Humanitarian Extraordinaire

Meet our champion of youth, Simone Cavanaugh

By Jason Santerre

Nicholas Murray Butler was a senior citizen when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. But the American educator knew a thing or two about young people, saying they are “accorded an almost unequaled opportunity for great accomplishment and for human service.”

At the tender age of 25, Simone Cavanaugh is taking Mr. Butler’s words to heart. She’s already accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime. Don’t take our word for it. In May, Ms. Cavanaugh became the youngest recipient of the Laurie Normand- Starr Humanitarian Award.

The seeds of empathy, selflessness, and certain benevolence were planted early, taking root in Ms. Cavanaugh’s own suffering. A severe, debilitating strain of juvenile arthritis would shape her life’s course.

“I just sat up in bed and started screaming and crying,” she says now, 19 years after that fateful morning. “My parents knew right away that I wasn’t joking around. It was serious.”

It took time, but doctors eventually diagnosed her with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). “Basically, my immune system overreacts, attacking my own joints, which causes severe inflammation and pain.”

There is no cure for JIA. Fortunately, there are treatments available to Ms. Cavanaugh. “I’ve tried them all. These days, I’m using a biological agent that suppresses the entire immune system,” she says, adding that it works to a certain extent but her body is compromised, leaving her open to infection.

“A few years ago, I had a really bad fungal infection. I was near death, and all because of the medication. The alternative is not being able to move, so it’s an easy choice to make. You just have to live with that sort of risk.”

It’s no surprise then, that Ms. Cavanaugh puts a lot of faith in her rheumatologist, Dr. Elizabeth Hazel, head of the Montreal General’s Young Adult Rheumatic Disease (YARD) Clinic. “We’ve built quite a bond over the years,” she says. “She’s seen me at my sickest, so it’s very much a partnership, always talking about what we’re going to do next. It’s reassuring.”

Dr. Hazel is the one who seems reassured by Ms. Cavanaugh’s attitude. “I’ve been her doctor since she was 18. She has to inject herself, take meds that make her sick, withstand constant pain, and yet she’s accomplished so much while dealing with her health issues and the pressures of all she does. To me, she’s a superwoman.”

Her strength does seem superhuman, but was the early onset of her disease been a blessing in disguise? Ms. Cavanaugh seems to think so. “I don’t think I would change anything. Maybe I’m romanticizing a bit, but it brought me empathy. I understand other people’s suffering, to a certain extent,” she says, adding that she felt propelled to do good, give back, help the less fortunate.

“My dad likes to contradict me, saying that when I was younger, before I even had symptoms of JIA, he would pick me up at daycare and see me taking care of kids younger than me, making sure they had friends and were playing. He says it was always in me.”

That Mother Theresa complex carried over into CEGEP when Ms. Cavanaugh was offered a humanitarian trip to Nicaragua. It was a trip that would change the course of her life forever.

“We were there to work with women in a coffee co-op. One woman’s grandchild, a little boy named Milton, had cerebral palsy. During my time as a coordinator for the Arthritis Society of Canada and their summer camp program, I had worked with many kids with disabilities, so I knew how to engage and interact with him, something his family did not have the opportunity to do since education and health care is so limited in Nicaragua.”

By the end of her three-week stay, Ms. Cavanaugh had built quite a strong bond with Milton and his family. She knew she couldn’t abandon him. “I walked away thinking: There’s so much equipment in Montreal that could help him. I mean, he could be the next Stephen Hawking.”

Over the course of a year, she helped raise $10,000, which went toward a wheelchair, a walker, and some adapted toys. She also recruited a volunteer occupational therapist. “It was all for Milton, but it had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the community because they just thought he’d never get anywhere until they saw that these simple things had such a huge impact.”

Her work in Nicaragua spawned what would become her first non-profit entity, Pivot International. “With Pivot, we do basically the same thing we did for Milton, just more of it, for more kids.” The mission at Pivot is to improve the independence, mobility, and quality of life of physically disabled children in developing countries. The pledge is to provide adapted equipment, access to paramedical services and more.

“Her calm in stressful situations always impresses me,” says Audrey Chiasson, clinical placement supervisor at Pivot International. “Simone will not rush for an answer. Instead, she will take the time needed to assess every option before choosing the right one. In a developing country with many challenges like Nicaragua, this quality is very important.”

Providing wheelchairs to children in need is something close to Ms. Cavanaugh’s heart. Due to her JIA, she was in a wheelchair for many years as a youngster. “My school did not have an elevator so a teacher had to carry me up and down the stairs until someone pointed out that it was an insurance risk. They put my desk out in front of the secretary’s office,” she recalls. “The sad part is that it’s not even unique to my case. This happens often at most schools and universities until there’s someone with a disability and in need of a ramp.”

Once again, her early struggles shaped her mission, her mandate in life. That’s why Ms. Cavanaugh has a double law degree and specializes in human rights advocacy. Enter her work with the Prime Minister’s Youth Council.

“I know that over 30,000 young people applied, and somehow my candidacy was retained, probably because of my life experience and my education, and volunteering,” she says with certain humility. “I get to chat with Prime Minister Trudeau and advise him and his cabinet ministers on issues like the rights of Canadians living with disability. I also get to meet a lot of young Canadians and get their feedback and bring it to the PM. He actually listens, which is good news.”

Speaking of leaders, Ms. Cavanaugh says empathy is something more leaders should work on developing. “There’s a limit to that but I think with the major problems we see in the world right now, leaders seem so far removed and have lost touch with the average person.”

Ms. Cavanaugh admits she’s guilty of it, too. “I have a harder time than I used to because life gets crazy and I’m doing five major projects at the same time so I have to take moments to remind myself why I’m doing this and sit down with families while, at the same time, taking care of my own health issues. I try not to get too emotionally involved or else I just can’t function.”

In general, though, Ms. Cavanaugh is an optimistic person with hope for the future and the next generation. “If you look at the big picture, and take history into account, we’re actually doing really well.”

Through it all, Ms. Cavanaugh’s greatest strength remains putting a positive spin on a difficult life event. “Instead of feeling bad about my arthritis, I turned my attention to other people. It made me feel better. And if that’s what I needed then that’s what I needed: to make a positive contribution even if I was living with something negative. That’s why I try to get young people to channel their energy into something positive, especially if they’re overcoming obstacles.” For this superwoman, there is no kryptonite.


Summer 2018, Vol 10 N°3

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