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27 Jan, Friday
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Montreal Families

Tween wins Governnor General’s award

When Cassandra Gillen was 4 years old, she learned that her cousin was battling thyroid cancer. Fuelled by a desire to help, she asked the kids who were invited to her birthday party to give her money instead of gifts. She then donated the $300 to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. (Her cousin is now in remission).

That one act of philanthropy snowballed into several others and, in April, the now 12-year-old from Pointe Claire was awarded a Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award for her philanthropic contributions. She was also lauded for her fundraising efforts in March at We Day Montreal, an annual event that aims to inspire youth to change the world.

Over the past eight years, Cassy has collected bottles to raise money to help fund surgery for children with cleft palates ($250), gathered hats and mittens for Dans la rue, volunteered at a seniors’ home and with veterans through her local legion, and has been part of the social action club at her school, where she organized their We Are Silent event (a Free the Children initiative) to bring awareness to issues facing girls worldwide.

Teacher and coordinator Carolyn Larocque said Cassy’s desire to lend a hand – whether it’s help coordinate an event at school, or help children a world away – comes from her heart. “She wants to make everyone’s lives a little easier.”

Cassy’s latest project is to raise $10,000 in two years to build a school in a developing country. “Well it’s not an actual big school, more like a school house,” she points out, as though that detail makes it any less impressive. She got the idea after attending last year’s We Day (also a Free the Children initiative), where the speakers mentioned how the organization was working towards building schools in different countries. “It sort of inspired me, I guess,” she said.

Her mother Marisa DiMeglio remembers an animated conversation when she returned from school that day. Her daughter, she says, came back on a high. “She came home saying ‘I’ve got to build a school.’ And I said ‘OK great, let’s talk to your school, maybe we can put on a fundraiser’ and she said ‘Nope, I’ve got to do it on my own.’” She wanted it to be her project, and hers alone.

To reach the goal, she’s collecting bottles and cans, has a fundraising page on the Free the Children website and the family has also held garage sales. She’s raised about $1,000 so far.

With some prodding, Cassy will talk about what winning the Governor General’s Award means to her. She said she knows there are many people out there who are just as philanthropic, but who don’t get recognized for it, which makes it nice to be singled out.

But she’s even more interested in talking about Spencer West, a Toronto man who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro despite the fact his legs were amputated when he was a child and who she met at the presentation ceremony.

West was one of the speakers at We Day in Montreal, to which Cassy and her family were personally invited. She and her mom were also given tickets to the national event in Ottawa. Cassy said she’d one day like to be an ambassador, like West, and give the inspiring speeches she took in with rapt attention.

Cassy says she relies on her friends and parents to keep her motivated, but admitted feeling like her goals are out of reach. That feeling doesn’t last long. “Even if I don’t get to see the results, I still know I’m helping someone else and that motivates me,” she said.

DiMeglio says people will sometimes congratulate her for Cassy’s accomplishments, but she’s adamant that her daughter deserves all the credit. She said she and her husband, Robert. are bursting with pride over everything their daughter has achieved. Just seeing the Governor General’s Award is enough to bring tears to DiMeglio’s eyes. “It was very touching to see her getting this award and be recognized.”

To donate to Cassy’s school-building fundraiser,visit her page at bit.ly/1FSmfJX or email helpcassybuildaschool@gmail.com

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