Guardian angel

Kathy Mahar is like lots of moms, raising her kids and helping out in her community. But when speed limits were making school zones unsafe, she fought city hall—and won

Kathy’s life lesson learned:

Negative experiences can help you grow if you can skip dwelling on bitter feelings.

Kathy Mahar looks up at her 13-year-old son, McLean, who’s leaning his chin and plastic-gloved hands on her right shoulder—he’s already taller than she is. “Oh, there’s a tray over there,” she says suddenly, and he walks off to collect the empty soup bowl, plate and mug. Height aside, what really makes her beam with pride is the fact that helping out here at the Saskatoon Friendship Inn in the city’s inner core is as normal to McLean as putting on his shoes. But it’s her example he has gladly followed. It’s the same for all her kids: 17-year-old Cheyenne and 11-year-old Jenny, too.

The family first volunteered at the Friendship Inn at Thanksgiving five years ago. When Kathy saw the effect it had on her kids, she figured it could be great for other kids as well. So, she launched a program where she ferries school kids (like the three Grade 8 students who are helping to dish out potatoes, hamburgers and soup to clients just now) to the centre a couple of times a week. Not only do the kids give up their lunch hours to help some 500 people (40 per cent of them children) who pass through here for a warm meal every day, they learn to be less judgmental of others.

Leaving her son to give a quick hello to the volunteers in the kitchen, Kathy beams for another reason. She’s also doing what she’s most passionate about: helping people. Whether she’s counting donated children’s toys here at the inn, organizing community events in her neighbourhood or just acting as a mentor to a child, Kathy doesn’t care how loaded up her schedule gets. “When I’m involved in a project, I see it as something I want to do,” she says. “I don’t see it as taking something away from me.”

That’s why, for instance, the 44-year-old single mom watches the family budget so carefully. This way, she can work part time as a pharmacy technician and spend a good portion of her free time as a heavy-duty volunteer. She has organized fall suppers for 200, helped youngsters prepare for a talent show and even slept on the roof of her kids’ school for a fundraiser. Anything to help out. “When you recognize that something needs to be done, you do it,” she says, grabbing a cloth and wiping a table.

Kathy’s work here at the Friendship Inn is just one of the many reasons why two women—school principal Linda Graves and Kathy’s sister Linda Samson—decided to write Chatelaine and nominate Kathy as their Soul Model. Their letters were full of phrases such as “strong advocate for all children” and “can mobilize an entire community.” They turned out grocery lists of her accomplishments that would make any full-time philanthropist blush. Kathy is a community warrior who doesn’t just sympathize and say, “Oh, my, that’s too bad,” when tragedies or challenges come along. She rolls up her sleeves.

After taking off her dingy white apron and saying warm goodbyes to McLean and the inn’s co-ordinators, Kathy heads out to her car—she’s going to do a bit of visiting this afternoon. “People you meet in your life help make you who you are,” she explains as she steers out into traffic.

But Kathy’s non-judgmental nature comes, in part, from an early lesson learned the hard way. When she was in Grade 6, money was extremely tight. Four years earlier, her parents had separated, forcing her and her seven brothers and sisters to live in different homes. So, when Kathy’s teacher’s purse was stolen, the woman figured Kathy must be the thief. It wasn’t true and she was devastated. “You can take things that have happened in your life and you can either become bitter or you can put them behind you and say, ‘I would never treat somebody like that,'” she says now.

Today, Kathy draws on her Grade-6 self in her friendship with Joey, the 12-year-old boy she spends time with through the Big Brothers In-School Mentoring Program. When she first came to know him, Joey had plenty of reasons to see the world as an unhappy place. His own mother wasn’t around, he was shy and reading was a real challenge.

But he’s come a long way, with Kathy’s help. Two years ago, the two were even United Way ambassadors, their photograph featured in promotional ads. In the picture, Joey is wrapped in a warm red blanket and Kathy has her arms wrapped around him.

Kathy herself has had to rely on the warm arms of people in her life more than once. Born with a hole in her heart, she needed surgery in 1990. “Structurally, her heart was imperfect; emotionally, her heart was superior,” wrote her sister Linda in her nominating letter. With the support of her family, Kathy was back on her feet soon enough. In 1996, she needed that support more than ever when her marriage ended and she stepped into the role of a single parent. “It brings out skills that you’re not aware of,” she says as she drives past St. Mary’s Community School.

Skills like the ones that motivated her to take on city council? Absolutely. Kathy fought for the creation of the 30 kilometre-per-hour reduced-speed zone she’s driving through now. And zones like this one are around all of Saskatoon’s schools now, thanks, in part, to her. Speed limits in school zones city-wide have dropped by 20 kilometres, five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“Usually, the thinking is whoever shouts loudest is the winner,” says city councillor Owen Fortosky. He’s one of the people Kathy is paying a quick visit to this afternoon. “But people who put together a sound argument are the ones who are listened to,” he says. Not only was he wowed by Kathy’s presentations to city council, he and other councillors used her research in deliberating the issue.