Guardian angel

Kathy Mahar is like lots of moms, raising her kids and helping out in her community. But when speed limits were making school zones unsafe, she fought city hall—and won

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The research wasn’t something Kathy would have normally chosen to do: it was a tragedy that brought her into this battle in the first place. In the spring of 2001, nine-year-old Damien Brown was hit by a car just outside his school, Howard Coad Public School. The driver, a 16-year-old neighbourhood teen, wasn’t speeding. In fact, he may have been driving under the 50 kilometre-per-hour speed limit. Damien was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He later died from his injuries. The community was in shock. “I just felt sick,” Kathy says quietly.

Kathy, who was the president of Howard Coad’s home and school association at the time, swung into action. She organized a community meeting in the school gym. She became the community’s media spokesperson and a support for the families of both boys. Then her preliminary research showed her that the speed limit was too high. That’s when she really got busy.

And she had good reason: there are several different schools along the very short stretch of road where Damien was killed. She called Regina, Edmonton, Winnipeg and as far away as Australia, studying safe speed limits around their schools. She spoke with traffic experts, attended city planning and operations meetings and made speeches to city council. “[In an accident where the vehicle is travelling] at 50 kilometres per hour, a pedestrian has a 40 per cent chance of dying,” she says. “At 30 kilometres it’s lowered to 5 per cent.”

“There’s a lion within Kathy,” says Linda Graves, who was the principal at Howard Coad when the accident occurred. “Kathy did the research and she didn’t stop.”

This is part of the reason why Kathy is such an inspiration to Graves. That along with the fact that Kathy acts as a kind of relentless community connector: people want to be involved in their neighbourhoods, Graves says, but aren’t always sure how to do it. Kathy provides opportunities by asking for help with a car wash or by borrowing a video camera to record get well messages for a community leader who’s ill. “Kathy will make all kinds of connections that would never have happened by looking for ways to make the community stronger,” Graves says.

Kathy’s kids agree. Back home after school, they proudly remember the year their mom brought countless branches of their community together to support a neighbourhood girl named Jackie who had leukemia. People don’t always know what to do when bad things happen, Cheyenne explains, leaning forward on the couch where she’s sitting next to her brother. “So, they’d rather do nothing than risk doing the wrong thing.” Her mom, she says, doesn’t have that fear. Cheyenne grabs a large photograph album with one of Michelangelo’s cherubim on the cover and flips through the pictures of an event Kathy organized for the 11-year-old girl.

It was April 1994 and Kathy had heard through the grapevine that all the bills for Jackie’s care were becoming unmanageable for her family. Concerned, Kathy rallied businesses, volunteers and the media to support a fundraiser. Through the event and the creation of a trust fund, they raised more than $10,000. Cheyenne points to a jumbo-sized yellow card Jackie wrote to her supporters. It reads, “Thank you all of my guardian angels and to a special guardian angel named Kathy.” Jackie passed away at home in her sleep eight months later. Still, her memory shines on at Kathy’s house. “She was such a character, we became so close,” says Kathy with a smile.

It’s a bittersweet memory for the whole family. And there are bound to be more—Kathy will keep reaching out to people who need help. Ask her children what they most admire about their mom and they’ll answer with a quality they now try to build into their own lives. Jenny says she tries to stand up to racism. McLean says that he enjoys volunteering. And Cheyenne loves that her mother is so accepting of everyone. “She’s been through a lot and she doesn’t judge,” she says. “I try to do that, too.”