Helping Others: A Family Affair

When Mary Catherine O’Brien’s son died in a tragic accident, she and her family saw a chance to turn a sad loss into an opportunity to help others. The family decided to establish the Matthew O’Brien Memorial Scholarship through the Hope for Children Foundation (HFC) to honour their son’s memory.

“The scholarship was a wonderful way for us to work through our grief and help the children at the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto,” says Mary-Catherine.

As a social worker at CCAS, Mary-Catherine saw the vital need for financial support by former Crown Wards pursuing a post-secondary education. She reached out to her friends and family members and managed to raise $60,000 for the scholarship. Subsequently, Mary-Catherine’s other son Michael, and a friend decided to bike from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia to raise money for the scholarship, which brought the total up to $100,000.

The University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College, along with the federal and provincial government, matched the amount. An anonymous donor at the Foundation gave another $100,000, which brought the grand total up to $600,000. The endowed scholarship has been able to earn enough interest to award the scholarship annually and has been honouring Matthew’s memory since 1990.

The Matthew O’Brien Memorial Scholarship is awarded every year to a first year student entering the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College. The scholarship covers the cost of tuition and residence for four years. The family has also established the Matthew O’Brien Education Fund, which is available to a student pursuing a college diploma. These scholarships were two of many awarded at this year’s annual scholarship event, which took place on August 26, 2009 at Hart House, University of Toronto.

“I just love seeing the recipients come dressed up and very excited about the recognition they’re getting. We’re proud of their hard work and my hope is that they will achieve their goals, be proud of their accomplishments and have a promising future,” says Mary-Catherine.

Mary-Catherine has made child welfare her life’s work. She’s been involved with CCAS since she graduated from university in 1966. No matter where goes, she always comes back to CCAS. She stopped working at CCAS in 1999 and was invited to participate on the Hope for Children Foundation’s Scholarship Committee, which she has been a part of for 10 years now.

Mary-Catherine also makes it a point to try and keep in touch with recipients of Matthew’s scholarship. She still keeps in touch with the first scholarship recipient, and was even invited to her wedding. Apart from the Scholarship Committee, Mary-Catherine has also served on the HFC Board for four years, but will be stepping down this year. Her daughter, Erin O’Brien, continued the family legacy by joining the Board in place of her mother at the HFC Annual General Meeting, which took place the day of the Scholarship Event.

“I feel blessed to have the opportunity to carry on my mother’s work. I’m hoping to be able to contribute to the Foundation as much as she has. It is important for me to carry on the legacy for my parents and for the kids that the scholarship helps,” says Erin. “It is truly amazing that these kids have gotten to where they have in order to get a post-secondary education,” she adds.

Both Mary-Catherine and Erin strongly believe in education and giving. “Education is the foundation every person needs to be able to start a successful life. It also builds self-confidence and self-awareness,” says Erin.
“A scholarship is an effective way to help former youth in care. Education is a very important tool to give any child, especially one who has struggled throughout their life,” adds Mary-Catherine.

Working with the Hope for Children Foundation is truly a family affair for the O’Brien’s. Every year, Erin’s son Jack, 9, and daughter Madeleine, 6, donate any presents they receive for their birthdays to the Hope for Children Foundation.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to learn about giving and the Foundation. It’s starting them on a path of giving and it’s something they can feel good about,” says Erin.