Airdrie’s Stephen McPhee, 15, was honoured Dec. 8 with the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers. Governor General David Johnston presented the award during a ceremony in Edmonton.
“It was amazing,” said Nancy McPhee, Stephen’s mother. “Just watching our 15-year-old boy walk in with the Mounties and in such amazing company. I mean, some of the stories – the doctors who have discovered things and people who have hauled people out of burning houses that got medals for bravery – and there’s our little backpack boy making Airdrie really proud. It was a very moving moment.”
Stephen founded Stephen’s Backpacks Society in 2006, after deciding he wanted to do something to fight homelessness, particularly child homelessness. Each year, the organization fills hundreds of backpacks with school supplies, toiletries and toys, and gives them away to deserving individuals in the community.
Jim McPhee, Stephen’s dad, has been battling cancer for 13 years, becoming increasingly ill over the past three months and putting his attendance at the ceremony in jeopardy.
“I think one of the greatest gifts of all was that his dad made it to the ceremony. He decided to come off chemo because he really wanted to make this ceremony and he did,” McPhee said.
Stephen is currently in Grade 10 at George McDougall High School in the Building Futures program. McPhee said her son is “really coming into his own.”
“I notice a difference with him at the warehouse. He’s just taking control and schlepping those skids around and going and talking to people,” she said.
McPhee said this year’s backpacks campaign is going very well, despite the pressures on the economy.
“We’ve already done 2,000 back-to-school (backpacks),” she said. “We’ve only been going for three nights (with the Christmas campaign) and we already have close to 1,500 done.”
Corporate sponsors have donated hundreds of toys and other items to help fill the backpacks. Still, McPhee said doing the fundraising this year was more of a challenge.
“We had to work probably five times as hard to get those fundraising dollars,” she said. “I think we just have to be really gentle with the economy and people because you can’t keep asking them. There are so many charities that are really downturned right now. My feeling is, just give what you can.”
More than 500 volunteers have signed up, many with their families, to help put the backpacks together. According to McPhee, more than 80 per cent of these are returning volunteers who treat this as a yearly tradition.
McPhee said she was a bit nervous that Stephen, who has autism and sensory issues, might be overwhelmed at the medal ceremony but he did fine.
“He’s such a humble guy. I’m so proud of him that he has remained humble in this 10-year journey, where he’s the voice for homeless kids and kids in need,” she said. “I just really thank God for the humility that he has. I don’t think he even realizes how many lives he’s touched.”