On the eve of her 29th birthday, Puja Sharma sits patiently in an Italian restaurant waiting for her advocate Nancy Mackay to arrive, craning her neck every time the door opens. She is surrounded by her friends and family to celebrate her special day, but it can't start until Nancy is there.
Puja Sharma, Shashi Sharma, and standing is advocate Nancy Mackay. (Photo: Courtesy)
Each time the waiter comes around to take orders Puja is quick to mention that all her guests have not yet arrived and could they have five more minutes. (She also asks if she's allowed to have a glass of wine, but her mother Shashi shakes her head no.)
When Nancy arrives toting a beautiful bouquet of roses for the occasion, Puja greets her with an enthusiastic hug and a smile that lights up the restaurant. "She's the greatest," says Nancy of Puja. "This is a friendship for life."
Puja and Nancy have been friends for five years but you'd think they'd known each other forever. However, it's not a friendship in the conventional sense. They didn't meet in high school or college. They didn't grow up in the same neighborhood. They didn't even meet on the job or at a playgroup.
Puja and Nancy found each other through West Island Citizen Advocacy, a community, non-profit organization which recruits, trains, matches and follows up volunteer advocates with people in the community needing help.
Nancy never reads the newspapers, but a tiny advertisement in the Gazette caught her eye one day in 2002. It described a young, intellectually challenged West Island woman who was looking for someone to accompany her to Fairview once a week. "I call it a miracle," she said. "It led me to meet Puja and everything that's so complicated in life just evaporates when I spend time with her. I could be having a down day but I just have to pick her up and my day improves. She makes me laugh and that's what life is about."
The friendship has expanded to include Puja's family, so much so that both families have even taken vacations together, such as Disney World. This particular birthday will include a weekend trip to the 1,000 Islands. "She's very busy, but she always has time for Puja," said Puja's mother Shashi.
Puja also leads an active life. In addition to her studies at Concordia in art therapy, drama and music from which she'll graduate in 2008, she is involved with Avatil through their Young Adults Outreach group in Lachine. Once a year they put on a show, where Puja has showcased her singing and dancing talents. She also goes to Beaconsfield United Church four times a week to make candles and soap which is sold to raise money for charity. "She loves to be active and is up for anything and everything," said Nancy.
Nancy, an integration aid at Riverside High School, has been involved in social activism for many years whether it's spending time with her intellectually and physically challenged students or billeting foreign students in her West Island home.
And her enthusiasm for helping others has since influenced her two daughters. Her eldest is in the process of becoming a teacher with plans to work for the United Nations. In fact, she spent her summer volunteering in an underprivileged area of Argentina. She hopes to work in impoverished countries for the UN when she completes her Masters. Nancy's younger daughter plans to become a nurse. "I think that caring for others is something you teach," said Nancy. "Everyone should expand their vision and get out and meet all kinds of other people. It's true that you get more than you receive."
Together we can make a difference, one person at a time. There is a miracle match waiting for you.