Two individuals at Hart House have been recognized by U of T’s prestigious honour, the Arbor Award, for their outstanding personal service to the University. They speak about their passion for building community, paying it forward and inspiring others to give back.

The Arbor Awards are the University of Toronto’s highest honour for volunteer service. Sponsored by the Division of University Advancement, this award was created in 1989 to recognize volunteers for outstanding personal service. Through these accolades, the University annually acknowledges the alumni and friends whose loyalty, dedication and generosity have added substantially to the quality of the U of T experience for students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Since 1989, more than 2,300 alumni and friends have received Arbor Awards for their tremendous generosity and contribution.

“Our success is due in no small measure to the excellence of our alumni and friends, whose dedication is exemplified by our Arbor Award winners, past and present,” said University of Toronto President Meric Gertler at the ceremony honouring this year’s award recipients, held on January 16, 2024.

This year, two Hart House volunteers were bestowed this honour: Ely Lyonblum and Kevin Johnston.

“On behalf of the Hart House community, I am deeply grateful for our two Arbor Award winners this year. Ely and Kevin have demonstrated selfless leadership and, through their excellent volunteer work, have become an example for their peers, future students and alumni,” says Peter Wambera, associate director of Advancement. “Hart House was delighted to nominate Ely and Kevin for this award. We are proud to honour and celebrate these exceptional volunteers.”

Meet the Two Exceptional Volunteers

Ely Lyonblum

Ely, a strategic research development officer in the Faculty of Music, provides invaluable support to the Hart House Student Music Committee, offering his deep knowledge and connections within Toronto's music community to bolster the committee’s efforts. He is also a dedicated mentor to many students, leveraging his personal connections in the music industry to help open doors to learning and career opportunities.



Kevin Johnson

Kevin is a dedicated volunteer who has played a vital role in organizing, operating and championing the Hart House Bridge Club, which was created in 1949 and became a formal Hart House club in 1954. Building on the work and contributions of generations of volunteers before him, Kevin organizes and supervises the weekly play, keeps up the club’s international connections and teaches introductory classes.



Arbor Award has Special Meaning

To Ely, being acknowledged in this way was special for two reasons. “First, it feels like a celebration of all the people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know, especially the students and staff members at Hart House who have been so supportive of initiatives around music. And this speaks to the power of music, how it galvanizes community. It is incredibly impactful.

“Secondly, the Arbor Award is a celebration of the alumni. At the event, I got to hear about all the incredible things going on across the University. Just sitting next to fellow awardees and seeing how they came to the work that they’ve done in volunteering with the University is rewarding. Also, I think there’s a special resonance with the way that our student body wants to make community. So, the opportunity to participate in that is a real pleasure.”

Being acknowledged in this way was very meaningful for Kevin as well. “I enjoy helping out with the bridge club to help build a great game at a club with a long history,” he says. “Many others in the past and others at present also volunteer to help keep the club healthy, and I think we are all appreciated by the club.”

Volunteerism Tied to Community Building and Belonging

Volunteerism was instilled in Ely from a very young age as a way of giving back to the community. “It can manifest in different ways. For me, working with the students at Hart House was an opportunity to pass on the generosity that I have long been a beneficiary of as a student.”

He notes the full-circle aspect: “As someone now working in the culture industry as a musician, producer, filmmaker and a creative, I get to take all of those experiences of mentors who I really admired, and channel that into working with Hart House students,” he says, adding, “Volunteerism feels like a necessity because it’s that extra something that takes someone’s education, or any experience as a young adult, and makes them feel like they belong.”

The Arbor Award celebration serves as a powerful annual reminder of the importance of volunteerism.

“Pass it on” – Inspiring Others

Building on this sense of community, Kevin emphasizes the team effort, adding, “David Harrison and Emma Knight also do volunteer work to make the club a success.”

Ely’s advice to anyone seeking to volunteer is simple: “Pass it on! If you’ve had a positive experience, it's to everyone’s benefit that you would share that. U of T is a large institution - one of the biggest universities in the world – and it can feel intimidating. So, helping to guide individuals through mentorship or small group experiences can help people to affirm for themselves what they love. That’s what guides people to different career paths, different ways of volunteering and giving back to their community.”

Learn more about the Arbor Awards.