News / Kitchener

Cambridge teen wins philanthropy award

CAMBRIDGE — Firrhaana Sayanvala dressed up as a fairy.

After all, it was Halloween.

So she convinced three of her Grade 8 classmates to trot around their Cambridge neighbourhood on a chilly October night and collect items for the food bank.

They grabbed pillow cases and went door-to-door.

“By the end of it, we had so many cans,” recalled the 17-year-old Sayanvala on Tuesday afternoon, during a break from Grade 12 classes Galt Collegiate.

“They were so angry with me. We were lugging 50 pounds each in cans.”

Sayanvala, named Canada’s top teen philanthropist for 2012, has a gentle way of mobilizing people for a good cause. Last year, she launched a food drive from her world issues class and galvanized her high school.

About 1,200 pounds of food went to the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank, where Sayanvala has volunteered four years now. No one had to prod her efforts.

“She just did it,” food bank executive director Pat Singleton said.

She led. People followed. Just like at Halloween, the last four years. Her friends grumble a little. But she bakes them chocolate chip cookies. They go along for a good cause.

She dresses as a pirate and they swab the deck with the Scarborough-born, Cambridge-raised pixie of philanthropy.

She goes out as an Eskimo, as she has to keep warm the last two Halloweens, and they help her build an igloo of community caring. People just seem so eager to contribute at every door. She has trouble explaining it. They don’t even hesitate. Even grocery stores pitch in without a thought. The girl with the moon and star earrings has a touch.

“There’s a quietness about her,” Singleton said.

A quiet persuasiveness, hidden behind a pleasant smile.

The $2,500 cash prize from Mackenzie Investments for winning the national philanthropy award will go toward her university tuition. A $5,000 donation will be made in her name to Doctors Without Borders, a charity she’s wanted to help since she was 11.

She admires their selfless service in countries torn by war and disaster.

She wants to be a surgeon one day. Or a cancer specialist, like the ones who saved her father Elias from melanoma when she was just four. Those were tough times for Firrhaana and her three siblings. Her two older sisters coped as best they could.

Her little brother Mohummid was her responsibility.

“He was the baby of the family,” she said. “It was traumatic.”

But they got through it. Financial stress was part of the ordeal, but they never had to rely on the food bank. Firrhaana — her name means intelligent and joyful in Arabic — is grateful for that.

Independence, the kind she says the food bank teaches, is important to Sayanvala.

“They’re helping people get on their own feet,” she said.

She has worked at clothing stores and pizza joints to help pay for her university. Come the fall, she will either be at Ottawa or McGill.

Her parents, Elias from South Africa and Sabiha from India, have always pushed her toward studies. Her dad once gave her biology textbooks that struck her fancy.

“It just fascinates me beyond belief,” she said.

Sayanvala herself is a fascinating mix. She likes to run cross-country. It relieves her stress. She inspires hard work. She exudes fun.

“I love sweet and spicy,” she said. “I’m on the extremes for those.”

It can be an invigorating and inspiring mixture.

Like pixie dust and pillow cases from a Halloween fairy.

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