By Sheila Phibbs
The Haldimand Press
CAYUGA—Soon after beloved Cayuga Secondary School (CSS) drama teacher Donna McEachern passed away on September 1, 2020, a trio of former students – Jeanette Hedley, Jeremy Lalonde, and Heather Turnbull – started the conversation of establishing an award in her memory.
They reached out to CSS teachers Jonathan Mann and Rebecca Hoecht, who were colleagues and close friends of McEachern, for assistance. The group chose June 15, 2021 – McEachern’s birthday – to celebrate her memory by announcing the Donna McEachern Memorial Award.
Intended to continue McEachern’s legacy of fostering a love of the performing arts and encouraging students to pursue post-secondary education, the $500 award will be given annually to a CSS graduate who has completed a high school drama credit; participated in extracurricular drama club productions; and intends to pursue a career in the arts through post-secondary education or intends to pursue a career in teaching. The award fund will be comprised of donations and maintained and administered by the Caledonia Community Foundation.
Described as exuberant and one of a kind, McEachern had a long-lasting, positive impact on her students during the 30 years that she taught drama. Jeremy Lalonde regards McEachern as being like a second mother, noting, “I wouldn’t be who I am without having her in my life.”
“She knew that everyone had something unique inside of them and her talent was making them believe in themselves so that they could go on to do great things,” says Lalonde on the encouragement McEachern provided her students.
Lalonde says she recognized his talent as a writer and inspired him “to do something with it” – leading him to enter and win Young Playwright contests and stage his own productions in high school.
Lalonde has worked in the Canadian film and television industry for the last two decades, earning four Canadian Screen Awards. He says, “To be successful in the arts you have to be fearless and believe in yourself. I will always remember Donna as someone who encouraged you to do something exciting and risk failing and not care what others think of you. She inspired confidence in people at an age when they need it the most…. She stays with me in everything I create, and her lessons are the bedrock of my career and style.”
Jeanette Hedley shares similar memories of McEachern. She says, “She had a big personality and kept everyone laughing. She passionately fought for and supported her students. She had a special ability to make every student feel seen – even those who she didn’t teach.”
Hedley credits McEachern with revitalizing the CSS drama program, letting everyone participate with some productions involving as many as 100 students in the cast and crew. Hedley also learned how to work with small budgets from McEachern. She explains, “Donna showed us how we could create magic with little funding (something that comes in handy in the arts in Canada!). She ran the drama program and club by having the students take the lead…. If we wanted to write, direct, produce, perform, do tech – she had us do it so we could have the experience.”
Hedley took that experience to the Theatre and Drama Studies Program at the University of Toronto and Sheridan College. She says, “It was working with Donna over the years that truly built the confidence and experience that allowed me to do so.” Today Hedley manages a dance studio in Toronto and teaches dance/theatre. McEachern is never far from her thoughts as she says, “When talking about influential teachers, she is always first in mind.”
McEachern’s influence was recognized by her colleagues as well, including Jonathan Mann, Department Head of English and Moderns at CSS. He appreciated McEachern’s commitment to ensuring all students were welcome in the drama program. He says, “She especially focused on students who needed love and support in their lives, and she shaped the drama program as a safe place for students to be themselves and grow without judgement.”
In the Donna McEachern Memorial Award announcement on Facebook, her own words are featured: “What these kids need most is someone to love them.” That is precisely what Donna McEachern did throughout her career and her dedication and commitment will be felt for years to come.
To contribute: canadahelps.org (select Donna McEachern Memorial Award Fund); or complete and mail a donor card with payment to Caledonia Community Foundation at caledoniafoundation.ca/wp-content/uploads/Donor-Card-2019.pdf; or etransfer to
Find more information on Facebook or Instagram under Donna McEachern Memorial, or visit caledoniafoundation.ca/donna- mceachern-memorial-award-fund.
As her students and friends pay tribute to her memory, Hedley says, “Donna is so loved and missed. Thanks in advance to the community for their support so we can continue to keep her legacy alive.”