Alumni Update – John O’Donnell 1982 TFHA Scholar
Lieutenant-Colonel John O’Donnell
1982 TFHA Scholar
Interim Director of Chaplaincy Operations, Canadian Armed Forces
L’Arche, an international organization dedicated to the creation and growth of homes, programs, and support networks with people who have intellectual disabilities.
We have Terry Fox Scholars working in a wide range of fields, including medicine, activism, and tech. Do you have an area of humanitarian work you are passionate about? Tell us about it.
I have spent most of my adult life working and/or volunteering both in the not-for-profit sector as an administrator, and with various church and government organizations as a chaplain. In the not-for-profit sector, I have worked primarily with and for organizations serving people with intellectual disabilities; as a chaplain, I have worked primarily as an educator while providing pastoral, grief, and other support to those in need and in times of crisis. In my current full-time role with the Canadian Armed Forces, I oversee a diverse mix of over 200 Regular and Reserve Force chaplains serving military personnel and their families within Army units across the country and around the world. These chaplains, representing a wide spectrum of faith traditions, also provide support, from time to time, to civilians who have been caught up in domestic or international humanitarian crises.
Since Terry ran his Marathon of Hope we have seen many new life-saving advances in cancer treatment. How has the humanitarian area you have worked/volunteered in changed over the years?
In the 40+ years that I have spent working and/or volunteering in the not-for-profit sector and in various church and government organizations, I have witnessed a considerable and largely positive movement toward a greater degree of professionalism, as well as a recognition of the importance of striving for common higher ethical standards at every level. I have also seen significant positive growth in attitudes toward the importance of diversity, inclusion, and the need for cultural change. More recently, I have also witnessed trends toward polarization in the areas of economic, environmental, social, and political development—a fact that has only strengthened my resolve to be vigilant and resolute in efforts to bring about the changes in our world that I desire for my children and grandchildren.
You are the first year’s recipient of the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award in 1982. How has humanitarian work impacted your life?
Looking back on the work I’ve done over the last 40 years, I can honestly say that I’ve received far more than I’ve given. In spite of the challenges, failures, and disappointments along the way, I still believe that people are basically good at heart, and that at the end of the day, the journey is almost always more important than the destination. As someone who was privileged to have had the opportunity to cheer on Terry as he ran by my first workplace (at L’Arche in Toronto) back in 1980 during his Marathon of Hope, I think he’d agree with me on that.