This year’s Community Living gala made up for the three years of COVID-cancellations, setting a new record for fundraising at the bi-annual event. On Saturday, April 29th, following several years of postponement, the gala fundraiser attracted 255 guests to Marcel Noël Hall in Sturgeon Falls. They were eager to spend their money for a night of food, music, games and auctions, all in support of a good cause. “This is our most successful one. […] In terms of funds raised, it was a record year,” beams Sylvie Bélanger, Executive Director of Community Living in West Nipissing. The event raised $52,818, which helps the organization provide activities and special supports to their clients.
“Our last gala was in 2018, and we cancelled in 2020 a month before the gala was supposed to happen,” explains Bélanger, adding that they remained ever at the ready to get it going again. “We’ve used the same caterers, the same decorators, and because we’ve just been postponing, we’ve actually picked a date every year, so they knew to save that date every year. When it didn’t happen, we would postpone with a new date, so we’ve had them reserved from back in 2020. They knew the date so that wasn’t an issue, and we would communicate with them and let them know. So, when it was a go, everybody was on board already. We’d already reserved the band, the decorators, the caterers, everything was already reserved. That was the easy part,” she describes.
Even the sponsors from 2020 were still on board. Bélanger explains that when they had to postpone the gala in 2020, corporate sponsors told them to keep the cheques for their corporate tables until it was back on. “During the gala, there are 10 corporate tables, and those corporate tables we call our VIP tables for the night. So, they pay a bit more to get their table, but they also get a lot of VIP treatment throughout the evening,” says Bélanger, adding that there’s now a waiting list to get one of these tables. Some of the gala’s corporate sponsors have been there since the first gala, and Bélanger says that she’s even gotten new ones this year, which makes for quite the waiting list.
Despite the planning and most of the sponsors being ready, Bélanger was still not sure how things were going to go after so long. The decision was made in January to finally go ahead with the gala this year. Ultimately, her concerns were unfounded. “We didn’t know if it was going to be successful because some people are still worried about COVID, but we were very pleasantly surprised, very happy about the results. People were looking forward to getting out again, and having a party and celebrating, and getting back to normal,” she says.
Before this year, highest amount they had raised was approximately $42,000. The other measure of success, Bélanger says, was “after all the auctions were done, and people would come up to us and just congratulate us on the success and how much fun it was, and how well-organized. There’s so much work that goes into it, until you get that feedback from people, that they had fun, that they had a great time, that they loved it. That’s when you start to relax.”
Despite raising a record amount, Bélanger explains that the goal isn’t to keep raising more money every year, but rather just to keep up with their clients’ needs. “It’s a lofty goal to make more every year. As long as we make some money, that’s our goal, it’s not to make more and more, we just want to raise funds to be able to help the people we support,” she says. Bélanger explains that the Gala Committee Fund is managed by a group of community members, Community Living staff, self-advocates, and board members. “There’s an application process to apply for that funding, and it’s to cover anything that isn’t covered by their ODSP or their pension.”
When asked to provide examples, the list goes on and on, and it exposes a very large gap in the basic support for people with developmental disabilities and what is actually needed to enhance their quality of life. Bélanger says that a large part of the funding that goes out is simply for additional healthcare-related expenses or in-home medical equipment that are not covered by ODSP. She specifies things like dentures, special therapies, counselling, hospital beds, scooters, orthotics and so on. Another big part of the fund goes towards accessibility and mobility tools to allow people with disabilities to do things many people take for granted. “A stroller that goes on the beach with those big wheels, that’s not going to be covered. Those are things that are extras that families can’t afford to buy on their own. They get the minimum, and they get their wheelchair covered, but you can’t bring your child to the beach with a normal wheelchair,” she gives as an example.
In many cases, the cost of such equipment is also quite prohibitive. Bélanger provides another example that for a child to have a specialized bicycle it could cost roughly $3,000. “It’s improving their quality of life. They just can’t afford to have the normal things that we have every day or would buy. It’s not a luxury,” she decries.
The Gala Fund has also helped with other more specific requests. “We paid a trip to an individual who reconnected with their family, and their parent was on their deathbed. So, we paid the trip to go with their support to go see them. They wouldn’t have been able to afford that otherwise,” recalls Bélanger. Some of the funding also goes towards helping clients pursue hobbies.
When asked if it sometimes gets frustrating to see how much support their organization has to provide because of the lack of government funding and support their clients receive, Bélanger says that she is part of provincial groups looking to change that by advocating for higher ODSP rates and other supports from the government. She also puts things into perspective: “If you live in a group home, or even if you live in the community, you get a $149 spending allowance. Everything else goes towards your rent, and [other living expenses]. You and I couldn’t live on $149 after all expenses are paid. […] It doesn’t even catch up to the cost-of-living increases. Our people use food banks all the time! We budget because if God-forbid they have hobbies, they wouldn’t be able to afford anything.”