Hundreds of supporters of ONFE’s School Breakfast Program came together Saturday night at the Infinity Convention Centre with the common goal of making sure our city’s children and youth don’t have to tackle math equations, spelling bees and gym class with hunger pains in their bellies.
The evening, which featured dinner and dancing, raised more than $80,000.
The School Breakfast Program, created in 1990, runs in nearly 200 public schools in four Ottawa school boards. Each day, an average of 16,000 meals are served. Before the pandemic, the daily average was more like 13,500 meals.
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“The struggle is real,” ONFE (Ottawa Network for Education) president and CEO Heather Norris told OBJ.social at the 300-person gala, which hadn’t been held in person since 2019 because of the pandemic.
Food price inflation has made it challenging for Ottawa households when it comes to buying groceries, said Carolyn Hunter, director of the School Breakfast Program. She said programs like theirs can help families stretch their budget further by giving children and youth access to healthy and nutritious food they may not be getting at home.
“COVID was a real disruptor for the program,” she said. “The rising cost of living and food costs have been so hard on so many families in our community. We knew the program was important but it’s really become essential.”
She stressed how important it is that students have access to well-balanced meals that can give them the energy to learn and succeed at school “and to be on equal footing with their peers.”
The Spark Soirée was presented by professional services firm TAAG. Representing the company was TAAG Law managing director Andrej Litvinjenko, who also formally introduced Mayor Mark Sutcliffe that night.
You’d never guess Litvinjenko, who seems blessed in all ways possible, would have a personal connection to the cause. Yet, he does. He came to Canada with his family in 1985 from former Yugoslavia, after the country descended into crisis.
“When I came here, we were dirt poor,” said Litvinjenko. “We didn’t leave, we fled. When we arrived in Canada, we relied on the generosity of folks like those in this room.”
It wasn’t lost on him how far he’s come. “I went from that, to introducing the mayor tonight,” said Litvinjenko, who, along with earning a law degree, has graduate degrees in political science and economic policy.
York Street Public School principal Jonathan Coupland told the room about a recent phone conversation he had with a mother who was struggling to feed her family. During their talk, he happened to mention her daughter’s absences from school, and wanted to know if there was anything the school could do to help. The mother confessed that, because she didn’t have enough food to make snacks or lunches, she was too embarrassed to send her daughter to school hungry. “I could hear her voice cracking,” Coupland recalled of her emotional distress.
Because York Street Public School offers the School Breakfast Program, the principal was able to make arrangements for the daughter to get fed daily. “Did you know that since our conversation the student has been to school every day?”
The evening’s big prize, a pair of WestJet plane tickets to any place it flies, was won by Laura Layachi, director of accounting for CI Property Management.
Growing up, Layachi relied on a similar breakfast program. She never told her mom, who didn’t want others knowing they were poor. “I used it in secret because I was hungry,” Layachi told OBJ.social. She also recalled going to soup kitchens with her mom, who tried convincing her they were restaurants. Her late mom, who passed away a few years ago from ovarian cancer, at age 56, had been only 14 years old when she gave birth to Layachi.
“The most important thing for me is, if kids want to learn, they need to learn with full bellies,” Layachi told OBJ.social. “They can’t learn when, in the background, they have hunger pains and they’re worried about when they’re going to get their next meal.”
Out that night was Stuart Ages with a table full of Paramount Properties employees and their spouses. Supporters also included Kettleman’s Bagel CEO Craig Buckley (the Ottawa success story is expected to bring its total number of locations in Ontario and Quebec to 10 and its number of employees to 1,000 by the end of the year). Paterson & Company partner Sarwar Qureshi, who’s on the board of ONFE, attended. So did the board’s chair, HR leader Margo Crawford, founder and chair of Business Sherpa Group.
ONFE board co-chair Julie Beauchamp, dean of the School of Business and of Hospitality at Algonquin College, was joined by several of her colleagues, including college president Claude Brulé. Also spotted in the crowd were well-known criminal defence and civil litigation lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, TCC Canada president Sean Cochrane, and Greg Richards, vice-dean of graduate programs at University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.
Among those seated at the Ottawa Senators Hockey Club table were its charitable foundation president, Jacqueline Belsito, and senior director of ticket sales and service, Brendan Du Vall. He’s one of the rising young Ottawa business leaders and professionals who will be fêted at next month’s Forty Under 40 awards gala.