Spending a week away at camp is the type of experience that leaves lasting memories. For kids, it’s a genuine adventure and an experiment in independence. (Imagine swinging through treetops in a faraway forest with mom and dad nowhere in sight.) For parents, it’s a break from the daily demands of family life and a lesson in letting children grow up. Camp getaways are an annual treat for many folks, but, for families with children who face physical disabilities, a week-long journey into the woods without the usual support system is complicated and expensive summer fun. While coordinating and funding extraordinary activities such as wheelchair rock wall climbing might seem daunting, the foodservice and hospitality community has been working together for three decades to make summer camp dreams a reality for kids who otherwise might not have the chance.
“The key thing with getting away to camp is that it helps kids develop their life skills,” says Kevin Collins, executive director and secretary for Friends of We Care (FOWC), a network of 85 sponsor organizations from the foodservice and hospitality industry that raises money to fund Easter Seals’ camps for children with physical disabilities. “Kids have an adventure away and gain some independence, while their parents can have some respite.”
Collins understands the importance of the camp experience. He was born with cerebral palsy and uses a walker for mobility. As a child, he was an Easter Seal ambassador, and he attended the Blue Mountain Easter Seals camp in Collingwood, Ont., for eight summers. “I feel extremely lucky to have been able to attend camp when I was a kid,” says the executive director. “Every time we give a child the opportunity that I was given, we are fulfilling our goal. These camps create environments with no barriers where kids can participate in wall-climbing, swimming, arts and crafts and other activities. It’s a chance to let these kids be kids.”
This year, FOWC, which supports 14 Easter Seals camps across Canada, is celebrating its 30th anniversary. It’s been a long journey that began in 1983 when Associated Food Distributors (AFD) partnered with Gary Wright, who was working with AFD at the time. Wright, who had a child with a disability, saw an opportunity for the industry to unite in support of something meaningful. Wright passed away in 1984, but, thanks to the commitment he fostered in the AFD team, “Project We Care” continued and morphed into 30 years of fundraising for Easter Seals, a Toronto-based charity that supports children with disabilities, through financial assistance, summer camp programs and more. Today, FOWC’s member sponsors include restaurants, hotels, catering companies, brokers, suppliers, distributors and industry media who collaborate on events to raise the money needed to send kids to camp. “Our member sponsors are the backbone of our success and the heart and soul of our organization,” Collins says. “Friends of We Care brings together manufacturers, distributors and operators to work as one.”
Since 1983, the organization has donated approximately $16.5 million to Easter Seals, which translates to more than 82,500 days of exploration and learning shared amongst 35,000 kids chosen by Easter Seals. Collectively, the FOWC annual membership fee of $5,250 is what allows the organization to donate 100 per cent of the money raised at its events, such as golf tournaments and barbecues, directly to sending kids to camp. Members become part of an industry network focused on making a difference in the lives of others and have the opportunity to build a strong community-minded atmosphere within their own organizations by including employees, suppliers and other business partners in FOWC endeavours. Membership provides exposure, too, with member sponsors listed on the organization’s website as well as event brochures and other communications. The fee also includes a table at the Annual Gala Dinner — 10 tickets, valued at $3,000 — but membership isn’t the only way to contribute to FOWC. Companies and individuals can support the charity by attending events, volunteering, sponsoring or donating prizes, food or services.
This month’s Annual Gala Dinner is celebrating “30 years of caring” by honouring those who have supported the organization, while looking forward to a successful future. The evening, held at the International Centre in Mississauga, Ont., includes a silent auction plus chef stations dishing up camp-inspired nibbles created by top culinary professionals. After mingling, gala guests experience a gourmet meal prepared by Tawfik Shehata, executive chef of the International Centre, before hitting the dance floor. “The food is my favourite part of the night,” says 13-year-old Jacob Calvert, one of FOWC’s ambassadors. When Calvert was just five, he had his left leg amputated due to complications from medical conditions he was born with. Despite multiple surgeries, he has a positive outlook on life and doesn’t let his physical challenges stop him from doing the things he loves, such as playing sledge hockey with the Halton-Peel Cruisers in Mississauga. (Sledge hockey players sit on lightweight sleds with two skate blades attached to the undersides.)
“I went to Camp Woodeden for 10 days, and it was really fun,” Calvert says of his 2011 experience. “I got to meet new friends and try new things like archery and wheelchair basketball. My job as an ambassador is to create awareness and raise money to help give other kids the same opportunity.” Calvert is co-hosting the gala this year along with local Citytv television personality Kevin Frankish. With all of the food and entertainment, it’s a night people get excited about. “It’s a beautiful event,” says Brent Cator, president of Cardinal Meat Specialists, a company that has been supporting FOWC for more than 15 years. “I like to bring a diverse group of suppliers, customers and our own staff to the gala. It’s a great opportunity to recognize people internally who have been big contributors. We’re very proud to be associated with this organization.”
Cardinal originally got involved with FOWC to connect with its customers and business partners through fun, industry-relevant events. “Sponsors feel good about bringing their customers to events. It’s a great way to raise money without directly asking for dollars. Instead, you get to participate in something really special,” Cator says. Today, the organization is an integral part of Cardinal culture, with employees from all levels helping to coordinate car washes, golf tournaments and barbecues. “[FOWC] focuses on being relevant to its sponsors. They make sure the recognition is right and that your suppliers are there, but they also tie everything back to the kids, and that’s what it’s really about.” Cator and his employees often sponsor camp barbecues where they catch the kids in action. “When you see a kid on a rope course 40 feet up in the air, they are lit up and thrilled by the independence. These kids have such a high reliance on care that it’s often the first time in their lives they are doing something on their own. The parents are getting a break knowing their kids are with people who understand their needs. You can’t help but be touched.”
FOWC raises more than $1 million annually and hopes to double that to give more children a summer camp experience. Over the next five years, the organization aims to grow membership from 85 to 150. “We’ll challenge any big companies with 150 or more employees to come to the table and try to keep up with what Cardinal contributes,” Cator says. It’s a bold invitation. Are you up to the test?