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Lifelong leader

Q&A with Tribute Award recipient Sharron Callahan

Campus and Community |

By Lisa Pendergast

For Sharron Callahan, BA’68, service to the community started when she was just a teenager, progressed into a social work career and continues to this day.

Sharron Callahan
Sharron Callahan
Photo: Submitted

Ms. Callahan is an advocate for the senior citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador, serving as the president of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, chair of the Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador Pensioners, Seniors and Retirees Association, a member of the Seniors’ Advisory Committee for St. John’s, and past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Sector Pensioners’ Association.

But she is best known for her involvement with the Girl Guides of Canada, as the only person from this province to hold the positions of chief commissioner and international commissioner.

Her dedication to the community, spanning over 50 years, has been recognized with the Queen Elizabeth II Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals, the St. John’s Senior of the Year in 2013 and the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers in 2018.

Contributor Lisa Pendergast spoke with Ms. Callahan, this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Community Service Award.

LP: What do you remember most about being a student at Memorial? Is there a particular moment or experience that stands out?

SC: I think the thing that I remember most about Memorial University was my very first day of arrival. I can, even to this day, remember what I wore. My parents had gone out with me and we had gotten this new outfit, and I felt so special coming to university.

But overall, for the time I was here, my biggest memory is my life in residence. I loved my time in residence, we were a fantastic group. I lived in Bowater House when it was a female residence. At that time, of course, the student enrolment was not what it is today, and you knew almost everybody on campus.

It was that camaraderie, even though you may not have been personal friends with that individual, you knew who they were. There was a lot of student strength in being together and I think that’s one of my strongest memories. In fact, some of us who went to residence – it’s going to be 50 years coming up – still have connections. I think that’s just phenomenal.

LP: You have been volunteering and giving back to the community for many years. What inspired you to start giving in this way?

SC: I was a young teenager and at the stage of my career in Girl Guides where I was starting to do community service. There was a point in time when I had outgrown my uniform and I wanted to give it to another girl who wasn’t able to have the uniform. Through some kind of community outreach, I was able to do that.

That was the starting point and I’ve always gone back to that point because that’s the moment I knew that I wanted to do community work. From then on it was just a given.

LP: Starting as a unit leader and moving all the way up to international commissioner, the Girl Guides of Canada is clearly important to you. What interests you about this organization in particular? Are you still involved?

SC: My mother was involved with Girl Guides. A lot of the opportunities that are available today weren’t available for youth back in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up. So I just naturally migrated into Girl Guides because my mother was involved. But there was something about the Girl Guide organization that just grabbed my attention and it remains with me. It’s a part of my soul. A lot of people will say when you are a lifelong Girl Guide member, that your blood runs blue and not red.

I was the chief commissioner for Girl Guides of Canada and that was an absolute honour. When you finish your term as the chief commissioner, you transition into the international commissioner. As chief, you not only had responsibility and accountability for Girl Guides Canada-wide, but you were also the connection to the world association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.

“You should always fill your life with things that are important to you.”

Becoming the International Commissioner was a natural fit because you had those linkages already established. I had the opportunity to travel to some exciting places in the world and I’ve had great friendships develop with leaders in other countries.

It’s wonderful to see that the same ideals that influence Canadian guiding and the issues that impact girls and women in Canada are the same issues – to different degrees – that impact girls and women in Africa, Europe, the United States and Asia. So it’s incredible to be able to go to meetings with these women and to have discussions about these important worldwide issues.

I am still a unit Guider, I’m involved with a group of women Guiding at Kirby House and I’m also part of the Trefoil Guild which is a unit for women only and we get together and share memories and we do exciting things and foolish things and the whole purpose is keeping the spirit alive.

LP: As a lifelong volunteer, why do you feel it is so important to give back to the people in your community and province?

SC: When it comes to Girl Guides, the thing that gives me the greatest reward is when I meet a young woman, years down the road, who was maybe a Brownie in my unit, and she says, “Brown Owl, you must remember me, I’m so-and-so.”

My heart just goes at a very fast pace because I know that even for those short couple of years, I may have had some influence on that young girl, and it has helped turn her into the wonderful woman that she is today.

I do a lot of advocacy with seniors’ issues and seeing things become realized is what gives satisfaction. And I know that’s having an impact on the community. One of the things I was involved in was working with the provincial government for the position of the seniors’ advocate.

That was an important issue for the organizations I’m involved with, so we kept that up for a number of years and eventually, when it was recognized by the government, you know it is the right decision and it will benefit people. It’s important because it will not only impact me, personally, but it will impact other people in my age group.

LP: You are also an advocate for the senior citizens in our province. How did you get involved with helping pensioners and retired persons?

SC: Once I retired, I remained with the Girl Guides, but at the same time I began to think, selfishly a little, that I am now moving into my senior years, so what issues are of importance to me, as I age? Consequently, are there other areas where I should devote my attention? So that set me on a dual path and I became interested in issues affecting seniors.

I had signed up to become a member of the pensioners’ association and someone approached me to say they were recruiting for the board and asked if I was interested. I said sure and from then on, I just went for it. I believed in the issues, though, because I don’t always affiliate with all of the organizations. I have to understand what they are doing and what focus they have. If I believe in that focus, I can get onboard quite easily.

LP: Do you have any advice for Memorial University students or alumni who are considering becoming volunteers?

SC: I think learning is lifelong. You should always fill your life with things that are important to you. For me, those haven’t been material things, for me it has always been issues that influence people’s lives. If there’s an area you want to go in, make sure it’s the right fit for you, and sign on. Don’t overextend yourself because you can burn out quickly and not be as successful as you could be if you recognized the boundaries of your capabilities. Find your passion and then go for it and commit to it.

LP: What was your reaction to being named the Outstanding Community Service Award recipient for 2018?

SC: Well you know the Newfoundland term, gobsmacked? That’s what I was. I was not expecting anything like that. So when they told me about the award, I said “Oh my goodness, this can’t be!” I was absolutely surprised but truly honoured.

LP: What is next for you? Is there anything you wanted to mention that we haven’t discussed already?

SC: I’m busy getting things organized for some seniors’ meetings. I recently met with our federal MPs before they head off to the House of Commons for the next sitting. I wanted to make sure, as the chair of the Seniors’ Coalition, that when they left for Ottawa, they were carrying with them the issues that are important to seniors in this province. And some of them are not just seniors’ issues, some of them have universal implications.

We are lobbying quite hard for a national pharmacare program, a seniors’ strategy and pension protection. So I make sure the federal MPs know for sure which issues the seniors of this province want taken forward. Meetings will continue through the fall and winter, so that’s it! I had a little respite for the summer and now I’m back to the races again for the fall.

Ms. Callahan will be honoured during the 37th annual Alumni Tribute Awards ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 11, at Memorial’s Signal Hill Campus, St. John’s, NL. Tickets (individuals and tables) can be purchased online. For additional inquiries, please contact Alumni Engagement, Office of Public Engagement at 709-864-4354, toll free at 1-877-700-4081 or email rsvpalumni@mun.ca.

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