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York Graduate Repays the Kindness of Strangers

Sherry Lawson (BA ’88) says making a gift of life insurance to York University was easy. Now approaching the age of 50, she has a good job, a paid-off mortgage, three grown-up children and is still “of sound mind and body”. Life wasn’t always easy, though, and her decision to give back to students was a long time in the making. At the age of 18, Lawson left her Ontario First Nations reserve, Mnjikaning, located in the Lake Country tourism area in Simcoe County, to study library science at Seneca College in Toronto, where she was awarded a $1,000 scholarship from a Toronto family she had never met. “I said to the woman giving me the cheque on stage, ‘how can I thank you?’ and she said, ‘There will come a day my dear, far off in the future, when you will be in a position to give back to students. When you take that opportunity you will have repaid me ten-fold’ – It’s time to pay that woman back,” Lawson says.

Candid and engaged, Lawson has had many professional positions including an early career as one of Canada’s first, First Nations librarians. She has also worked as a justice of the peace, a trainer and a writer of native-focused curriculum for the Simcoe County Board of Education. Currently, Lawson is the Director of Corporate Affairs and Public Relations at Casino Rama. Not one to define herself through her job, Lawson is equally proud of her 35 years of volunteer and community work, in which she has helped abused women, the hungry and children amongst others. In 2004, she was awarded Orillia’s Business Woman of the Year Award for her combined business leadership and community involvement.

For Lawson, who grew up on a reserve without running water, where people were mostly unemployed and very few went on to postsecondary education, serving her community has always been her primary goal. “My family always told me to get an education, get a good job and give back to the community. That’s what sent me to York University,” Lawson says.

In 1981, she began undergraduate studies at York, taking classes part-time in the Faculty of Arts. A young mother at the time with three young children and a full-time job, it took Lawson seven years to complete her degree in Anthropology. Though a sacrifice to obtain, her degree is a point of pride. Importantly, it has enabled her to achieve her objective of serving her community, especially in her current position.

Since its inception, Casino Rama has provided tens of millions of dollars to 134 First Nations reserves in Ontario, which has significantly improved the quality of life for thousands of First Nations people. Lawson hopes that her gift, once realized, will improve the quality of life for students in York’s Faculty of Arts, specifically single mothers or those struggling financially. “My grandmother used to say, ‘At the end of it all, you will not be judged by what you had but by what you gave,’” she says. “I hope that in my eulogy they will say, ‘look at what she gave’.”