Shirley O’Neil named 2014 YWCA ‘woman of distinction’

VAL CARON—Shirley O’Neil is certainly one busy lady volunteering in many different ways in her community. It is her work as a volunteer that has led to her being chosen as one of six recipients to be honoured at the 2014 YWCA Sudbury Women of Distinction Awards Gala on May 2.

Ms. O’Neil was born in Gore Bay and her mother Gladys Beange, also originally from Gore Bay, received the same award in 2010.

“She has done a whole lot of volunteering in her life,” Ms. O’Neil said of her mother. “And having been the first born of 10 children in my family, I had to adopt a lot of responsibilities early in my life. This helped form my personality.”

“My mother did, and still does, a lot of volunteer work,” said Ms. O’Neil.

Ms. O’Neil told the Sudbury Star in its March 20 edition that “I have tried to thank the people of this province all of my life. That is my way of paying back. I know it sounds corny, but that is exactly what I think drives me to serve. See a need, and serve the community.”

[pullquote]Marlene Gorman, executive director of YWCA Sudbury, told the Star the characteristics that the selection committee look for in awards recipients are, “all women who reside in our community who are volunteering of their time, giving of their talents and strengths to help support women and girls in the community…They are making a difference.”[/pullquote]

In her nomination letter of Ms. O’Neil, Mary Guy of Sudbury said, “I would like to nominate my friend, Shirley O’Neil, for the YWCA Women of Distinction Award. I met Shirley at the Sudbury Bridge Club about five years ago. In that time, driving to and from out of town bridge tournaments, we have become good friends. I truly admire her and feel she is a woman of distinction. It was a challenge as to which category to place her nomination because she has so many achievements and is very accomplished in lots of areas.”

“Shirley is the eldest in a family of 10 children, six of them being girls,” wrote Ms. Guy. “She was her mother’s helper from an early age and not only did household chores, but made school lunches, oversaw homework and generally mothered her siblings.”

“Shirley has been married to John, the boy next door, for 41 years. They have two children, Thairn and David, who lead productive lives. Shirley and John are blessed with two grandchildren so far, who they love to spoil,” wrote Ms. Guy.

“This nomination package provides highlights of her work starting with the Rainbow District School Board where she served as a classroom teacher, curriculum consultant and principal of two French Immersion schools,” wrote Ms. Guy. “In a volunteer capacity with the board, she was the founding chair of the Sudbury Regional Heritage Fair and organized it for at least 10 years. She and her committee also organized a National Heritage Fair in Sudbury.

“When Shirley wasn’t at work she was volunteering in her Valley East community. Her two passions were women’s volleyball and children’s baseball,” wrote Ms. O’Neil. “Presently, Shirley is president of the Elizabeth Fry IODE. IODE is a women’s charitable organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life for those in need through education, social services and citizenship programs.”

“Shirley is also president of Unit 238 for the ACBL (American Contract Bridge League) which oversees not only our Sudbury club but that of North Bay, New Liskeard, Timmins, Parry Sound and Temiskaming Shores,” continued Ms. Guy. “In the short time that I have known Shirley, I have been impressed with her many accomplishments, her boundless energy, her wisdom, her generosity, her high principles, her sense of justice and willingness to fight for a cause and her amazing ability to get things done.”

Ms. O’Neil was the chair of many committee as the school board level, some of which include the Regional Science Fair (which she founded), Math Science and Technology Olympics, Entrepreneurship Trade Fair Risk and Watch. She received an award of excellence from the Sudbury Board of Education in 1995. After she retired she received the Apple Award, the highest award given out by the RDSB.

“Shirley’s passion for sports began with the Valley East Ladies Volleyball League,” wrote Ms. Guy. “She played for 25 years and was president of the league for 15 years. Her volleyball team, wishing to encourage girls to play volleyball, hosted a yearly volleyball tournament for school teams from the district. The league, under her leadership, also hosted annual women’s tournaments to further promote the sport.”

“When her daughter, Thairn, wanted to play t-ball she registered her and offered to assist with the team. Unbeknownst to Shirley no other parent made a similar offer and two weeks later she found herself with the coach’s bag. Believing she had signed on for water and snacks and having no knowledge of the game, she immediately checked the team list and found the name of the son of one of her volleyball teammates. She drove to their door and instantly became the assistant coach. Shirley then took on a leadership role at the local, regional and provincial levels over the next 20 years,” wrote Ms. Guy.

As for Ms. O’Neil’s impact on women and girls, Ms. Guy wrote, “Shirley is an inspiration to me which is why I have nominated her for this award. In all areas of her life, Shirley serves as a role model. As a sister in a family of 10, six of whom were girls, she showed that it is possible to get a good education and follow your dreams through hard work and determination. As a mother, she demonstrated to her daughter, Thairn, the world of possibilities that were open to her by her own example. As a teacher of Grade 6, 7 and 8s, she proved it was possible for a woman to manage this difficult group with a firm but fair approach.”

[pullquote]“As a school principal, she paved the way for other women to expand their career goals beyond the classroom,” wrote Ms. Guy. “On a yearly basis, as chair of the annual Heritage Fair, Shirley provided opportunities for over 1,200 girls to research and showcase their heritage/culture and in many cases, this new found discovery evolved into a new sense of pride and development of self-confidence. This process enabled them to create new bonds with family members as they investigated the family’s past. By choosing Laurentian University as the fair site, girls and boys experienced the ‘Ivory Tower’ setting, creating a goal of higher education.”[/pullquote]

“In baseball, she created a new division in order that the girls could play past the age of six,” continued Ms. Guy. “By coaching baseball, she showed her various teams that women are up to the task as well as anyone. At the provincial level (albeit with her boy’s teams-she and her assistant (her daughter Thairn) were the only females on the field. In volleyball she inspired, through coaching at her school, young girls to play at the high school level and then on to the college/university level. As a volleyball coach, team member and league president, she fostered good sportsmanship, goal setting, team building, confidence, self-esteem, friendships, fitness and a healthy lifestyle. In IODE she has infused in all of us a renewed enthusiasm. At the bridge level, she has broken the glass ceiling by becoming the first female president of Unit 238 of the American Contract Bridge League.

“How do you get so involved in things like baseball as president of three levels and on the Ontario board? Your husband plays baseball and takes the children to watch, and one day your daughter asks, can I play baseball like dad…. and soon enough you are involved with your daughter playing t-ball,” said Ms. O’Neil. “And while we are getting my daughter registered for the league I offer to help, to call players and parents and to bring water to games. Then you get a call to attend a meeting and before you know it you are the coach. And it goes from there.”

“You get involved and do all of this because someone has to do it,” stated Ms. O’Neil. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

“One of the awards that I received, and never would have expected, was the Gatorade salute at a Blue Jays game in 1995 (for her contributions and development of minor baseball programs in her area) where they put your name on the Jumbotron during the seventh inning stretch. Not a lot of people get this recognition and it was one of the highlights of my life. Not a lot of people get a Gatorade salute.”

Among her other citations, Ms. O’Neil has also received a Governor General’s Queen’s Jubilee award.