The original Women & Wellness event began in Moncton, New Brunswick in 2oo4 when Helen MacDonnell hosted a “kitchen party with a purpose” in order to raise awareness and decrease the stigma associated with mental illness after the death of her brother by suicide. She invited 54 friends and family to her home and raised $1,200 for the Moncton branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Since that time, W & W has raised over $500,000 in donations for CMHAs from events across Canada. I have been privileged to be involved with the Women & Wellness Niagara organizing committee since its inception in 2011. At that time, I was one of 7 volunteers, inspired by our fearless and dynamic leader, Elaine Edmiston. That year, we invited 3 local speakers from the CMHA Speakers’ Bureau to share their stories and welcomed just over 100 guest who enjoyed a glass of wine, some appetizers and the companionship of like-minded, caring women.
Each year we learned a little more, and grew accordingly. We welcomed other amazing keynote and wellness speakers who presented their own stories and challenges – Karen Liberman, Jan Wong, Rona Maynard, Alicia Raimundo. We expanded our committee members and increased sponsorships. We added a raffle and door prizes into the mix, migrated registration to Eventbrite. And every event attracted more women than the year before; by our 5th year we had more than 500 women attending.
This year, Women and Wellness morphed again. We changed our venue to Club Roma in St. Catharines in order to accommodate more than 650 women. We selected Valerie Pringle as our keynote speaker. In addition to the raffle, we put together a silent auction and penny sale for the night of the event. Most exciting for me, we commissioned a performance from a local theatre group, Something Something Productions, which they wrote especially for us.
After months of planning, the day of the event was upon us. Thanks to our Chairperson, Karla Gilmore, all the details were covered. The penny sale and silent auction items were set up in the foyer, and more than 50 volunteers assumed their roles as ushers, ticket sellers, guides, greeters, and counters. If you build it, they do come, beginning with a trickle of early birds at 5:45 and rising to a tsunami just after 6:00. The buzz in the lobby foretold the success of the evening. When doors to the main room opened, the women (and a few brave men) were escorted to their seats. Each table was decorated with green napkins representing mental health and a beautiful flower arrangement from Vermeers. In addition to wine available at the bar, cider, hot appetisers, and an assortment of desserts were set out on the tables.
Our speaker, Valerie Pringle, arrived with a smile and lovely down-to-earth manner, telling us that she knew how complicated these kinds of events were and that she was fine to look after herself while we managed the crowds and last minute details. Fortunately, other than a little glitch with the video and audio equipment, the evening progressed smoothly.
At 6:30, our wonderful MC for the evening, Ruth Unrau, began to call everyone to their seats, no small task with more than 650 attendees. As we began the program, the energy in the room was electric. Sponsors brought their greetings and our CMHA – Niagara Preident, Stuart Dorricott, one of a handful of men there, talked about his experiences trying to find assistance for a loved one dealing with a mental health crisis and the great importance of the event’s fundraising recipient, CMHA’s walk-in counselling service.
Next up, the local theatre group, Something Something Productions, performed their 3 women show. This production was the brainchild of Dina Mavridis, co-founder of the group with her partner Rob Burke. Best known for their amazing productions of The Rocky Horrors Show LIVE upstairs at Corks in Niagara-On-The-Lake, the company is also devoted to supporting the Niagara community by raising over $6,000 for local charities. When approached about performing at our W & W event, Dina went above and beyond expectations by reaching out to the women in Niagara, asking them to share their personal stories of mental illness from which she created the monologues that came to our stage. Dina, along with 2 other exceptional female performers brought this collaborative piece to life: stories of bi-polar disorder, post-partum depression, abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder; the shame resulting from the stigma of mental illness, the pain that makes living feel intolerable; and, most important, the hope of support, help, and recovery. There were few dry eyes at the end of their delivery as we all connected at the heart, thinking about our own struggles and those of our friends and family members.
The break that followed allowed individuals time to chat, donate, bid on the silent auction, and buy tickets for our penny sale and raffle. I was able to catch up with my friends in the audience before returning to my seat for the main attraction: Valerie Pringle. True to her broadcaster roots, Valerie’s delivery was flawless – easy and conversational. She spoke of her involvement with CAMH after her husband’s former law partner, Michael Wilson, lost his son to suicide. She recounted her own daughter, Catherine’s struggle with panic and anxiety disorder. She described her own growth and education as a caregiver for a family member living with mental illness. She stressed hope and recovery and the importance of treatment like the walk-in counselling service. It was an honour and a pleasure to listen to her speak.
The night drew to a close with the announcement of raffle winners and the final tally of funds raised from the evening. As our Chair, Karla, approached the podium, Valerie leaned over to me with a pledge form and said she had forgotten to hand hers in to the donation desk. As we were very close to our goal for that evening of $15,000, I ran up the stairs to the stage waiving Valerie’s donation. Karla casually asked if there were any more donations not yet received and to our astonishment, members of the audience began to rise and approach the stage with bundles of pledge envelopes. We had so many that we couldn’t count them all before concluding the night. Suffice it to say that we exceeded our target !
In what seemed like no time at all, it was over. Our months of planning had resulted in a night we were all proud of and, though exhausted, the clean up crew beamed with satisfaction as we packed up for another year. I am privileged to work with such exceptional women on the W & W committee. Together, we make a positive difference in our community. Even before we closed our eyes for a well earned night’s sleep, the emails were already circulating about next years’ event: who we would consider for the keynote; could we increase our numbers to 1000 participants; and how else might we make next year’s evening even better. Look out Niagara, W & W 2017 will knock your socks off!
[Our final tally for the evening was $18,000 in addition to pre-event sales and sponsors for an overall total of $48,000 before expenses. For our 6 years of Women and Wellness: more than 2,300 women in attendance and over $170,000 gross revenues.]
Next up: Coldest Night of the Year walk for Start Me Up Niagara