An Ottawa family who lost their five-year-old daughter quickly and unexpectedly to an inoperable and terminal brain tumour continues to be a shining example in our community of what philanthropy can achieve.
Parents Dean Otto and Jeanine Otto, and daughter Hannah, 17 – with the continued support of their friends, family, the Ottawa Senators hockey club and its charitable foundation – have been tireless supporters of Roger Neilson House.
On Saturday, the 11th annual Maddy’s Gala held at Brookstreet Hotel beat its $100,000-target and raised $125,000 for the pediatric palliative care home located on the grounds of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
Just to give you an idea of how far the charity event has come, it raised $10,000 in its inaugural year.
Maddy Otto, a friendly and outgoing child who opted for Superhero garb over girly dresses, died at Roger Neilson House in July 2007, only two days after she first showed signs of a seizure.
“Happy one day, in a coma the next, and you know the rest,” Jeanine Otto said as she and her family took to the stage to thank the 440 attendees and gala sponsors for their love and support.
Jeanine Otto reminded listeners of what everyone needs to hear now and then: not to take loved ones for granted.
“You just never know,” she added. “Always give one more kiss, always say ‘I love you’ one more time.”
As well, the room heard about the services offered at Roger Neilson House, including its bereavement counselling for family members coping with the loss of a child.
"We know the fog that they go through, not knowing if you'll smile, laugh or have a good day again," said Dean Otto, whose family benefited from the compassion and comfort that Roger Neilson House provided to them.
The evening drew a tremendous turnout of players from the Ottawa Senators, fresh off their afternoon win against the New York Rangers. Many arrived with their wives or girlfriends.
Britt Smith, who’s married to Sens player Zack Smith, was on the volunteer organizing committee while retired Sens player Chris Neil and his wife, Caitlin, attended as long-time honorary co-chairs of Roger Neilson House.
Ottawa personality Lianne Laing was back to emcee, having only ever missed one gala. She advised first-time attendees to keep their Kleenex close. Causes don't get much sadder than children needing end-of-life care.
Everyone watched quietly as photographic images from Maddy's short but contented life played on the giant screens, to country music singer Kenny Chesney’s heartbreaking tune Who you’d be today.
We know this much: Maddy would have turned Sweet 16 just last month.
The room also heard about the legacy of Roger Neilson, a popular NHL coach and assistant coach for the Ottawa Senators. He passed away in 2003 of cancer, at age 69.
“I can absolutely assure you that Roger would be so proud and humbled to have a facility named in his honour that is helping so many children and families,” said Chad Schella, one of the individuals involved with establishing the pediatric palliative care home in 2006 through his former role with the Ottawa Senators Foundation.
“The world needs more people like Roger Neilson,” said Schella, who described him as the kind of guy who “made everyone feel like they were his best friend.”
Neilson took Schella under his wing and treated him like a son while Schella was growing up in Peterborough. Neilson ran a small summer hockey camp there, after getting his start coaching the OHL’s Peterborough Petes. He had no kids of his own.
Neilson, who was a man of religious faith, led by example in teaching him and other young men the importance of honesty and integrity. “He wasn’t the kind of person who told you how to live your life; he showed you," said Schella.
For those who love surprises, Jeanine Otto was left wiping away tears of joy after two of her best friends showed up to present her with a ceremonial cheque from money they had collected from the Class of 1988 at Dalhousie Regional High School in Dalhousie, N.B. They were among the 112 students who graduated that year.
The pals wanted to raise the symbolic amount of $1,988, to mark the class's 30-year anniversary, but did even better with $2,500.
“We’re honoured, proud and excited to support the most loyal, caring and genuine friend we know,” Ryan said on stage during the emotional presentation.
The gala featured a cocktail reception, with freshly shucked oysters from The Whalesbone, followed by a roast sirloin dinner in the hotel's brand new ballroom.
There were numerous raffle prizes to be won and rare auction items made available to highest bidders, including a five-course dinner for eight to be catered by Dean Otto, who’s a professional chef, and Zack Smith. It sold for $14,000 to one of the Senators players.
Also up for grabs were Ottawa Senators tickets and Blue Jays tickets; a Bon Jovi concert in Bobby Ryan’s suite; a skating party for 100 (with Sparty and pizza!) at the Canadian Tire Centre; and a day of racing in a Mustang GT at the Calabogie Motorsport Park with Craig Anderson.