This year's CHEO For the Kids Gala was filled with heartwarming moments that easily could have stuck with you long after the final curtain had fallen for the fundraiser, whether it was watching a boy rise from his wheelchair to proudly demonstrate how he can walk, with the aid of his two pediatric canes, or a mother becoming overwhelmed with emotion as she realizes her hearing-impaired son can finally hear her voice.
The evening showcased the talents of children and youth who, despite living with physical and developmental disabilities, are learning new skills and reaching new milestones with the help of the development and rehabilitation program at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
The community response to the gala exceeded organizers’ expectations, with some 450 people buying tickets and dozens of local businesses providing sponsorship.
“We were blown away,” Lydia Blanchard, the CHEO Foundation's director of community engagement, said of the support. Thursday night's fundraiser was held virtually for its second year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The sold-out gala raised $185,000 to help children and youth supported by the Development and Rehabilitation program at CHEO. The total is $21,000 more than was raised at the 2020 event.
"I think people understand that the pandemic has been hard on these families, specifically," said Blanchard.
This year’s presenting sponsor was residential real estate brokerage Feely Group, owned by Kevin Feely. He’d been able to tour CHEO's Development and Rehabilitation site a couple of years ago and watched first-hand how it was helping children.
“I was really touched by what I saw and wanted to play a bigger part,” he told OBJ.social.
Organizers, through the help of Mastermind Event Rentals, delivered hundreds of gala-in-a-box packages to participants' home several days before the gala. The boxes, sponsored by Binary Fortress Software, were filled with local snacks, drinks and other goodies.
Qlik, a data analytics and data integration solutions company, signed on as a major sponsor this year. Its chief technology officer, Mike Potter, told OBJ.social how CHEO has played a big role in his family's life. His daughter started her nursing career there while his son underwent multiple surgeries at CHEO during the first few years of his life.
Also supporting the cause was Inflector Environmental Services. It normally sponsors CHEO's annual ski fundraiser, which was put on hold this winter due to the pandemic. Its CEO, Jeff Clarke, is a recent Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 honouree.
The evening kicked off with a half-hour VIP social, sponsored by Soloway Wright LLP. It allowed guests to connect through breakout rooms as Greg O’Brien, co-owner of Bar From Afar, did a cocktail demonstration using ingredients that everyone would have also received in their gift boxes. He mixed, shook and poured up a delicious drink. He named it Talented Teddy and garnished it with gummy bears in honour of CHEO's cuddly mascot.
The roughly hour-long show featured a musical talent theme, as well as a unique interpretation of what talent means to the kids at CHEO. It was hosted with warmth and enthusiasm by Leanne Cusack from CTV News Ottawa. There were also prizes to be won.
CHEO Foundation president and CEO Kevin Keohane expressed his gratitude to supporters for helping to “fuel the life-changing work” happening at the development and rehabilitation site. He touched on different examples, such as kids needing rehab to recover from accidents, or hearing-impaired children working with audiologists and speech pathologists to get the tools they need for clearer communication.
“Or, a family may be supporting a child with a complex condition that will be with them for life and require help in a number of areas, everything from feeding to dressing to being understood,” said Keohane.
The gala is meant to showcase, he said, the “amazing progress” that children can make when they have the chance to bring their spirit and resilience together with a team of dedicated professionals.
“The limits fall away and so many beautiful achievements are made possible,” said Keohane. “That’s the magic that you’re helping to make happen, and that’s what CHEO is all about.”
The event featured an online auction of more than 300 donated items. Included were two lovely watercolour paintings donated by 2021 For the Kids Gala champion Jordyn Deveau Yurich, 18. The young artist has also written a book that carries a message of self-acceptance.
“I think it’s important for everyone to just love yourself the way you are,” said Yurich, who hopes to become a social worker and work at CHEO.
Viewers took in some gorgeous singing performances from Liorah Madina, 13, and Sophia Pierce, the latter of whom performed the last two years at the Trees of Hope fundraiser for CHEO at the Fairmont Château Laurier.
Isabella MacKay, 18, who grew up visiting CHEO for physio related to her cerebral palsy, credited the hospital for “supporting the person I have become.” Since the age of four, she’s been playing the violin. She originally learned the instrument because the repetitive movement helped with her muscle training.
“I realize that, even though I’m never going to be the best violinist in the world – you won’t see me (playing) at the NAC – I still have a great passion for music," said the University of Ottawa biomedical sciences student. "It's wonderful to have been given the opportunities from CHEO, also from my family, to realize my passion for music wouldn’t be hindered by my disability.”
She performed Romance from the Gadfly Suite by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Sue Mendelsohn, director of development and rehabilitation, said the ultimate goal of their department is to make a difference for the children and their families.
“It’s always about helping that person achieve their potential, helping them be as functional as they can be in daily life so that they can participate at home, at school and in their community,” said Mendelsohn, who’s been working at CHEO for more than 30 years, beginning as a speech language pathologist. “It’s about helping them do what they can, to be part of every day life.”