Reached on the phone at the end of a busy day, Kathy Szarkowicz is still brimming with an energetic optimism. That outlook colours her work with special needs kids, as well as her deep involvement in her community.
With her garden freshly planted, she’s already planning her grocery list for a thank-you barbecue for Girl Guide leaders the next day, as well as prepping for work as a cook at a weekend Guide camp. Szarkowicz has been volunteering with the Girl Guides for 17 years.
It’s a role that keeps her busy doing everything from cookie drives and community clean-ups to presenting badges and cooking for campers. She first got involved when the local Guide program was in danger of ending without more volunteers, and is currently a district commissioner in the program.
“When nobody came forward, I volunteered and fell in love with the program – and got hooked on the girls. I’ve seen a lot of fine young women come out of the guiding program,” says Szarkowicz.
“To make a better community, you have to volunteer. Because if nobody volunteers, our community will suffer. There will be no togetherness and no fellowship. Community is very important to me,” says Szarkowicz, who lives in Regina where she is a teacher aide and CUPE 3766 member.
Over the years, Szarkowicz has also volunteered with the Block Parent program, with the Sunday school program at her church, as well as with the Relay for Life fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society. Her young son led her to become a Block Parent in the 1980s. She coordinated the program for her neighbourhood and went on to be the organization’s provincial president.
Her involvement with Relay for Life began with a phone call offering to help with whatever was needed. “I said, ‘I’m willing to do bathrooms if that’s what you’re looking for,’ and instead they asked me to become their treasurer.” Szarkowicz, herself a survivor of stage four ovarian cancer, spent nine years on the Relay for Life Regina executive.
Szarkowicz’s instinct to give back to her community flows into her work in the structured learning classroom at Walker Elementary School. She works with children who have fetal alcohol syndrome and other challenges.
She says every day begins and ends with her making the kids feel special and loved.
“I give those kids the message that there’s somebody that does care for them. I take an interest in what they do. I sit down and ask what they did on the weekend, what they are doing in their family. I take time to listen to them, and show I care what they say. You’d be surprised what happens when you take the time to say ‘gee, I like that shirt,’ or ask ‘did you watch the football game?’,” she says.
Szarkowicz lived in the small Saskatchewan community of Montmartre until grade six. That close-knit sense of her neighbours has stayed with her in Regina.
“In my own neighbourhood I feel it’s important to get know your neighbours. In some places, people don’t even know their neighbours’ names. When I see a new family come in, I welcome them to our street, and offer them help. A phone, water, whatever they need until they get settled.
“I canvass for the cancer and diabetes societies – everyone knows me, and they look for me.”
Despite her many roles, Szarkowicz says she feels more energy now than she did earlier in her life.
“I think kids make us young. That’s why I’m still in Guiding. I sit on the floor and play, I dance crazily like they do – even when I’m cooking at camp, I’m singing in the kitchen.
“Life is good, I always say.”
On June 23, CUPE is relaunching Communities Day. It’s an annual celebration of public services and the people who deliver them.
This year has a special focus on CUPE members as community builders. We’ll be profiling the vital role members play — on the job and in their spare time—building strong communities. Get involved in Communities Day by visiting cupe.ca/communities.
We’re offering a CUPE sweatshirt to the first ten members who are profiled!