Normally when you walk through The Ottawa Mission's blue front doors, you enter an old downtown building that provides basic services, like food and shelter, to those in need.
On Thursday night, however, the blue doors were a portal into a wonderful world of business and community leaders joining forces to help the homeless and those at-risk of living on the streets.
The second annual Blue Door Gala, held at the Infinity Convention Centre, grossed $107,000 and attracted by far its biggest turnout, with 400 attendees.
Proudly championing the cause were criminal defence and civil litigation lawyer Lawrence Greenspon and Thyme & Again co-owners Sheila Whyte and chef Michael Moffatt. They willingly agreed to co-chair the gala, held at and sponsored by the Infinity Convention Centre.
The trio successfully recruited many of their fun-loving and like-minded friends to come out, resulting in an evening of happy vibes all around.
Dinner guests waved their arms in the air and sung along to Neil Diamond's classic hit Sweet Caroline during the auctioning of a framed and autographed version of the lyrics. Lawyer Derek Nicholson from Beament Hebert Nicholson bought it for $1,000 before donating the item back to be sold a second time.
Greenspon shined on stage as charity auctioneer, a role he's very familiar and comfortable with. He donned a chef's uniform to match the cooking school theme of the evening.
On a serious note, Lawrence gave everyone pause for thought at how we, as passersby often react, either with skepticism or ambivalence, toward street people begging for change.
“So you keep on walking, without giving. More often than not, we look away because we don’t want to see the need in their eyes; we don’t want to see the human being that is asking for our help. It’s easier to turn away.
“The Ottawa Mission doesn’t turn away. It sees the need in their eyes and opens their blue doors to that person," said Greenspon, who volunteers at The Mission with his colleagues at Greenspon Granger Hill.
The facility at 35 Waller St. provides more than 200 beds for homeless men, serves roughly 1,300 meals a day, and offers such services as medical and dental clinics and hospice for the homeless, and assistance with finding jobs and housing.
The convention centre and its director of food and beverage, Tim Wasylko, welcomed into its kitchen that night the students from The Mission’s Food Services Training Program. Some of its former graduates are employed there.
The students helped to prepare the four-course dinner as part of their final exam. The five-month program, led by Chef Ric Allen-Watson, better known as Chef Ric, provides people at-risk for homelessness, as well as new Canadians, with the education and skills necessary to work in a commercial kitchen. It has a 95-percent success rate.
Keynote speaker Chris Schneider got a standing ovation after sharing his story of being inspired by his son to turn his life around. He faced repeated job rejection before enrolling in and graduating from the training program at The Mission. He started at the bottom, washing dishes at age 57, but got his big break after Thyme & Again — which employs several graduates from the program — opened its second kitchen and food shop on Carling Avenue last spring. He’s now a production cook for its fresh food line.
On hand were The Mission’s executive director, Peter Tilley, as well as its foundation executive director, Sean Wong, and its events officer, Jennifer Graves, who pulled the event together.
OBJ.social got to talking with Brenda Rothwell, vice president of leadership giving at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute Foundation, only to learn she has a special connection to The Mission. It was often home to her late father, Austin Stanton, during the last 10 years of his life, when he was battling alcoholism and living on the streets. The WWII veteran and former master brick mason died in 1971, at age 50.
“My family, especially my mother, has always been grateful to The Mission. It was a household name: The Mission; you knew he was safe when he was at The Mission,” said Rothwell, who is a long-time donor and former board member.
It's The Mission's charitable work in the community that inspired Rothwell to pursue a career in professional fundraising.
More than 50 percent of The Mission’s funding comes from its supporters. Helping the charity out that night were Jonathan Wiseman from presenting sponsor Caivan Communities, Scrivens Insurance and Investment Solutions, and the Bell Let’s Talk initiative to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness and to improve access to care. It was represented by Sandy McDonald, regional director of community affairs at Bell. She was among the many who wore blue, which, fortuitously, was also in keeping with Bell's corporate colours.
Spotted in the crowd were Redblacks linebacker Kyries Hebert with his wife, Anneth, new Ottawa Deputy Police Chief Uday Jaswal, The Royal Ottawa’s chief psychiatrist, Dr. Raj Bhatla, as well a strong showing of Ontario Court of Justice judges, criminal defence lawyers and Crown prosecutors.
Also in the crowd was Brian Tardif, who just retired from Citizen Advocacy as its executive director of 33 years. He’ll be inducted into the Order of Ottawa, along with Greenspon and 14 others, at a ceremony at City Hall next Thursday.
Other items auctioned off that night were: a chef’s experience for two in the kitchen of the Infinity Convention Centre; a private dinner for eight at Algonquin College’s Restaurant International; a four-course meal for 10 hosted by Chef Michael Blackie, owner of Next restaurant, with Moffatt and Chef Ric and two students from the food services training program. It sold for $3,750.
The most unique item was an electric guitar signed by the band members of the Rolling Stones. It sold for $2,500 to Heather and Andrew Wilson, who attended as guests of Garth Steele, a partner at Welch LLP.
The gala also handed out gifts to door-prize winners who collected their winnings by coming on the stage and unlocking one of three blue doors. It felt like a game show, with emcee Annette Goerner from CTV Ottawa Morning Live as its charming host and Moffatt as her lovely assistant.