CHEO Foundation reacts to COVID-19 by shifting toward online fundraising for region's only children's hospital

23rd annual CHEO For The Kids gala dinner among numerous springtime charity events and activities to be cancelled or postponed in Ottawa
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Every charity event organizer dreads dealing with bad weather or speaker cancellations but, believe you me, nothing to date compares to COVID-19 and the subsequent cancellation or postponement of fundraising events across the city.

The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Foundation is just one of the many Ottawa non-profit organizations that was – and still is – carefully watching the developments surrounding the novel coronavirus. Organizers knew it was only a matter of time until the highly contagious respiratory disease would show up, uninvited, to the nation’s capital and badly disrupt plans. The first case was announced almost two weeks ago but it’s believed the virus is now circulating, largely undetected, and infecting scores of people.

Last week, the charitable organization announced its plans to drop the dinner portion of its 23rd annual CHEO For The Kids Gala, scheduled to take place Wednesday, April 1 at the Infinity Convention Centre. Attendance was expected to hit 600 people, compared to last year's crowd of 350.

Instead, organizers will keep the gala’s online auction up and running, until the end of April.

It didn't take long for the gala organizers’ initial tone to switch from apologetic to no-brainer, given the ever-changing data on the global spread and deadliness of the disease. Business sponsors not only fully understood but they pledged their continued support of CHEO.  “It was heartbreaking, during the moment we had to make that decision, but the response has been so positive,” Lydia Blanchard, director of community engagement at the CHEO Foundation, said in a phone interview. “We’ve really seen the best part of humanity.”

Now, CHEO is banking on its For The Kids online auction to be a fundraising success. It has more than $70,000 worth of items available, including: an ultimate Canadian experience for two to Calgary and Banff, available until April 2021; a gallery-level box suite for 16 people for the Justin Bieber concert in Ottawa this September; and a Via Rail train trip to Toronto for an action-packed weekend getaway that's also good for an entire year.

This year’s presenting gala sponsor was law firm and long-time supporter Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG).

"Now more than ever, it is crucial that businesses continue to support our local community during this challenging time," BLG regional managing partner Katherine Cooligan, who's also on the board of the CHEO Foundation, told OBJ. "Although CHEO's For the Kids Gala has to be cancelled, we are thrilled that so many sponsors, like BLG, have agreed to continue their financial support.

"During these uncertain times, nothing is more important than ensuring the health and safety of our people, our clients and our community."

katelyn and mikayla
CHEO For the Kids champion Mikayla Howse, with her mother, Katelyn, will continue to tell their story to raise awareness and funds for the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

By all accounts, the gala was going to be a stellar night, capped off with a fashion show involving some of the children who are thriving, thanks to the support they’re getting at the CHEO development and rehabilitation site. Each kid previously got the chance to pick out a brand new outfit, courtesy of St. Laurent Shopping Centre, to wear on the runway-style stage. 

Gala organizers are planning ways to remotely share and promote visuals of its For The Kids models, ensuring that the young fashion plates still get their glorious moment in the spotlight. (Update: You can see the CHEO fashionistas in their at-home runways here.)

The CHEO Foundation has also decided to reschedule its 2020 CN Cycle for CHEO. The major fundraiser was supposed to roll through town Sunday, May 3rd. CN has said it's going to stick by the children's hospital, whether the event eventually goes ahead or not.

“We’re mindful that the situation in the community is really, really anxious right now and everybody is experiencing something that we’ve never experienced together before, but there’s no doubt that there will be a significant impact on the fundraising that’s at CHEO,” said CHEO Foundation president and chief executive officer Kevin Keohane.

At the same time, he stressed, public donations made in the past year mean the Foundation can continue supporting the hospital, in terms of programs, services and equipment, in 2020.

"The message we really want to get out right now is that we want to thank the community."

“The message we really want to get out right now is that we want to thank the community. It’s really, really important that this is not a time when we are asking the community; it is a time when we want to thank them.

“We do consider the community to be part of our team. That sounds hokey, but it’s absolutely true. The community, as a whole, is what makes CHEO such a special place. The community has a sense of ownership of CHEO, a sense of responsibility toward CHEO and, collectively, the community, through donations big and small, provides tremendous support for CHEO.

“As a result of that, we are in a position today where we are focused and ready to care of the kids who come through the doors.”

Keohane acknowledged that the loss of its upcoming springtime fundraising events and activities will affect the region’s only children’s hospital, come 2021. That’s why it will be looking at alternative fundraising methods, involving digital technology, to draw financial support. 

“Where we run into challenges is down the road,” said Keohane. “It’s about making sure the hospital is still able to fund those programs when we get into the following year.

“We know that we can do it but we need the community to perhaps shift with us as we move away from being so heavily event-based to supporting some of the online activities that we’re going to move toward, which will be safe and secure and will maintain the social distancing that’s becoming so important.”

CHEO will continue to promote its For the Kids champion, Mikayla Howse, who’s proven to be a medical miracle. She suffered a stroke while still in her mother’s womb and wasn’t expected to survive more than a couple of days after birth. She was initially admitted into palliative care. Her days on this earth turned into weeks, which turned into months, which have turned into years. “She decided she was going to prove everyone wrong,” Mikayla’s mother, Katelyn, says in a touching video prepared for the gala. “I went from planning a funeral to planning an eighth birthday party this March.”

Mikayla
CHEO For the Kids champion Mikayla Howse will continue to share her story to raise awareness and funds for the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

The mother credits CHEO and its programs for helping the little girl make giant strides in her development. The hospital runs an early-intervention school program led by educators and physical, occupational and speech therapists. 

“CHEO and the school have been my saving grace," states Katelyn in a prepared release.  "She wouldn’t be where she is without it."

The family lives east of Ottawa in Rockland, where such programs for children living with disabilities are not available. Mikayla is transitioning next year to a community school.

“It’s bittersweet, but she’s ready – and it is thanks to CHEO that she is,” Katelyn also states. “People need to keep supporting these programs because there are more kids like Mikayla, and they all deserve the same opportunities she’s had.”

A sampling of some other Ottawa events to be cancelled or postponed this spring include:

  • 2020 Proud To Be Bullyfree Gala (postponed)
  • Army Ball 2020 (cancelled)
  • Governor General's Performing Arts Awards Gala (postponed until spring of 2021)
  • Wonderland Tea Party for CHEO (shifting to a virtual fundraising event with online auction and online donations)
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ottawa's Big Shout Out 50th Anniversary Celebration Dinner & Awards Ceremony (postponed)
  • 2020 Library and Archives Canada Scholar Awards (cancelled)
  • Women's Business Network of Ottawa's BYAs Gala (postponed to Friday, Sept. 18th)
  • Gold Plate Diner (postponed until Thursday, Sept. 24th)