The Helen Carswell Leadership Award

York Region

Purpose and process for the Helen Carswell Leadership Award

Helen Carswell Leadership Award

Helen Carswell Leadership Award 2023 Recipients

The Helen Carswell Leadership Award

At a time when most woman were trying to break into the world of business, Helen Carswell was at the centre of it.

Helen and her husband, Dr. Allan Carswell, helped found Optech, a laser technology company that provided the first Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to operate on Mars during NASA’s 2007 PHOENIX mission.

The couple, in both life and business, started the company at their kitchen table in 1974: Dr. Carswell looked after all things technical, while Helen did the rest.

As the company got bigger and moved out of their Thornhill home, Helen continued to be an important part of growth of the business with the pair making all decisions together.

That continued until one day Helen and Dr. Carswell were touring what was then called the Toronto East General Hospital, where Helen trained as a nurse. 

“When we toured that hospital, she was so taken with it, she decided to award them $1 million to set up a special program there and that was quite a start for me,” Dr. Carswell said in an Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) video where he was awarded the AFP’s 2022 Outstanding Philanthropist. “I had no idea that (the $1 million donation) was going to happen, but that is how the philanthropy started.”

Since that time, Helen and Dr. Carswell have given money in two categories: education and healthcare.

“Give money for healthcare, education for kids, you have changed the whole future,” Dr. Carswell said in the video.

Helen and Dr. Carswell are supporters of York University, where Dr. Carswell was a professor of physics, donating money for scholarships, research, community outreach and technology. They have also donated to the Regent Park School of Music, Toronto East General Hospital and more.

“One of the by-products from that is it made both Helen and myself feel so good to give away money, especially when you saw the results in terms of people,” Dr. Carswell said in the video. Helen “started all this philanthropy just because of her good nature. She saw the value…”

Life continued for the pair. Helen and Dr. Carswell raised their three children and welcomed grandchildren, entertained friends, traveled and worked and played hard: Helen played the piano and violin and sang with the Sweet Adelines.

In 2009, Helen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Early in her disease, Helen and Dr. Carswell sat down and developed plans for the future based on several guiding principals, Dr. Carswell wrote in his book Our Lingering Farewell:

  • There is no shame or stigma in having Alzheimer’s disease;
  • We must maintain a positive outlook; enjoy life, family, friends, travel, and the people around us;
  • We must never dread or worry about the future;
  • When we encounter difficulties, we must just plan our next move;
  • We must always keep our glass half full;
  • We have today, but possibility not tomorrow, so it’s always best to do things today rather than wait for tomorrow;
  • We should “pay it forward” by repaying to others the good deeds we receive from our many Alzheimer supporters and benefactors.

Helen and Dr. Carswell continued to live and work under those principles, with Dr. Carswell turning his generosity and support to the Alzheimer Society of York Region (AS York), donating funds to increase programs and services to fellow York Region residents impacted by dementia. Dr. Carswell continued to attend the support group he found so valuable in caring for Helen, offering his insights, advice and listening ear to his fellow caregivers.

Helen lived for more than 20 years with dementia, with the last dozen or so years she was unaware of her surroundings. Helen passed away on July 8, 2022, at the age of 89.

Helen leaves behind an amazing legacy: nurse, mother, small business owner, entrepreneur, friend, partner and philanthropist.

To honour Helen Carswell, AS York created the Helen Carswell Leadership Award.

Nomination criteria

  • Nominees may be an individual, a family, a business or an organization
  • Nominees must demonstrate a commitment to improving the lives of others and their community through philanthropic acts (through financial support or volunteering their time)
  • There must be a demonstrated, measurable impact of their efforts
  • Nominees must reflect Helen Carswell’s values: generosity, gratitude, determination and kindness.
  • Nominees must not be self-nominated

Submission information

  • All nominations are confidential and must be submitted using the nomination form.
  • The deadline for submissions is September 20, 2024.
  • The award will be presented at the annual Alzheimer Society of York Region, Donor Appreciation Event.

Please download the nomination form here and email the completed form to [email protected]

Selection process

The AS York Board of Directors will review the nomination forms and select a recipient that meets the established criteria.


Through the Helen Carswell Leadership Award, it the intention of AS York to allow the memory of Helen Carswell to live on, and for her legacy to be one that inspires others to live a life of generosity, gratitude, determination and kindness.