Rotherglen Educating in Advocacy, Character, and Hope

In memory of my sister Frances

The story of R.E.A.C.H. is a deeply personal story, one of love and loss, and of finding hope in a seemingly hopeless time. R.E.A.C.H. was born out of the “Power of Intention” a place where many good causes originate. It was inspired by the greatest of all virtues – the virtue of love, which transcends all things. It is also a story of valour and courage, the likes of which I am not sure I will ever witness again in my lifetime. At its very core, R.E.A.C.H. speaks to a soul’s yearning, and the deeply human desire to find meaning and purpose in a life cut short. As we endeavoured to navigate this sorrowful time in our relationship, my sister Frances and I were able to transform loss by finding both hope and joy in creating a joint legacy.

The establishment of The Rotherglen Children’s R.E.A.C.H. Foundation in April 2008, honours a promise made to my late sister, Frances Shanahan, one of the kindest people I have ever known. Her passing was a painful process. Together we journeyed to a place no person ever willingly goes, a place that has been called “the dark night of the soul”. In the self-doubt that comes at such times, Frances struggled to find her worth. She began to reflect on her life deeds, to question the fairness of fate, and to examine her sense of purpose. It is a poignantly human story. In our common humanity, we all understand the longing to belong, to feel a connection, and our need to love and be loved. Frances’ story is one of vulnerability and of courage, and in the end, a story of triumph. The long journey to our ultimate home is an experience that changes one’s heart and makes all the more real our understanding of the ‘gift’ of time with loved ones.

I am not sure how many of you reading this story will have been touched by cancer. It is a very scary thought that no person likes to entertain. Nor do I know who may have had a loved one diagnosed as palliative. But it is in that dark space that together my sister Frances and I desperately sought to affirm a sense of worth, to find consolation and a sense of hope when all hope was dashed. That hope, and yes even joy, was found in our joint vision of R.E.A.C.H.

I remember the day very clearly. We sat in a downtown hospital, the last people to be called for an appointment that seemed to never come. In her suffering, our energies were low. I remember the environment itself was barren, deserted, cold, and distinctly hopeless. A room without a window, black grates on the ceiling, and the one plant in the corner of the room decidedly dead. My sister, at this point, had fallen into a practice of ruminating, and I merely listened. Together, Frances and I had enjoyed so many times in life with effortless ease and kindred humour. Why then would it be in any way different to sit with her in this space, sad but cognisant that I still had the solace of her presence and her company?

I remember running out of comforting words and overcome with exhaustion saying to her; “Frances it is never too late to make a difference, to find meaning, or to connect to purpose.” Inherently I knew that this thought would give her a sense of hope, the hope so needed to carry one to the end of each day when the end of life looms large. Frances pressed me in her response, asking, “How Eileen when my body is too frail, battered, and weak, could I make a difference in the way I would ever hope to?” Her sense of urgency was palpable. I responded, “Frances what would you want to do if given more time? Give me your intention and I will mind it. I will carry it forward, in a way that honours you and together our love will go on.”

From the inception of R.E.A.C.H. and from that day forward, my sister’s eyes would sparkle with true joy, passion, and above all else, life inspiring hope. Knowing my sister and her love for children, it was easy to understand why children would be at the centre of her attention. She had been devoted to nurturing children it would seem, her entire life, even to the extent of volunteering at Sick Children’s Hospital. She went to visit children who did not have the advantage of having their parents with them through the week. From this time onward, we would talk away our time in waiting rooms and through treatments imagining and planning what we might do. I remember well, her saying to me, “You are really going to do this right, promise?” and I would say, “ Yes, of course, I promise.”

At that time, and thereafter, I had no idea of what it was to create a charity or a foundation, but that mattered little in those moments. The thought alone had breathed new life into us, and a tremendous sense of meaning into our souls’ journey. In hindsight, what we did not fully understand, but came to know in time, was R.E.A.C.H. would be a certain victory over death. No longer had her life been marginalized, or defined by this disease. My sister Frances’ last words to me, which were said with a sense of urgency, were, “ Eileen, remember all the things I told you. Please tell all my friends I love them.”

In May of 2005, Frances passed me her torch, and her spirit lights my way still to this day. There does not seem to be a day when I don’t think of her or visit her in thought. I still feel her presence as one does when a person lives in every corner of your mind. I think it is not by chance, and actually quite poignant, that my sister’s last words were an expression of love because she was just that, love personified. Her indelible spirit lives on through R.E.A.C.H., which speaks beautifully to our school ethos and which has grown into something greater than we had time to imagine.

— Eileen Lanigan


R.E.A.C.H. Leadership Program

Frances reached out to Eileen, advocating for herself at a desperate time, Eileen was there to provide her the hope she needed to carry through to a peaceful end. Holding to her promise,  the Rotherglen Children’s Foundation and  Leadership Program were created, embracing the ideas of self and social advocacy. It was not lost on us, that Frances herself was an educator and that the leadership program was a perfect way to honour her, to keep her life’s work going. That is the connection between Frances’ story and the story of the leadership program; hence the name Rotherglen Educating in Advocacy and Creating Hope.

The Rotherglen Children’s R.E.A.C.H. Foundation is a vehicle for students to create hope for others, just as Eileen had created hope for her sister. Rotherglen students learn to do the same. The leadership aspect of the program centres on the delivery of student-directed and student-led initiatives. The initiatives foster personal advocacy and develop the skills necessary to carry out activities and initiatives. These endeavours also aim to promote social advocacy, to create positive and healthy community environments.

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2050 Neyagawa Blvd., Oakville, ON L6H 6R2  |  905-849-1897 ext. 1258  |  info@reachlegacy.com