Written by: Christina MacBean, Georgian College Student
May 12, 1997 was the beginning of a brand new era for George Todd. With a new city, new home, new job, a lot was at stake on that cold day in May. As with most things, George embraced his future with gusto. He was looking forward to his new role as the General Manager of the Barrie PUC. Keenly aware of the implications of such a big change in his life and wanting to maintain his fitness regime, one of the first things he did as a new resident of Barrie was find a gym:
“I looked around the community [of Barrie] at some of the private fitness clubs; I think the city at the time just had the Allandale Rec Center. I came to the Y and had a walk around and thought ‘ya, this will work’.” George became a member of the YMCA. Working out during his lunch hour was a great way to break up his work day and the Y was only a short drive from the corner of Patterson Road and Tiffin Street where the Barrie PUC was at the time. With so many new and unfamiliar elements in his life the Y was a little bit like going home.
George also liked to play floor hockey once in a while with ‘the guys’ as part of his workout. It was a fun way to get some exercise, get to know the people he was often working out with and develop a sense of camaraderie. It wasn’t long before one of his acquaintances asked him, “why don’t you join Men’s Plus?” Adult Only Membership, formerly known as Men’s Plus, offers additional amenities such as towel service, hot tub, steam room and locker service. George’s professional network grew and he found a greater sense of community as a member of Men’s Plus. Surrounded by like-minded men with similar goals and aspirations, he quickly knew many of the members on a first name basis. Many casual conversations and even a bit of joking around added to a sense of belonging.
George is definitely a fitness enthusiast and has made exercise part of his daily life since he worked as the Commissioner of Works for the City of Vaughan. Naturally, his main objective for being a member of the YMCA was to use the fitness centre, but it wasn’t long before he became aware of some of the other programs available at the Y. About two years after he joined the Y, one of his friends, George Cameron, tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he would help with the YMCA’s annual “Strong Kids” campaign by reaching out to half a dozen people in his network for contributions. “Strong Kids” is an annual fundraising campaign focused on raising money to support YMCA programs that give families and children access to the Y and its services, such as swimming lessons, gym time, after school programs and summer camp to name a few. He remembers well how much he and his family valued and enjoyed the times they spent together at the community pool when his children were small. They would make the trek in the middle of winter, south from Newmarket to Thornhill, where they would enjoy swimming in the refreshing blue water of the giant pool. The kids would swing on the rope and make a big splash in the water or whip down the waterslide while George enjoyed the hot tub. Eventually Newmarket got a community pool of their own but the drive to Thornhill was very worthwhile.
After a few years of volunteering as a canvasser, George agreed to be the Chair of his sector. Not long after that he became the Chair of the full campaign. As Chair, in 2008, he was invited to the North American YMCA Development Organization conference in Montreal. The annual conference is focused on equipping leaders with fundraising and philanthropy skills “through a broad array of resources, educational materials, advocacy, research and knowledge sharing.” He met a lot of interesting people from all over Canada, the USA and Mexico and enjoyed hearing about some of their fundraising strategies, not just in modest campaigns but also capital campaigns. There were many different presentations and success stories from the YMCA’s across North America. Adept to change, after serving as Chair for five years, George decided it would be good for the campaign to have fresh leadership and new networks to reach out to, so he stepped down as Chair and passed the torch to Marc Hill.
Before he stepped down as Chair, George, along with some of the other Board members were invited up to Camp Kitchi. They drove north along highway 12 until they reached the Honey Harbour Town Docks. Then a short boat ride took them across Georgian Bay to the rocky shores of Beausoleil Island where the adventure began. Camp Kitchikewana is situated on a former aboriginal encampment. The island is known for having a magical ambiance that leaves no one untouched. On this particular week, Family Camp was happening on the island. George saw firsthand some of the fun programs and activities offered during camp: kayaking, canoeing, sail boating, swimming and archery to name a few. Because of the “Strong Kids” campaign, families and kids, no matter what their financial limits, are able to go to camp when otherwise it might be impossible. And for a fundraiser and a contributor, George along with the people he reaches out to each year, can hardly resist “….giving a donation to send a kid to camp.” Even though George’s own experience with camp was limited as a child to brief excursions with Cubs, Scouts and the Air Cadets, he was the eldest of nine kids and says “everyday was like camp!”
