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If you were in the Galt Country Club banquet hall last night, you were witness to something pretty magical.

Last night, we all gathered to celebrate the work and achievements of 10 awe-inspiring women for our 25th Anniversary Women of Distinction gala.

But “awe-inspiring” doesn’t even begin to do them justice. These women are blazing trails in their communities through advocacy and activism, through education and mentorship, through volunteering, and through entrepreneurship. They’re doing it all with real, genuine intentions, and improving lives for so many people. We thank each and every one of them for their work and commitment. Throughout the evening, as nominators shared the stories of the recipients, the room filled with laughter at times, with tears at others, and even snaps and hoots at others.

The Women of Distinction Gala has been a staple in Cambridge since it began 25 years ago. It began as a “why not? Let’s try this out” event, raising a whole $10 dollars in funds (that’s not a typo). This year, it was a sold out event, standing room only.

WOD 2019 Group Emily Beatty
Photo courtesy Emily Beatty Imagery

What this tells us is that the community wants to be a part of raising the voices of women. Women of Distinction is about celebrating women, and making space for them to use their voices and speak their truths. And last night, we heard so many beautiful, heartwarming and wrenching truths. We thank the recipients for opening up their lives for us all to hear and learn from, and also be inspired by.

But just who are these women? We’d be remiss if we didn’t share a little about each of them with the folks who weren’t with us last night. The following are excerpts from the words nominators shared with us as they introduced the 2019 Women of Distinction recipients.

(Portraits by Emily Beatty Imagery)

Gail Smyth, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award, nominated by Jennifer Green & Gael Loro

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Gail was the Executive Director of Skills Ontario, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting careers in the skilled trades and technology to young people in Ontario. During her tenure she took a fledgling venture to a dynamic, province-wide organization with headquarters in Kitchener and 11 satellite offices throughout all of Ontario. Skills Ontario has grown into the largest of its kind in Canada attracting over 35,000 visitors each year, and as a result of Gail’s vision, the organization has been the recipient of many national awards.

 

Karen Maleka, Recipient of the Social Action & Advocacy Award, Nominated by Atinuke Bankole

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Karen is an anti-poverty and labour activist who lives and breathes what she preaches. Her push for social change is steeped in the harsh realities of her own working life. She is a woman of colour who is on the front lines in the fight against employment injustices. Time and again Karen has used her powerful, first hand account of being precariously employed to hold politicians accountable. She has made a seat for herself at the decision-making table by being an Executive-at-large on the Waterloo Region Labour Council. Karen is speaking truth to power.

 

Helen Kelly, Recipient of the Non-Profit or Public Service Award, Nominated by Ilidia Sa Melo & Donna Reid

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Helen has worked in libraries for many years. She holds a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Western Ontario and an Executive Management Leadership Certificate from the DeGroote School of Business. In her current roles as the Chief Executive Officer at Cambridge Libraries, now Idea Exchange, she has had the privilege of leading a creative dynamic team and engaged staff. Helen is an unflappable woman who can oversee a construction site as capably as manage her many programs in five branches of the Idea Exchange.

 

Mairi Anderson, Recipient of the Champion of Women & Girls Award, Nominated by Pat Singleton

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Mairi is part of a new generation of Indigenous leaders that will affect change on how Canadians will view First Nations people. For the past year Mairi was an Ambassador and spoke in Ottawa to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Mairi’s strong, powerful voice continues to echo “Not One More!”. She is a shelter supervisor at Ganohkwarsa Family Support, providing women with emotional support, and helping them to create holistic individual plans for moving forward. As a single mom of two daughters, knowing they are the next generation, Mairi encourages and supports their spirit on their journey. She strongly believes that the work she does today in supporting individual women will encourage Indigenous leaders of tomorrow. She is a woman that gives hope to the complex issues of building bridges in understanding First Nations struggles. Through her personal and professional life she encourages a greater understanding and empathy of learning to live together honouring each other’s traditions.

 

Tania Heinemann Kelsall, Recipient of the Wellness, Sport & Recreation Award, Nominated by Sarah Spry

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Tania is a true leader. Her passion for helping women in our community is astounding. She has such a clear vision for wellness among all of us. Her expertise and skills in nutrition, mental illness, lactation and child birth have made her a huge asset to all women especially in the third and fourth trimester of motherhood. This life changing event affects us all in different ways mentally, physically and emotionally. Tania has been able to identify gaps in resources in varying degrees and is always looking to help find cost effective solutions so that every woman gets assistance no matter what her needs and financial situation may be. She has a unique ability to connect with women using personal stories, vulnerability and truth telling. She provides a supportive environment free from judgement and provides resources, action plans or sometimes just a listening ear. Through Tania’s work she has touched so many lives of mothers, encouraging wellness, nutrition and balance. She allows her own personal experiences as a chance to turn pain into passion, to be brave and to speak out.

