Leave it to Ottawa Riverkeeper to go with the flow during a global health crisis.
The environmental watchdog organization is all about keeping our treasured Ottawa River healthy and clean for the benefit of existing residents and future generations to come. But, in order to achieve its mission, the charity relies on grants and donations, as well as the proceeds that it generates each year from its large and wildly successful gala held along the banks of the river.
Its eighth annual gala was among the wave of fundraisers cancelled or postponed this spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the globe. Initially, organizers looked to delay their fundraiser until early autumn but, with the crisis creating so much uncertainty and social distancing, they came up with a viable and creative alternative — Riverkeeper Gala: Deconstructed, presented by the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
On Wednesday, organizers started handing out care packages to ticket holders and sponsors, while still respecting social distancing guidelines. This month's packages are "river pick-me-up" gifts while, in late August, there will be a larger second delivery of the "gala in a box" containing a three-course meal, beverages and party swag. Expect some musical entertainment, too.
“We don’t want it to feel like an Amazon package delivery,” explained Ottawa Riverkeeper Elizabeth Logue in an interview. “We want to offer something that’s different and more along the lines of what people would expect from our gala.”
Sheila Whyte and Michael Moffatt from Thyme & Again Creative Catering are behind the preparation and assembly of the "river pick-me-up" boxes, sponsored by CN. Each one includes a jar of fresh house-made salsa that is irresistibly delicious. It comes with pita chips, ready-to-serve margarita drinks and a lime. The items were carefully arranged inside a box that was then tied with ribbon and a sprig of thyme. They'll be preparing the meal for the August package, as well.
“I think this is so important, for a million reasons,” Whyte said in an interview at her store on Carling Avenue. “For one, the river is such an integral part of Ottawa and Quebec and we need to continue to celebrate it.”
Whyte, who lives near the Ottawa River, has noticed streams of people near the water during the pandemic, whether observing wildlife, getting exercise or clearing their heads. Thyme & Again is also selling cookies iced with the Ottawa Riverkeeper logo to help raise money for the organization.
"Nature is what’s getting us through this. There’s nothing more important than that river right now."
“Nature is what’s getting us through this. There’s nothing more important than that river right now."
All the money raised from Gala Deconstructed will help the organization sustain its operations and allow the nonprofit to continue monitoring and testing the water quality of the river. The public can still buy tickets, at $265 each.
Ottawa Riverkeeper executive director Patrick Nadeau, who's also one of this year's Forty Under 40 recipients, helped to deliver the packages on Wednesday. He and Logue were joined by committee volunteers Lara Van Loon and Wall Space Gallery + Framing’s Patricia Barr. Wallflowers they ain't; the women played musical instruments and kept the mood lively during the gift presentations. Meanwhile, Logue also juggled. She's a former member of the Shakespearean theatre troupe A Company of Fools.
Abacus Data CEO and founding partner David Coletto, ExecHealth president Sanjay Shah and his wife, Dr. Bella Mehta, wildlife and landscape photographer Michelle Valberg and French Ambassador Kareen Rispal were among those to receive their boxes that afternoon.
Back in February, Ottawa Business Journal covered Ottawa Riverkeeper’s launch party, held at the Westin Hotel’s rooftop event space TwentyTwo. Organizers had been eagerly gearing up for their gala, to be held May 27 at 50 Sussex, along the Ottawa River.
By mid March, however, the world was being pummelled by the pandemic. “We were watching all around us as these different events were being pushed forward or cancelled all together,” said Logue.
“We made our first shift by pushing our gala to the fall, hoping that by then it could happen and that we’d be able to satisfy our sponsors.”
At that point, 200 gala tickets had been sold, with only four ticket holders asking for a refund. Had the outdoor gala been able to proceed in May, attendees would have partied under clear skies and hot, summer-like temperatures that night.
Organizers say they had lingering concerns about going ahead this fall. For starters, they didn’t feel there was enough breathing room between a fall gala and next year’s spring gala. More importantly, they had to consider the potential public health risk of holding a large gathering.
“We didn’t want to be tone-deaf and accused of not keeping up with the times,” said Logue. “We were trying to find that middle ground.”
After racking their brains, they came up with Riverkeeper Gala: Deconstructed. The organization’s board of directors liked the idea. Next, they checked with their sponsors to see if they were still on board. Such support was necessary in order for the fundraiser to be financially feasible.
“Virtually all of them said ‘Yes’,” said Logue. “It was so heartwarming.
“I’m happy that it’s happening. It took brainstorming to get there but you just throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. Even with the crazy ideas, we had to throw them out there because from that comes something that is logistically doable.”
“Anyone who has worked with the Ottawa Riverkeepers knows that they are an innovative and enthusiastic bunch and we are not surprised they have adapted so readily,” replied Craig Stewart, vice president of federal affairs for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, in an email. “IBC is proud to continue our support for Elizabeth, Patrick and the team’s important work, which must continue irrespective of COVID-19.”
The fundraiser hopes to net a big haul through its auction, which will offer the convenience of mobile bidding. Featured items include a handmade wooden boat from Boatworks Ottawa, a well-crafted wooden paddle by Echo Paddles, an exclusive pottery retreat on Fogo Island, Nfld. and gorgeous original artwork by local artists.
Over the last two weeks of August, coinciding with the delivery or pick up of the second care package, supporters will also be able to watch a special video. It will feature guests and the newest honorary riverkeeper. They will join a distinguished list that consists of retired chief justice Beverley McLachlin, former Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris, Sen. Murray Sinclair, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, politician Kevin Vickers, and former Bank of Canada governors Stephen Poloz and Mark Carney — the latter of whom was made inaugural honorary riverkeeper back in 2013.