Why McMaster donors give: Gail Phillips

Gail Phillips working with Angelica McQuarrie, a kinesiologist at McMaster's Physical Activity Centre of Excellence (PACE).

It took a while for Gail Phillips and McMaster to find each other. Phillips didn’t study here, or work here, or have much involvement with the university — until she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, on her 60th birthday.

During treatment, she went to a conference organized by her oncologist and happened to visit a booth hosted by PACE, the university’s Physical Activity Centre of Excellence. There she met Angelica McQuarrie, a PACE kinesiologist, who explained the centre’s programs and has continued to work closely with her. At the time, the conventional wisdom held that cancer patients should focus on rest and recovery, rather than pushing their bodies to their physical limits. But Phillips – a self-described “gym nerd” – bucked that thinking and eagerly signed up. What she found wasn’t only a place to help her recover, but a true community.

PACE offers personalized exercise programs for people dealing with a variety of illnesses. There’s MacWarriors, for cancer patients like Phillips, as well as programs for seniors and people with heart disease, multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries. This means that in addition to receiving excellent care, PACE clients are surrounded by people who know what they’ve been through.

“When someone gets a new diagnosis, there’s always somebody who’s had that same treatment – someone who really understands what this or that drug feels like and can tell you what it did to them, whether it did anything,” Phillips says. “I can’t tell you what it means to spend time with someone who’s had the same experience.”

Then, after a year of visiting PACE, Phillips thought, “I have to give back to these people who have given me so much.” She turned to a tried-and-true fundraising tactic, used by hockey teams and parent-teacher associations across the country: bottle drives.

The “Running on Empties” drive started small – a bottle here or there, a few stray empties left on a table at the PACE gym. However, it soon took on a life of its own. The table couldn’t hold all the donations, so they had to upgrade to big Rubbermaid totes. Even those were sometimes insufficient, Phillips says: “There were days when my car wouldn’t hold a second person. The trunk, the back seat, the front seat, the floor, everything was covered in empties.” Then someone in her neighbourhood Facebook group asked if anyone was collecting empties, and the donations came in larger and larger numbers.

Before long , Phillips had raised more than $4,000, which PACE spent on a Hoyer lift, which transfers wheelchair users out of their chair. More than just being a mobility device, the Hoyer lift makes it easier and safer for clients to transfer, rather than requiring total assistance from students or staff.

The gift made a tremendous difference to PACE’s staff, students, researchers and clients, but Phillips was nowhere near done. Fellow PACE participants told her, “If you never do anything else, this is great … but if you want to do more, we need a Thera-trainer.” So PACE clients and Phillips’ neighbours raised enough for a Thera-trainer—a sort of hybrid arm-and-leg bike that allows wheelchair users to build strength and flexibility in their limbs.

Six years on, the support hasn’t stopped. After the Thera-trainer, the next donation was to purchase a belt for the zero-gravity treadmill; after that, Running on Empties raised enough to replace batteries that had died in several machines from a lack of use during the pandemic.

In recognition of her contributions, Phillips was honoured with the PACE Ambassador Award in 2019. PACE director and kinesiology professor Stuart Phillips (no relation) says, “Who would have thought the powerful things that come from a few empties? Gail’s generosity, unending support and perseverance are lessons for us all; she is a champion among many, but she is truly unique and we’re thrilled that she gives back to PACE as only she can!”

Gail adds, “It feels great to give back, because PACE has given so much to me. I would be nowhere near where I am now without them.”

Why McMaster Donors Give: At McMaster University, every single donation, no matter the size, has the potential to make a difference in the lives of our students, the quality of our research and our ability to give back to our community and influence the future. We asked some of our donors and their families what motivates them to give. These are their stories.

Related Stories