In Ottawa, the Grinch Dinner has become as much a beloved holiday classic as the fictional green grump that first inspired it so many years ago.
The fundraiser does an exceptional job of bringing people together for an intimate evening filled with the best food, drinks and conversation while also supporting Shepherds of Good Hope.
This year’s dinner netted $50,000. That’s money that will help to serve more than 18,000 hot meals to the men and women who will surely be relying on Shepherds’ downtown soup kitchen in the cold months ahead.
There are a few factors that help to make the dinner so successful, beginning with the participation of the Ottawa chefs who donate their food, time and expertise to create the multi-course meal that’s served with wine pairings.
This year’s 42-person Grinch Dinner was held Wednesday at Coconut Lagoon restaurant on St. Laurent Boulevard. Its owner and executive chef, Joe Thottungal, closed his business down for the night in order to hold the special event. “He’s the best; there’s no one like Joe,” said Deirdre Freiheit, president and CEO of Shepherds of Good Hope and of its foundation.
Then, there’s the volunteer leadership behind the Grinch Dinner. It’s co-hosted by lawyer John Peters, a partner in the Ottawa office of Gowling WLG, with long-time community builder Melissa Shabinsky.
“They do this every year out of the goodness of their hearts,” said Freiheit. “It’s amazing.”
Peters and Shabinsky cover any event expenses out of their own pocket. They also invite the philanthropic folks who pay the steep price of $1,500 per couple (with a substantial tax receipt).
And while it could be challenging to pull off elegance when the theme is based on an ultimately big-hearted hermit, the organizers created an atmosphere that was warm, inviting and gorgeous.
The annual gathering has come a long way since the days of Peters inviting a few pals over to his downtown apartment to hang out over beers, while the 1966 animated TV special, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, played in the background. That was in 1991, when he was an articling student.
Peters’ little get-togethers evolved into a larger Grinch party once the young lawyer bought his own home. It was his friend and former dinner co-host, Paul Turner, who suggested he turn the annual event into a fundraiser. “He said, ‘You should use your power for good instead of evil, and raise money’,” Peters recalled good-humouredly.
He and Turner started holding the event at downtown venues, raising a modest amount each time. About 14 years ago, they took the fundraiser up a few levels by making it a dinner “that charges an outrageous amount of money” but with all of it going to Shepherds. Peters’ leadership role with the non-profit organization stretches back decades. He’s now the board’s honorary officer emeritus and still sits on the foundation board.
To date, the Grinch Dinner has raised more than half a million dollars for Shepherds of Good Hope.
“I’m just very, very, very happy and pleased and thankful,” said Peters who believes the dinner is a reflection of how generous the Ottawa community is. “It blows me away every time.”
The attendees were a who’s who of Whoville, from developer John Bassi and his wife, Maria, to home builder Chris Taggart and his wife, magazine publisher Mary Taggart, to Paramount Properties principal Stuart Ages and his wife, Leila, as well as Shabinsky’s husband, Ian Shabinsky, principal at Glenview Management. Interestingly, Liza Mrak from Mark Motors Group and her husband, Gary Zed, became supporters of Shepherds after attending its last Grinch Dinner, in the pre-pandemic days of 2019. They went on to co-chair the organization’s signature Taste for Hope fundraiser last spring. Its raised a record-breaking $270,000.
Also in attendance were Shepherds of Good Hope (SGH) board chair Dave Donaldson, retired dean of the school of business at Algonquin College, and SGH Foundation board chair Mark Roundell, who’s retired as a senior portfolio manager with RBC Dominion Securities.
What a nice change for culinary leader Robert Bourassa to attend this year as a guest after helping out for many years behind the scenes. Robin Duetta, who’s so plugged into Ottawa’s culinary community, now does all the coordination of chefs. They included Thottungal, who also owns Thali restaurant on O’Connor Street, Yannick LaSalle, who’s now the executive chef for the Supreme Court of Canada, Ben Baird (Pelican Seafood Market & Grill in the Blue Heron Mall), Patrick Garland (Absinthe on Wellington Street West), David Godsoe (Restaurant e18hteen on York Street), and Justin Champagne-Lagarde (Perch on Preston Street).
Guests enjoyed a soup course followed by an appetizer, three-course dinner and dessert.
The Shepherds of Good Hope has been working hard to get the message out that it’s so much more than a soup kitchen and shelter. It’s continuing to make great strides toward creating additional supportive housing in Ottawa. It currently puts permanent roofs over the heads of 243 people who might otherwise be sleeping rough.
Shepherds will soon be opening two more supportive housing residences, bringing its total number of facilities up to seven. It’s on its way to having more men and women living in its housing programs than using its shelter services.
“That’s the first time in the history of our organization that we’ve been able to do that and, certainly, I think in the history of the city, where an organization that started out providing shelter has branched into housing to this extent,” Freiheit told OBJ.social.
The organization is slated to open a new 57-unit residence on Merivale Road by spring. It’s also working on another new development at 216 Murray St. in Lowertown, near the ByWard Market area.
The new Murray Street facility will provide another 48 units of housing. As well, the building will run a fully staffed and supervised day program for clients. Shepherds plans to relocate its soup kitchen there.
“We know that the way we can end chronic homelessness is to give people a home of their own with the supports that they need,” said Freiheit.