By Chris Lewis | Vol. 32 No. 1 (March 20 2019)
The 2019 Young Woman of Distinction recipient is one of Conception Bay South’s own.
Leah McDonald, an Early Childood Education student, says it almost felt surreal when her name was called as the recipient of this year’s Young Woman of Distinction Award, presented each year by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).
McDonald explained that she found herself in the shoes of a nominee for after her mother got wind of the award, going on to nominate her that same day. Although McDonald said she was more than happy to put her name in the hat, she did not expect to win once all was said and done.
“There are so many people who have done so many great things who were also nominated, so when I heard my name get called I was shocked,” McDonald admitted. “I was up against one of the aide-de-camps for Judy Foote, so I’m just really surprised to be the one who took home the award.”
The Young Woman of Distinction Award is one of nine different awards given out by the YWCA each year that focus on achievements of young women in the province, ranging from topics such as mentorship and education to business, or science and technology.
This award in particular is given to a woman between the ages of 18-24 who demonstrates leadership skills and inspires others to follow in her example. The recipient is usually also an established member of her respective community through continued support and contributions.
McDonald, though hesitant to speak too highly of herself, fits quite seamlessly into this description.
Her work with special needs programs and organizations, and being a representative for those with special needs, likely played the biggest role in McDonald’s name being selected ahead of the other 34 nominees. McDonald has played an active role on the executive team for Memorial University’s Best buddies program – a program that aims to promote friendship and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Specifically, McDonald helps plan events and fundraisers for the group, which can be a daunting task on its own.
On top of this, she’s had plenty of involvement over the years with Special Olympics, acting as something of a voice for the organization as she aims to spread the word about the group, its athletes, and the important roles they play in the province’s sports community.
As if this was not enough for one student to tackle, McDonald also takes pride in her work as an advocate for the ‘Spread the word to end the Word’ campaign. It’s goal is to abolish words like ‘retard’ or ‘retarded,’ especially when used as an insult.
As a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, McDonald feels this particular cause is something more people should pay attention to.
“I’ve always found that to be such a derogatory and hurtful word, and I’ve always been very offended by it,” McDonald said.
“I’m a big advocate for that campaign, because I’d like to see people change their vocabulary a bit. Think of a different word to say instead of that,” she added, noting there is a plethora of words available to be used in the place of ‘retarded,’ depending on the context.
The Masonic Temple Restoration fund also keeps a close relationship with McDonald, who paints in her spare time and sells her work to raise money for the fund.
“I go to a lot of open mic nights and the like here in (Conception Bay South). Most of the people who attend those are elders, so I always try to help them out wherever I can – bringing things out to their car, or helping them put their jackets on and tie their shoes, things like that,” McDonald said.
Despite all of these things on her plate, McDonald remains as humble as any other young woman her age, reiterating her shock when she found herself a recipient of the award.
“I was just really, really, surprised to win. All the things I do, I do out of the goodness of my heart because it makes me feel nice to help other people,” McDonald explained. “I never expected to get anything like this in return for all that. It was such an amazing moment, though. One of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me. Individuals like myself who have some form of autism, we’re kind of looked down upon a lot by others.
Something like this really goes to show that we can amount to some pretty big things. We can, and will, change the world some day. Even though I’m a little bit different than some of my peers, I can still make a difference. Don’t look down on people who have any sort of mental or physical disability, because we’re just like you, even though we’re a bit different. We’re all the same inside.”