Celebrating Life: Margaret Cunningham

Contribution from Alma Reynolds and Brian Negus

Margaret CunninghamMargaret, was one of life’s givers, spending a life and a career with a focus on helping others; a true Rotary person in attitude and deeds. Margaret had a vision of how things should be and worked tirelessly to achieve her vision with enormous amounts of enthusiasm, passion and motivation to succeed.

James was President of our club on two occasions and Margaret was exceptional support to James during these busy periods. Margaret took on the challenge of establishing “Days for Girls” in Melbourne, in 2014, having heard about the program, and the plight of girls in Tanzania and Uganda, on a visit when she and James went on a safari holiday, and Margaret stayed on for several weeks teaching sewing at schools.  Margaret was shocked at the thought of young girls having to leave school for no other reason than that they had reached puberty and the waste of all that amazing human potential, Margaret decided there was a need for action.

Margaret was also a keen supporter of our Manningham Family Festival at Finns, running partners stalls to raise funds for Rotary. In 2017 Margaret was honoured with a Menzies Award for Community Service recognising her strong contributions through Days for Girls and more generally to our community through Rotary. Our club has also recognised Margaret on two occasions with the distinguished Paul Harris Fellowship for her long-running support of our club, Days for Girls, and the Rotary movement.

Margaret had an extremely diverse career following the acquisition of a range of qualifications, with high school in Brisbane, followed by a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Queensland, and a Master of Education in Perth, after which she commenced her career there teaching sports and physical education to secondary school students.

In the early 1980s, she moved to Melbourne to further her education and increase her repertoire and attained a Graduate Diploma of Movement and Dance. A change of scene to New York followed, moving in theatrical circles teaching dance and movement to acting students. Then a move to Melbourne to establish her own business – the Chamford Academy of Dance and Gymnastics. Hundreds of students trained at the Academy, including three Olympic gymnasts, and importantly for Margaret, she also ran classes for special needs children.  This was the area that gave her the most satisfaction – helping the children to find new skills and confidence and the families to see that their offspring could achieve far more than was previously thought to be the case.

Margaret moved on after the Academy, starting a sewing school called Sew & Save capitalising on her teaching skills and her amazing sewing skills in a single enterprise. This skill and her experience in Tanzania and Uganda led to Margaret’s initiative to establish Days for Girls in Melbourne. This was an amazing but somehow not surprising demonstration of Margaret’s enthusiasm for life and her determination to help others.  Only 5 months before, in January 2014, Margaret and James received the devastating news that she had cancer and that her prognosis was not good.

Margaret also made history by enlisting the Whitefriars Catholic College for Boys, in constructing and delivering kits – the first all-boys school in the world to be so deeply engaged in the Days for Girls project.

Margaret’s impact through Days for Girls has almost been immeasurable by providing an opportunity for local people to help others, providing a source of pride and achievement to offenders nearing the end of their sentences, providing eye-opening education to school boys, providing an opportunity for school girls to understand the disadvantage of girls their own age growing up in less fortunate circumstances and, finally, providing more than 5,000 girls and young women the opportunity to continue their education.  Her legacy will be in the on-going work of the project and the Days for Girls chapter she founded.

While Margaret’s legacy will live on, we will miss her dearly. Our continued support to James through the fellowship and friendship in our Club will also endure.