Iconic community leader Sarah Onyango receives prestigious award from Volunteer Ottawa
by Olivia Barrett
Thursday 26 October 2023
Ever-engaged, ever-present, initiative taking, and responsive were some of the words of praise used to describe Sarah Onyango, this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner at the VOscars.
The VOscars, Volunteer Ottawa’s annual awards gala, honoured Onyango for her extensive volunteer work with several communities across Ottawa. Since 1993, Onyango has been an active volunteer in the nation’s capital, working with numerous organizations like Black History Ottawa, CHUO and United Way East Ontario among many others.
Draped in a flowing traditional Masai gown from Kenya, Onyango honoured her homeland throughout her speech, showing the influence it continues to have on her and her work. “The country of Kenya where is where I got spirit of Harambe, working together in solidarity, to lift each other up, to life the community and the country up,” she said as she began her speech.
Onyango reflected on her service to the Black community and to the Ottawa community as a whole. She emphasized the importance of community and family that is prevalent throughout her work, adding that it was instilled in her as a child from parents. She said her parents modeled the spirit of Harambe by having the “it’s not about you, it’s about us, it’s about family and community” mentality.
In her speech, Onyango also thanked those who helped her along the way, such as Ewart Walters, who gave her the first writing job with The Spectrum. She added how these mentors helped her get started working in the media and would even tune into her shows to later critique them.
Onyango’s influence on Ottawa’s media scene is extensive. “You could really think of Saturday morning as kind of the Sarah Onyango Block,” joked Alex Friedman in his speech honouring Onyango. Friedman is the executive director at the Community Radio Fund of Canada and has worked with Onyango for years. Onyango hosts a myriad of shows on CHUO and Rogers TV, including “Fontomfrom,” “Afrika Revisited,” and “Black on Black.”
Councillor Rawlson King was among the five speeches honouring Onyango’s contributions. “You have not just organized events and created space for new voices, you’ve created memories, fostered understanding and inspired generations,” King said.
Beyond her work in the media scene, Onyango has worked with Black History Ottawa and Black Ottawa Scene news magazine, to work with the Black diaspora in the city. With these organizations, she has helped launch several Black History Month celebrations across the city and continuously uses her platform for advocacy and sharing opportunities for dialogue.
Yasir Naqvi, Ottawa-Centre’s Member of Parliament, who nominated Sarah for the award, provided a video speech in honour of Onyango. He praised her for her extensive work in the community and her commitment to creating and enhancing spaces for youth in the Black community.
“Sarah is a role model for me and for all of us in the Black community and beyond,” said June Girvan, the president of Black History Ottawa. She recounted Onyango’s countless contributions, citing her work with United Way East Ontario as an example of Onyango’s commitment to volunteerism.
Rogers Ottawa’s station manager Gavin Lumsden, who has worked with Onyango for 30 years, also gave a speech honouring her community building work. He described the “ideal volunteer” has someone who has dedication, commitment, creativity, professionalism and is punctual, adding these are “all traits which could quite easily be ascribed to Sarah.”
He recounted how Onyango has never been late, not even “given the transit challenges” when she has to take OC Transpo in the middle of winter during rush hour to get to the station.
“She is a true connector,” Lumsden said, “someone who brings people and ideas together.” To emphasize her impact at the station, Lumsden said a problem-solving mantra has become “ask Sarah, she’ll know someone.”
Throughout the night, Volunteer Ottawa honoured several other community members who have contributed greatly to the community.
The Mayor’s Award for Volunteer Spirit went to Elizabeth Heatherington, who has dedicated time to a number of organizations around the city. These include walking for the Ottawa Mission’s Coldest Night of the Year, the English Language Tutoring for the Ottawa Community (ELTOC) and delivering groceries during the pandemic through Ottawa Cares.
Rae Landriau won the Outstanding Youth Volunteer Award for their contributions to both the university and city communities. Landriau leads a Girl Guide unit, plans events for graduate students at Carleton University and helped develop materials for the launch of Create Change Collective along with volunteering with a multitude of other organizations. The Create Change Collective aims to educate and engage with people about the environment and climate change.
Shirley Whitford, a member for the Rideau-Rockcliffe Community Resource Centre family, took home the VOscar for the Outstanding Senior Volunteer Award. During her acceptance speech, Whitford said, “I do about 40 hours a week and I wish it was more,” showing her dedication to the centre. She added that even when there is not much to do, she asks for more work when they try to send to her home.
The VOscars also recognized John Peters for their Leadership in Skilled Volunteering Award. During his tenure on the Shepherds of Good Hope’s board of directors, Peters has helped create the Shepherds of Good Hope Foundation which has raised needed funds for over 20 years. This organization has also become the second largest provider of community and social housing in Ottawa under Peters leadership.
In addition to recognizing the contributions of individuals, the VOscars acknowledged the contributions organizations have made in the Ottawa community.
Engineers Canada won the Leadership in Corporate Volunteerism Award. Volunteering is an integral part of the company’s culture, a representative said in their acceptance speech. He added that they give employees two days per year to volunteer and annual volunteer staff days.
Volunteers Ottawa honoured the Catholic Centre for Immigrants with the Pathways to Possibilities Award for their work with helping newcomers settle and integrate into the community. CCI’s Conservation Circles, the program they won the award for, focuses on helping immigrants improve their English and French language skills.
Hospice Care Ottawa took home the Outstanding Volunteer Program Award. With over 450 volunteers, the organization said they pride themselves on being “run volunteers and supported by staff.”
The annual VOscars were held at Sala San Marco on October 26, 2023.