This past week, a remarkable woman named June Callwood died in Toronto. While she enjoyed a successful career, her lasting legacy is that of her social activism. According to the the Library and Archives of Canada, Callwood “found or co-found over 50 social action organizations . . . includ[ing] Digger House, a youth hostel; Nellie’s hostel for women; Jessie’s, a centre for teenage parents; Casey House Hospice for those with AIDS; PEN Canada; the Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation and Feminists Against Censorship.”

The morning after her death, Andy Barrie, the talented host of CBC Radio‘s Toronto-area show, Metro Morning, re-broadcast a portion of an interview with Callwood recorded several years previously, and read a wonderful tribute to her. What particularly struck me was his query:

The expression, “been there, done that” has become the jaded throwaway of a cynical society. But how many of us, like June, will be able, at the end of our lives to say, profoundly, that we have been here, that we have done that, and that, and that. . .?

I couldn’t help but compare the accomplishments of Callwood with my Mom’s legacy, and thought about choices we make to contribute (or not) to our world, and what forms our contributions may take.

Callwood seemed to embrace the macro approach to making this world a better place. She had grand dreams, and the skill and energy to turn those grand dreams into reality. Without question, she affected thousands of lives.

My mother’s approach to volunteerism was much different: she took a one-person-at-a-time approach. Often, her work was outside any organized group.

For example, for years she drove an elderly woman and her brain-damaged husband 60 miles (about 100 kilometers) roundtrip, so the woman could have dialysis. Mom covered at least 1 of the 3x per week dialysis days, an effort that took most of her day. Because of the complication of her brain-injured husband, the woman had fallen through the cracks. Transportation was available for her, but she couldn’t leave her husband; there was no assistance to place her husband in any kind of respite care while she had the dialysis. As a result, Mom was both driver and caretaker of husband.

Mother was always ready, willing and able to care for neighbors and friends who needed dressings changed, rides to specialists. For years, every Wednesday she would spend with a friend sick with cancer – she brought lunch and jokes she’d printed off from e-mails sent to her.

Every month, she would drive over 100 miles (160 kilometers) to visit with my totally disabled nephew. She would spend 2 or 3 days with him, although he was unable to communicate. His face lit up when he saw her; I suspect that often she may have been his only visitor in weeks. She did what she could to advocate for him, endlessly making calls to social service agencies, churches, doctors, dentists.

Mom didn’t affect the 1000s of lives that Callwood did, but for those whom she did touch, she made an enormous difference. To the woman needing dialysis, the woman with cancer, the folks needing dressings changed, and my nephew, Mom’s death has a significant effect.

What do the respective legacies of the Callwoods and Moms of the world mean to me? While it would be wonderful to be able to leave a Callwood-like macro social justice legacy, social justice, volunteerism and advocacy can be as meaningful and beneficial on a micro level, as well.

What’s important is not that we all aspire to be June Callwoods, but that “at the end of our lives [we can] say, profoundly, that we have been here, that we have done that, and that, and that,” in whatever for “that” might take.