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Dr. Sylvia Sham

14 Dec 2016 - 13:16 by Mike Wild

Manchester Evening News: Tributes paid to community campaigner Dr Sylvia Sham

I can’t help thinking that writing this is the last thing Dr. Sylvia Sham would want me to be doing. I’m sure she’d be saying that I should be getting on with more important stuff. But I need to take time to adjust my brain a bit because I’ve got to get used to asking myself “What would Sylvia have said?”. Past tense. And it’s just guesswork because I can’t ask her any more.

There will be lots of other tributes to Sylvia which will hopefully add up to something which tells the story of what she achieved. I don’t know all of it by any means. She herself used to tell the tale of how she arrived in this country unable to speak any English other than “where’s the toilet?”. If you were a good writer creating a character in a story, that would be the key note which would tell your audience everything you needed to know about the person: practical, unashamed, courageous, self-deprecating, funny, relentlessly positive. In a movie, when the hero is just deciding to get into action, the music swells and the determined look is a grim face, head-bowed and serious. In Sylvia, the head stayed up and the smile got bigger. And she probably spoke a bit louder too.

That’s the bit I need to write about because that’s the Sylvia that wrote herself into my brain and, although we’ve lost her, that is what will remain for me. From my earliest days in the voluntary sector in Manchester Sylvia was there. I can’t remember the first time I met her but it was probably at something which was organised by Macc in the days before I worked here. It almost sounds too trite to say it but I realised what I could see was a woman who embodied almost everything I was starting to believe in about the work this sector does: it’s always about the people and that’s all that matters. Sylvia was never embarrassed about trying to get more money or resources for Wai Yin to do more. At the same time she would sometimes agree to take on extra work simply because it was the right thing to do. She worked unbelievably hard and expected everyone around her to do the same simply because it was a wonderful opportunity. What I saw wasn’t about pity or “charity” in the old sense, it was about having the chance to do some good and grabbing it. Find a way to make it work. She could probably have pulled lightning from the sky if she’d decided it needed doing.

So as the years have gone by, even when weeks and months went past when I didn’t see her, Sylvia has been there at the back of my head as someone I’d mentally run things past. Whether it was deciding what to say or to write or so many other situations, I’d have her in mind somewhere. I know I’m not alone in that. In the last couple of days, as the news has spread, there has been a constant stream of messages among many colleagues in local voluntary and community groups and beyond. There was a mixture of shock and sadness but always a theme of the pleasure of having known her, wanting to be part of celebrating her life and achievement and being grateful for what she has done whether that’s for the Chinese communities, the wider BME community, the city of Manchester or the friends and colleagues she inspired along the way. Here is just a selection of the ones I’ve seen:

Working in the voluntary sector I get to meet amazing people. Sylvia was one of the most inspiring among them & leaves a wonderful legacy.
Beth Sharratt - GMCVO (via Twitter)

Please convey The Pankhurst Trust and Manchester Women’s Aid heartfelt condolences to Sylvia’s family and friends. One always looks for something profound to say at times like this, but I am sure Sylvia herself would prefer it simply put… She will be much missed and her legacy will live on in the people and communities she inspired on her journey.
Gail Heath - CEO, The Pankhurst Trust / Manchester Women’s Aid

On behalf of all of us at EMERGE and FareShare Greater Manchester, we send our heartfelt sympathy to Sylvia’s family, friends and colleagues. Sylvia was an inspiration to us all, a down-to-earth activist who was able to motivate the masses and inspire hope and positivity. On a personal note, I was privileged to spend a bit of reflective time with Sylvia as a participant in a leadership programme some years ago - just wish I’d been able to enjoy a bit more of her precious time but am very grateful that our paths crossed.
Lucy Danger - Director, EMERGE 3Rs

Sylvia was a very bright light of energy and positivity and will be really sadly missed by so many. Her legacy will live on.
Simone Spray - CEO, 42nd Street

What a power force, full of passion and drive and an energy for life. Her legacy will live on across the city and through Wai Yin. I met her many years ago when I worked at the Zion Centre in Hulme and I never forgot the contribution she made to radical change for BME service users in the city. I used to think “when I grow up and want to be like that” as she spoke with courage and conviction in the face of many a challenge. What an inspiration she was!
Ruth Welford - Assistant Director Children’s Services, Barnardo’s

Sylvia was a lovely woman who cared so much for her community.
Duncan Craig - CEO, Survivors Manchester

Sylvia contributed so much for the VCSE sector and was one of the first people I met when I arrived in Manchester.
Lynne Stafford - CEO, Gaddum Centre

She was a stalwart for the aims of the voluntary sector here in Greater Manchester and she will be very sadly missed. However, her legacy will be much remembered and valued by all those who had the pleasure of working alongside her for many years.
Diane Curry OBE - CEO, POPS

Such sad news. Sylvia's energy and enthusiasm was inspiring. She will be missed by many in the sector.
Rosi Hunter – CCG Project Lead, Citizens Advice Manchester (via Twitter)

So sorry to hear this. I thought Sylvia was awesome!
Debra Allcock Tyler - CEO, Directory of Social Change (via Twitter)

She had the biggest smile, huge passion and was as sharp as a tack, a very sad loss.
Paul Pandolfo - Inspiring Change Manchester, Shelter (via Twitter)

She was so lovely and nice to me when I first worked in Manchester and looked out for me all the time. A lovely woman. Rest in Peace.
Darren Knight - CEO, Bolton CVS (via Twitter)

Such sad news. Sylvia was such a wonderful woman and passionate advocate.
Councillor Bev Craig, Manchester City Council (via Twitter)

Dr Sylvia Sham was a lovely person and Manchester has lost a great asset.I will miss her. RIP.
Councillor John Hacking, Manchester City Council (via Twitter)

Really sad news to lose a friend and a great advocate for our sector.
Andy Brown - CEO, Citizens Advice Manchester

So sad to hear the sad news of Sylvia’s passing. She will be greatly missed by our sector. Trustees staff and carers from Manchester Carers Forum send our condolences to Sylvia’s family and those with whom she worked and shared her life.
Dave Williams - CEO, Manchester Carers Forum

And there's a lovely tribute from my neighbour across the Irwell, Alison Page at Salford CVS: https://www.salfordcvs.co.uk/passing-dr-sylvia-sham-ceo-wai-yin-society

What would Sylvia have said? Try watching the film below. I had the joy of introducing Sylvia as the winner of our Outstanding Contribution to the Sector Award at the 2015 Spirit of Manchester event. In the last couple of days, a consolation has been that I had that moment where I got to tell her how wonderful I thought she was – in front of loads of other people who also thought so. I treasure the photo of us together as they played the film we made about her, a reminder that the Sylvia in my head was once a vibrant smiling firework of a person who we were so lucky to have with us.    


The thoughts of everyone at Macc are with the family and friends of Sylvia and our colleagues at Wai YIn.

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