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Helpers: Lend a hand, says Cathy Keaney-Burns, and you’ll find the benefit you give is the benefit you receive

Having a positive impact is its own reward, says longtime Cancer Society manager
Newly retired Cathy Keaney-Burns reflects on her long standing career with the Canadian Cancer Society and the vital role that volunteers play in the success of not-for-profit organizations. (Supplied)

After 25 years of dedicated service to the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), Cathy Keaney-Burns retired as senior manager for northeastern Ontario in mid-April. She already misses her former colleagues, clients, business associates and volunteers, many of whom became good friends over the years.

But life does not necessarily slow down in retirement, as Keaney-Burns quickly discovered. 

“I took a little time to take stock of life, the future and my goals,” she said. “It’s been such a rewarding career; I’m looking forward to continuing to learn and continuing my involvement in the community.”

Raised in Sudbury’s West End, Keaney-Burns graduated from the business program at Sheridan Technical School (now Sudbury Secondary) and almost immediately became a young professional. 

“Even though I launched my career right out of high school, I went on to take a number of courses at Cambrian College. I’ve always felt it’s important to keep building knowledge and developing new skills.”

Her first job was with Greater Sudbury Police Services. Hired in 1973 as a dispatcher, she later transferred to Central Records, where she spent 16 years.

A job opportunity in the private sector subsequently led to a move into the insurance field, where she held an administrative role for five years. 

“I got my first real taste of volunteering heading up the company’s social committee and leading employee fundraising campaigns which included the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS).” 

Then, in 1995, Keaney-Burns applied for a secretarial position with the CCS. “I was so fortunate to join the Cancer Society. I’ve had an exceptionally fulfilling career with them.”

She was also blessed to have been raised in “a most amazing family.” Her parents, Berk and Nora Keaney, paved the way for her passion to help others. “Although they individually volunteered for many groups, they especially enjoyed volunteering together. Dad would coach baseball while mom was the game score keeper. They made a beautiful team.” 

At the Cancer Society’s annual Relay For Life, her father volunteered as the announcer. “As the voice of the Sudbury Wolves, what better choice for Relay! Dad had such a resounding voice and read the names of nearly 500 survivors with great compassion.”

Siblings Berk Jr., Dan and Maureen have always been supportive of her career and community involvement. Keaney-Burns’ own children — Erin, a teacher at Churchill Public School, Patrick, a carpenter with Northwall Contracting and Nora, an assistant production co-ordinator in the film and television industry — have also encouraged their mother’s pursuit of many interests outside of work.

Keaney-Burns is past president of Our Lady of Hope Parish’s CWL (Catholic Women’s League) and a past member of the Sault Ste. Marie Diocesan Council. She is also a member of her church choir. 

“Singing and acting have a special place in my heart. I joined the Sudbury Chamber Singers last year and am so impressed with the talent we have here in Sudbury.” 

She fondly remembers her days with Theatre Cambrian and being in the cast of Mary PoppinsThe Sound of Music and Shrek. “So much fun!”

Keaney-Burns’ long standing career with the CCS evolved with a steady rise in responsibility, from volunteer to secretary to Relay for Life co-ordinator to senior manager. Her milestone achievement was initiating Greater Sudbury’s very first Relay For Life after witnessing the extraordinary creativity and success of Ontario’s first event, which was held in Ottawa.

“We launched the city’s inaugural Relay for Life back in 1999. I was responsible for all aspects of the event, from logistics to sponsorships, and promotion to participants. Corporate sponsors came on board and volunteers from among their staff organized the planning and implementation.

“Without local support from the community and the private and public sectors, Relay For Life would not have blossomed into this incredibly heartfelt annual event. Relay does so much to raise cancer awareness, as well as funds to carry on client programs and support ground-breaking research.”

Keaney-Burns credits volunteers with making it all work. “Their dedication and contribution are critical to success.” 

Like many non-profits, the CCS is volunteer-driven. “Without community volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to operate our organization or offer the support that cancer patients have today.” 

Students in volunteer-hours programs at school also contribute significantly to the successful operation of the northeast community office, which covers a broad territory, from Manitoulin Island to Sudbury and North Bay, to Timmins and Chapleau. “We really appreciate and rely on their help with Daffodil Day and Pink Ribbon sales and assisting us at Relay For Life, Run For The Cure and Mudmoiselle.”  

The CCS regularly hosts co-op and summer placements from Cambrian College, Collège Boréal and Laurentian University. This connection with learning institutions is mutually beneficial: Students learn about cancer and patient support programs, while building their experience in communication and project management. “The Cancer Society benefits greatly from the knowledge and creativity that they bring to the table.”

To that end, CCS has welcomed student leaders to participate on their advisory committee. “There’s nothing more valuable than the voice of young people. They are our future. Not-for-profits need to embrace their ideas and learn from this new generation of volunteers how to broaden their reach to include a younger audience.”

For Keaney-Burns, it has been very touching to see families participate in Relay year after year, and then to see their children and grandchildren taking part. “No one should be afraid to try volunteering. It’s rewarding and fun for all generations.”

There are many ways to contribute time and effort to a variety of organizations that rely on volunteers. 

“They will greet you with open arms! The Canadian Cancer Society is so welcoming. They guide you and ensure you are comfortable in the volunteer role you take. No strings attached.”

Cathy Keaney-Burns’ Volunteer Words of Wisdom

“Until they get involved as a volunteer, many people just don’t realize the positive impact they can have on others’ lives, and how much they’re appreciated and admired for that gift of time and talent. Many not-for-profits operate with only a few staff, and without their teams of volunteers, these organizations would simply not survive. They will be truly grateful for any time you can give. They are very understanding and always respectful of life’s obligations.”

Marlene Holkko Moore is a local communications professional and occasional contributor to


About the Author: Marlene Holkko Moore

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