Last night’s Blue Door Gala for The Ottawa Mission was like stepping through a portal of compassion: one that leads to a brighter future for those who need it most.
Some 720 guests of the sold-out fundraising dinner held at the Infinity Convention Centre heard about the laudable efforts of the non-profit organization to train individuals from all walks of life to work in commercial kitchens.
“The Food Services Training Program is much more than teaching someone how to cook,” Chef Ric Watson, director of food services at The Ottawa Mission, told his audience after receiving a standing ovation for his leadership. “The program gives people the skills and confidence to be able to change their lives for the better. We don’t care about their past; we care about their future.
PPRC is launching their own career mentorship ship program “PPRC Connect” in the new year for people with disabilities, and more.
“I have seen over the years so many people who have come with nothing, who come from nowhere, and just ask for a chance. We’ve given them that chance.”
The Aggarwal family, which has a history of helping out The Ottawa Mission, are co-owners of the Infinity Convention Centre. They typically host annual galas each fall in support of different local charities. This year, they did things a little differently by aligning themselves with the Blue Door Gala to become its “junior partner”, said business leader Lalit Aggarwal, president of Manor Park Group of Companies, founded by his father, Anand Aggarwal.
The evening, presented by Caivan, was the biggest and most successful Blue Door Gala yet, raising $350,000. Among the business leaders from the Indo-Canadian Ottawa community were Bill Malhotra, founder of Claridge Homes, and Kris Singhal, founder of sponsor Richcraft Homes. Attendees also included local MP Jenna Sudds and deputy mayor Theresa Kavanagh.
Twenty-six-year-old Jean Chirac shared with his audience how the FSTP was there for him when he first came to Canada almost a year ago. He arrived here from the East African country of Burundi, where he grew up in an environment filled with violence, misery and hunger, he said.
The newcomer learned about The Ottawa Mission’s FSTP through a community agency. The program appealed to his love of food and of preparing delicious meals that make people happy. He had no trouble getting quickly accepted into the program. “I felt very fortunate to have found an opportunity like this,” said Chirac of a program he described as being “like a mother to me” in the way it provided him with all the tools he needs to succeed in life.
The FSTP graduate is now working in a local restaurant. “I am excited for my future in Canada,” he told the room as Marjolaine Hudon, regional president of RBC, stood supportively at his side.
A highlight of the night was the celebration of the latest cohort of graduates of the FSTP. The students were tasked as part of their final exam with preparing that evening’s well-received dinner. They worked under the guidance of five guest chefs.
Later in the evening, 23 men and women took to the stage to proudly receive their diploma from Watson, who’s widely known in Ottawa as Chef Ric. There to help congratulate the students were The Ottawa Mission’s past board chair, Matt Triemstra, associate principal at Navigator, and Anand Aggarwal.
The Ottawa Mission’s Food Services Training Program was started by Watson some 19 years ago to help people turn their lives around. Virtually all of its graduates land jobs.
It was heartwarming to hear The Mission’s CEO, Peter Tilley, and others speak of Watson’s dedication and hard-work. “I work with this gentleman every day and it’s no exaggeration when I tell you this is a community hero,” Tilley said at the podium.
Watson knows what it’s like to be homeless. As a teenager, he lived on the streets in Kingston for a couple of years, with nowhere else to go, until a chef at Queen’s University took him under his wing and offered him a job as a dishwasher. It was the start of his journey back to a better life, said Tilley of Watson’s ascent up the kitchen ranks, all the way to certified Red Seal chef.
The room heard how The Ottawa Mission, which is commonly known for feeding and sheltering the homeless, plans to copy its FSTP model to launch a new apprenticeship training program, with the goal of alleviating current labour shortages in the trades.
It was Lalit’s idea. He was a key figure in helping The Ottawa Mission expand its FSTP to its current storefront space, Chef Ric’s, located at 384 Rideau St. The location offers enough room to train students, sell prepared foods and run a catering social enterprise. It was Lalit who donated the vacant space, formerly the Rideau Bakery, at no cost to the organization. Commercial real estate broker Michael Church and the late Marc Jolicoeur helped out behind the scenes, Tilley added.
The Ottawa Mission plans to launch its new Trades Helper Training Program in the spring. It will start small, said Tilley, and hopefully graduate more students as the program grows. The goal is to “turn lives around for those people who go through the blue doors of The Ottawa Mission,” said Tilley, referring to the main entrance in their building on Waller Street and the inspiration behind the gala’s name.
The evening featured a live auction, led by Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, who formerly co-chaired the gala with popular Ottawa caterer Sheila Whyte.
There was a Let’s Make a Deal-style game that pulled three names out of a raffle drum. The contestants, Bruce Raganold, Matthew Capello and Alan McCafferty, had to choose one of three blue doors, each which opened to reveal a prize package. There were no booby prizes, much to Raganold’s relief. He scored a catered barbeque for 10. Coincidentally, his wife won a trip to The Bahamas at an Ottawa charity gala last weekend in support of Bruyère.