George still has a strong connection to the leadership of the Barrie YMCA. Occasionally he meets with Rob Armstrong, current CEO, and members of his administrative team for breakfast to discuss some of the behind the scenes work being done at the Y. Mom’s Restaurant or Cottage Canoe are two of the favourite meeting places. Many conversations have happened over a hot cup of coffee. George has also been a part of discussions when the board of directors for the Y was developing their strategic plans. They would often host a dinner up at Geneva Park, a beautiful conference centre situated on a peninsula on Lake Couchiching on the outskirts of Orillia. Members of the Y and others in the broader community were invited to come and hear what some of the plans were and asked to provide some feedback into the strategic planning process. In this way, the Y reached out to include and inform the community, not just its members, of some of their hopes and dreams of things to come. George has many years’ experience working within municipalities in southern Ontario and is involved in a variety of charitable organizations; supporting an organization that functions as part of a community as a whole rather than in a silo has allowed George to use his skills for the betterment of all.
In the past, George and his wife, Sue, have supported people who were participating in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, a fundraiser for Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. It’s a weekend bicycle ride, 200 kms from Toronto to Niagara Falls with an overnight stay in Hamilton. A friend that George and Sue had supported in the ride invited them to the Princess Margaret Hospital for a gala and tour of the Cancer Care Centre, to see how some of the dollars are being used in research. Supporting a friend in the Ride and even seeing the Cancer Centre in person did not bring George as close to the issue as being diagnosed himself with a melanoma tumor on his scalp early in 2014. As he and his wife drove along highway 400 after their evening at Princess Margaret, Sue broke the silence in the car:
“You should go in that race,” she said.
“Ya, I think I will,” George said thoughtfully.
Even though George was already a pretty fit guy, in the beginning of February he knew he needed to step up his fitness and begin biking more regularly. One of the reasons George got involved in fitness in the beginning was because he took up skiing and wanted to make sure his knees would be strong enough to travel down the long snow covered hills. Preparing to bike was a bit like preparing to ski. Admitting he needed to lose a few winter pounds and increase his fitness level, he and his wife started keeping track of how many calories they were consuming and how many they were burning through exercise. Maintaining a daily routine of going to the Y, his training was progressing well; however, in mid-April his routine was interrupted when he needed to have surgery to remove the tumor. He had to stop training for a while and couldn’t get to the Y until his scalp was healed. George did his best to maintain his fitness throughout his recovery. He managed to get to the Y a few times prior to the Ride but for the most part, he was MIA from the Y for about 6 weeks. It was a challenging time but having the Ride to look forward to kept him motivated.
Despite the challenges, he was given clearance by his doctor and was able to get in enough training to join 5,000 participants on June 7, 2014. He raised $6,000 with the help of his friends, many from the Y. George rode 100 kms across rural and city roads from Toronto to Hamilton. He spent the night in one of thousands of bright blue tents on the campus of Mohawk College. The second half of the journey, another 100 kms from Hamilton to Niagara Falls started on day two. All along the way signs of encouragement and thanks from family members of the riders kept them going,
“We love remission!”
“PMH [Princess Margaret Hospital] saved my daddy!”
“Go Poppa Go!”
“Thank you for my husband’s life.”
George’s wife and grandchildren waited for him at the finish line. Emotions were running high, and tears were running down almost every cheek. There was electricity in the air, people wild with anticipation and joy for an epic journey – over 200 kms shared with thousands of riders and thousands more family members and friends. Yet cancer is a profoundly personal journey that can take a person to places they didn’t know existed. This event, in Toronto alone, has raised over $99 million. Following the race George underwent radiation treatments and did not return to the Y until almost the end of August where he was greeted warmly by the staff and friends who had missed his comradeship:
“It’s great to see you back, George!” they said.
Coming back to the Y after being gone for those four months for George was like coming home again. This is how it’s been from the beginning. The YMCA was a familiar and comfortable place when he moved here 17 years ago, when everything else was unfamiliar. The Y has served as a consistent support to George in all of his endeavors over the years. All the different ways he has contributed to the Y, as a long time member, as a donor, canvasser and board member for the “Strong Kids” campaign, through his contributions to the strategic planning process and friendships that have been formed, have also equipped George to go out and do other things in the community and beyond. This wealth of experience George has with his work and philanthropy, his health issues, interest in education and political involvement have all served to make George a very valuable member at the Y. Fitness is a part of who George is at his core. The Y is now a part of that core. Now that George is semi-retired, he enjoys splitting his time between a bit of work, volunteering and playing golf. He intends to continue to be involved with the “Strong Kids” campaign and share his wealth of knowledge with the next generation of leaders.