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'Perseverance and courage': 2021 Portraits of Giving Awards honour pandemic's frontline workers

Paramedics, police, caregivers for seniors, grocery store workers, volunteers — including NewmarketToday editor Debora Kelly — are just some of the 21 honourees who will be recognized in the travelling photography exhibit, which kicks off on May 27
2021-05-16 Mul Raj Sethi
Richmond Hill's Mul Raj Sethi will receive a personalized photograph as Portraits of Giving's lifetime achievement honouree for 2021.

York Region’s frontline workers are being honoured after a year of hard work and sacrifice.

The 12th annual Portraits of Giving will be celebrating 21 individuals across nine municipalities — Newmarket, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, Markham, King, Stouffville, Aurora, East Gwillimbury, and Georgina — who exemplified the courage and perseverance of frontline work in 2021.

From mid-June to December, the Portraits of Giving exhibit will cycle through the nominees’ municipalities, displaying a personalized photograph of each honouree and a story of their giving.

To adhere to COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings, the tour will be largely virtual again this year, available physically to a small number of guests and broadcast online to a wider audience. Those who wish to attend Portraits of Giving’s opening presentation May 27 from 7:30 to 8 p.m. can register online by May 24.

“This year’s honourees are contributing to their community in a different way, by persevering and the courage they’ve shown in the pandemic,” said Karen Merk, founder of the awards and owner of Merk Photography. “We’re celebrating everyone from caregivers for seniors to grocery store clerks.”

Merk founded Portraits of Giving in 2009, inspired by the good deeds and charitable people she had encountered over the course of her photography career. By sharing stories of people going above and beyond in their community, she hoped to inspire positive action in others.

Though the inaugural event focused on Newmarket, Richmond Hill, and Aurora, positive feedback soon expanded the initiative across York Region. Honouree categories today include young adult, sports, lifetime achievement, police, and fire/paramedic services, in addition to nine municipal selections.

Portraits of Giving has raised more than $60,000 for local charities through its exhibit-opening receptions, and has recognized over 100 honourees to date.  

“Year after year, I am inspired by the amazing people we celebrate in the Portraits of Giving initiative, and I want to keep everyone else inspired as well,” said Merk.

Debora Kelly, NewmarketToday’s community editor, is 2021’s Newmarket honouree. Merk reports Kelly’s longtime support of the community as a volunteer and local journalist, as well as her participation in charitable events, was the deciding factor of her selection.

“Debora is representing other journalists across York Region, as well, who have worked hard throughout the relentless pace of the pandemic news cycle,” added Merk. “Local journalists not only kept us aware of what was happening in our communities, but helped keep spirits high by sharing inspiring stories about our residents and businesses. It took a lot of perseverance to find and keep sharing critical information, and compassion to tell the stories about how we have been impacted.”

Richmond Hill’s Mul Raj Sethi is this year’s lifetime giver. A social worker by occupation, 88-year-old Sethi has spent much of his later years working with the local seniors community. He founded the York Region Indian Seniors Club in 2006, and was vice-chairperson or chairperson of the Arya Samaj Seniors Club from 1993-2010. Today, Sethi remains president of the YRISC, which has grown from 22 to 144 members under his guidance.

Just some of Sethi's numerous awards through the years include the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration’s 2007 Senior Achievement Award.

“When my seniors enjoy what we’re doing, I enjoy it as well,” said Sethi. “If you do not enjoy it, you will not like to do it. But everything I do is for the benefit and pleasure and good health of my seniors.”

Other Portraits of Giving honourees this year include Aurora’s Jennifer Milford, East Gwillimbury’s Michael Lavee, King’s Dr. Barb Winslow, and Stouffville’s Angel Freedman.

Like Sethi, who now hosts virtual YRISC meetings to support and engage seniors, the honourees have continued to provide selfless frontline work throughout the pandemic.

“This will be another feather in my cap, having something which signifies the work I’ve been doing with the seniors for a very long time” said Sethi. “I am looking forward to it.”