Maddy's Gala was created by heartbroken parents to honour the memory of a lovely little girl who was taken way much too soon.
Over the years, the benefit dinner has grown into something so much bigger as the grieving family, along with their friends and the broader community, have rallied together to raise significant funds for Roger Neilson House, a pediatric respite and palliative care home located in Ottawa.
This year's 13th annual gala filled the ballroom of the Brookstreet Hotel on Friday night with its largest crowd yet while raising the most amount, to date — roughly $148,000. The cumulative total is nearly at the $1-million mark, meaning that it won't be long now until that sixth zero appears on scene.
Many of the 460 guests dressed up for this year's Roaring 20s theme, which was a nice fit with the arrival of the new 2020 decade.
Attendees rose to their feet in admiring applause as Jeanine Otto and her husband Dean Otto, along with their 19-year-old daughter Hannah Otto, made their way to the stage to formally welcome everyone.
The Otto family lost Madison, affectionately known as Maddy, when she was five. The little girl passed away July 17, 2007, only 48 hours after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Her final hours were spent at Roger Neilson House, located on the grounds of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO).
The Ottos credit Roger Neilson House and its bereavement counselling services with helping them to cope with the tremendous grief they faced. “After you lose a child, you don’t know which way to go or which way to turn,” Dean told OBJ.social. “Lucky for us we live in Ottawa, where we have CHEO and Roger Neilson House.
"Tonight is obviously about Madison and keeping her spirit alive but, at the same time, it's about giving back to the community and helping other families that may go through a similar tragedy as us," added Dean, who works as a purchasing manager at the Shaw Centre.
Hannah told everyone about the enduring mark her younger sister left on those who knew her. “Everyone was drawn to her. She lit up the room. She could put a smile on your face, no matter what time of day, no matter what you were doing. She was, she was … awesome.”
The young woman also reminisced about the days when she shared a bedroom with her young sister, and how they'd keep each other up at night in their bunk bed, with their laughter and shenanigans. Guests also learned about the special quilt made in memory of Maddy by a family friend, using bits of clothing and costumes that the little girl used to wear. “I slept with it, probably for five years,” said the second-year criminology student at Carleton University, speaking via pre-recorded video.
Hannah touched on the success of the fundraiser. It's grown from very humble beginnings to a major event organized by a volunteer gala committee, which this year included Danielle Ryan, wife of Ottawa Senators player Bobby Ryan.
Maddy's Gala is such an inspiring evening that it's likely to stick with you long after you've exited the hotel and headed home.
“We made something so negative into something as positive as it could be,” said Hannah.
You won't find an emcee more loyal to Maddy’s Gala than media personality Lianne Laing, host of the Living Your Life With Lianne Laing podcast. She reminded parents in the room to later hug their kids a little tighter after the hushed crowd watched a video slideshow tribute to Maddy, set to music (Kenny Chesney’s Who You'd Be Today followed by Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me). The tribute included images from the annual gatherings that involve releasing helium balloons into the sky to mark Maddy's birthdays.
On the subject of balloons, the room was full of them. They were part of the annual balloon pop fundraiser, which was won by Mustafa Nazir, general manager with Myers Barrhaven Hyundai. He and a guest will get to fly to any Air Canada destination in North America (including Hawaii!). Also donated were cruises from Expedia CruiseShipCenters in Ottawa and Crystal Cruises.
New attendees included Jeff Clarke, president and CEO of gold level sponsor Inflector Environmental Services, along with one of his business mentors, Paul McCarney, president and CEO of Clean Water Works and 2019 recipient of AFP Ottawa's award for Outstanding Volunteer Philanthropist. Small world alert: McCarney’s youngest son, Kyle McCarney, is dating the Ottos' daughter, Hannah.
There were many long-time business supporters there that night, including Brian Henry, president of Quality Entertainment, and Steve Hanniman, owner of Creative Edge Studio.
Roger Neilson House executive director Megan Wright was seen at the gala with her board chair, Mike Lupiano, a partner in executive search firm Morgan Leadership Search. As well, Danielle Robinson, president and CEO of the Ottawa Senators Foundation, which is a big supporter of the children's hospice, was there with the head of her board, Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada. Spotted from the CHEO Foundation was Jacqueline Belsito, vice-president of philanthropy and community engagement, while the Ottawa Senators' chief financial officer, Brian Crombie, was a returning attendee.
The evening always attracts teammates from the Ottawa Senators. Among this year's hockey players were Thomas Chabot, Bobby Ryan and Craig Anderson, who later took to the stage to assist auctioneer Stewart James as he sold a framed print of a portrait done of the goalie by well-known sport artist Tony Harris.
Harris, who happens to be married to Laing, was this year’s guest speaker. He was also good friends with the late Roger Neilson, a popular NHL coach and Ottawa Senators assistant coach, after whom the eight-bed pediatric facility is named. He passed away 2003 of cancer, at age 69.
Neilson was “the most decent, kindest, nicest human being you could ever meet,” said Harris, who worked for many summers when he was younger at Rogers’ summer hockey school in Port Hope.
Harris did the portrait of Neilson that hangs in the hospice. “When people ask me ‘What’s your favourite painting?’ I always come back to that one,” he told the room. “It was an honour to do it.”
Most people in the hockey world are connected, in some way, to Neilson, Harris said. “He’s like the Kevin Bacon of the NHL. He’s the six degrees of separation.”
The evening provided a well-deserved night out for many parents involved with Roger Neilson House. Last year, the crowd heard from one of the moms, Emma Gofton. She delivered a captivating speech about the excellent care that her two children were receiving at their "second home". Unfortunately, her 15-year-old son Tait passed away this past November. He went peacefully, with his parents and sister beside him.