outstanding Achievement Award for Volunteerism is dedicated to the late journalist, author, and Order of Ontario recipient who was one of Canada’s most well-known social activists—founding or co-founding more than 50 Canadian social action organizations.