'See the ability' is a familiar Canadian Down Syndrome Week slogan. It was repeated last Thursday night at the Tillsonburg District Chamber of Commerce's 2017 Citizen of the Year presentation to Matthew MacNeil.
"See the ability," said George Van Damme, a family friend who nominated MacNeil for the prestigious award. "I've seen that from you from the very beginning. And tonight everybody sees the ability. I believe Matt is 27 years old and he's made quite a few accomplishments already. I think we'll probably see some more."
"Thank you George for thinking about me and submitting my name," said MacNeil. "That was really special George, thank you so much.
"I'd like to say how honoured I am to receive this award. There are so many wonderful people in Tillsonburg who do so many kind things, that I feel really honoured to receive this award.
"My family have always taught me that there is nothing that I cannot do if I put hard work into it, and try my best, and never give up. I am humbled to receive this award when I know that so many other people are deserving of this award. I will try my best to be worthy of this award.
"Tillsonburg is a wonderful town to live in. We have so many great programs to be involved in. I strongly urge you to get involved and try to make a difference in other people's lives. I love being an advocate and I will continue to do this. Town of Tillsonburg, family, friends, thank you for seeing the ability. We all know that the Town of Tillsonburg can make all of the difference."
Stephanie Nevins, president of the Tillsonburg District Chamber of Commerce, who officially presented MacNeil with the Citizen of the Year award, said the award is presented annually to an individual who makes an outstanding contribution to the community with no expectation of personal gain, volunteering of their personal time and talent towards the betterment of the community. Nominees can be recommended based on contributions of the past year or over a period of many years.
Mayor Stephen Molnar presented MacNeil with a plaque on behalf of the Town of Tillsonburg, and a certificate on behalf of Oxford MP Dave MacKenzie.
"It's an extremely special evening in recognition of someone so young who has already given so much," said Molnar.
"The impact Matthew has had on our community is extremely significant. In general he, like previous honorees, has been more than a community leader. You have been a community builder. While focusing significantly on accessible transportation, advocacy for Down's Syndrome, and youth programs in general, and recreational inclusiveness, Matthew's contributions have extended throughout many areas of our community and region.
"It is his sense of community, and at such a young age, that echoes loud as the multiple presenters will attest to this evening. This evening Matthew is being recognized for his multiple contributions, a brief yet passionate lifetime of selfless contribution to make Tillsonburg a special place to live."
Oxford MPP Ernie Hardeman, who presented a certificate of recognition on behalf of the provincial government, said he was quite familiar with MacNeil and his efforts in the community.
"Every place I go, I see Matthew," said Hardeman. "If it's anywhere near Tillsonburg, Matthew will be there helping out and making things happen.
"The award is not only for volunteering... it's for volunteering all the time for everyone. So I think there is no greater honour in volunteering than to have your community, Matthew, say that you are the Citizen of the Year. On behalf of all the citizens of Oxford who can't be here this evening, I want to say congratulations to you Matthew and thank you very much, because you with all your efforts, and your travels to places like New York, have made not only Tillsonburg notable, but Tillsonburg a much better place to live in. Thank you very much for what you have done."
"Matthew has never been one to set limits on what he can or cannot do," said Jessica MacNeil, Matthew's older sister who spoke on behalf of the family. "He has never felt that anything is impossible or unachievable. Matthew sets ambitious goals for himself and he surpasses them."
Noting some of Matthew's volunteerism, including time as a summer camp counselor in Avon helping youth with various special needs, Jessica said her brother "brings smiles and fun to camp year in and year out."
"Matthew never hesitates to sing to his own tune. He is always coming up with new ideas. Matthew finds ways to live life to its fullest every day. Matthew rarely gets discouraged. When something does not go as planned, he picks up and starts to go again. This is demonstrated in his many public appearances and speeches.
"Above all of his accomplishments and hard work," she summed up, "Matthew has a heart that is kind and gentle, a spirit that is tremendously contagious, and Matthew exemplifies what it is to be a great citizen."