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Frances Woodroffe

Dedication that runs decades deep

Any volunteer can count the hours. Only a special few can count the decades. Thirty-eight years ago, Frances Woodroffe began to volunteer for United Way—energetically. Passionately. Relentlessly. If she has an off switch, nobody has been able to find it.

Frances first realized the impact she could have on her community in the late 1970s, working as a medical secretary in the obstetric clinic at St. Michael’s Hospital. Fluent in Italian and Spanish, she provided an invaluable link between the healthcare workers and non-English-speaking women who came in, some abandoned with their children or facing abuse. Through them, she learned of shelters funded by United Way: “I thought, what great places for these women to be able to go, to get help and feed their kids.” She began to pitch in, and a volunteering legend was born.

Since then, she has run the gamut, from stuffing holiday hampers (with food she made herself, of course!) to supporting agencies like Nellie’s (going in person to help residents with their résumés) to chairing United Way campaigns everywhere she has worked—a feat she’s still pulling off, with extraordinary results, in her current role as the Canadian National Events & Meeting Coordinator at Zurich Canada.

Giving back comes as naturally as breathing for Frances, who has also been very actively involved with SickKids (for four years, she was a “SickKids mom,” tending to her son who was in and out for surgeries) and Starlight Children’s Wish Foundation, two other charities that are close to her heart. But, it hasn’t always been easy. Ten years ago, she was shattered when her husband passed away suddenly. Consumed with grief, and worry for her young son, she stepped back.

“This is when your life turns around. I had to be the mother and the father, the provider and the mentor, the bad guy and the good guy,” she says. “Plus, I couldn’t grieve, because that would make my 10-year-old son grieve even more. I went three years without talking about anything. And I stopped doing anything for anybody. I thought, ‘What for?’”

But, over time, she felt less and less like herself. And, ultimately, it was this same sorrow that reignited the charitable impulse within her. “I had a career, I had my family, I had all my friends. Everything could have spiralled out of control, but it didn’t,” she explains. “I was lucky in that respect. How dare I not help other people who weren’t so lucky?”

As a fundraising enthusiast and a master at inspiring her troops, Frances has no patience for excuses. “People don’t understand that helping out doesn’t take a lot of time,” she notes. “And I always say to them, ‘How are you going to feel if one day you need a food hamper and you were the one who wouldn’t even give a can of tuna?’”

But, as tender as she is tough, Frances is also quick to remind her colleagues that giving to others just feels good, like “coming in on a cold day and putting a blanket over your shoulders. That’s been my real motto over the years,” she says.

What’s ahead for this dynamo? “I want to reach 40 years of volunteer service. No, 50 would be better,” she laughs. “Though my body may not agree.”

Given her track record, it’s hard to imagine even that slowing her down.