 

Temilade Olayiwola-Oriji, Recipient of the Turning Point Award, Nominated by Sara Hohenadel

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Temi is a person with a vision of supporting women and girls especially the most vulnerable because she knows how it feels to be unsure of your journey. After her husband’s death, Temi used her story and struggles as a way to support others. With her two young daughters, she fled Nigeria. She has worked diligently to create a stable life for herself and her daughters. She integrated in our community by volunteering at the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank. Through the Food Bank she was connected to Small Steps to Success. After graduating from Small Steps, Temi found meaningful employment – with two jobs – working with the fragile and elderly. She is a role model to her daughters as well as the women and girls she meets and supports through her church. She believes in creating hope and opportunity for vulnerable girls and women. She understands that with the right support, they can reach their full potential.

 

Kathilee Porter, Recipient of the Business & Entrepreneurship Award, Nominated by Bill Davidson

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Kathilee is a highly successful, award winning television producer with a long list of Canadian and US network credits. She has won dozens of awards including the John Cleese Comedy Award, New York Film Festival Gold and has been nominated for Geminis and even a Juno. She recently produced and launched Citizens of Cambridge, a very successful video series profiling some of our most interesting citizens in the community. She has worked diligently to ensure the residents she selected are everyday heroes that make a difference but have not had their stories told until now. Currently Kathilee is working with Healing of the Seven Generations & Pins and Needles Fabric Company on Endaayang a place making project with First Nation, Inuit and Metis youth whereby Kathilee is teaching and mentoring youth in the art of storytelling for video.

 

Stacey Jacobs, Recipient of the Education and Mentorship Award, Nominated by Kate MacLaggan

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Stacey has been described as the “all things sex and identity expert” of our community. She brings to our community a passion for education and collective learning and a willingness to swoop in and connect honestly and openly with others over topics that pertain to sexual health and identity. Stacey is a master collaborator and has the ability to call others in, lift others up and champion the successes of those around her. She is intersectional in her approach to sexual education and inclusive in her facilitation styles. In 2007 she began her career as a full-time Sexual Health Educator at Sexual Health Options, Resources and Education and continues with SHORE today. Stacey is a true champion in the world of sexual health and believes wholeheartedly in empowering others through their own experiences and knowledge and is fearless in her advocacy for reproductive choice and inclusive sex education.

 

Yvonne Kaine, Recipient of the Volunteerism Award, Nominated by Sue Rivers

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Yvonne sets the bar high when it comes to being a volunteer. She is gifted with strong communication, organization, creativity and leadership skills which she has used to build a successful career a marketing and sales environment. But she didn’t stop there. She has taken these skills into the community as a volunteer – to a neighbourhood association, her church, Cambridge Memorial Hospital, the Stroke Recovery association and Soroptimist International of Cambridge. Yvonne takes a collaborative approach, recognizing and leveraging the strengths of each team member to ensure that as a group they deliver on their priorities. Her enthusiasm and positive energy draw and motivate others to work with her and to believe that nothing is impossible.

 

Emily Dwornikiewicz, Recipient of the Young Woman of Distinction Award, Nominated by Christine Grant

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Emily is a young leader in Cambridge business. She goes above and beyond constantly challenging herself and encouraging others to do the same. She breathes entrepreneurial spirit and she is charismatic and kind. She comes to the table with solutions, always taking other opinions into consideration, never putting another person down. She speaks her mind, doesn’t hold grudges and is forgiving. She is a true example of how women, regardless of their age or background can succeed and achieve when they put their minds to something. Emily is a member of the Downtown Galt BIA, opened a second business (No Udder vegan ice cream) this year, participates as a member of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and is the co-owner of Modo Yoga.

 

Thank you to everyone who joined us last night. Thank you also to the Women of Distinction Planning Committee, led by Sarah Daly, which worked so hard all year to pull the spectacular night off. Thank you once again to our supporters, including our sponsors and attendees, as well as the multitude of others who helped in various ways. You are all supporting the work YWCA Cambridge does with women, girls and non-binary youth.

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As a member agency of YWCA Canada, YWCA Cambridge is part of a national movement known as the country’s oldest and largest women's multi-service organization, the largest national provider of shelter, literacy, life skills, employment and counselling programs, and is the second largest provider of childcare services in Canada.

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