Building a Stronger Community

Eight Durham women raise $600,000 for community charities

TOStar_pic.jpgThe eight women who make up the volunteer group, Hearts of Durham, have raised close to $600,000 for charity since they teamed up eight years ago. Clockwise from left around the table: Leslie McLean, Sherry McTavish, Sian Gibson, Kira Keast, Julie Dunn, Kelly Semeniuk, Kelli Preston and Nicole Menary.


Carola Vyhnak Special to the Star  -  Published On Mon Apr 24, 2012

Someone has a beef with meatloaf.

It’s not suitable fare for a charity banquet, she protests.

But it’s high-end, gourmet meatloaf, another counters.

And it fits the ’70s theme, a third voice pipes up.

Menu quibbles aside, there’s one thing all eight women agree on: the moment they knew their volunteer efforts were making a difference in the community.

It was three years ago when the Durham Children’s Aid Society was thanking them for their $85,000 cheque, which meant that “no child will be left behind” from attending summer camp that year.

“We were all in tears,” recalls Leslie McLean, a founding member of Hearts of Durham, They’re a group of women who gathered around a Whitby dining room table seven years ago to decide they wanted to make the region a better place.

“We were all young moms with kids,” explains Kelly Semeniuk. “We wanted to take an active role in the community.”

That year they held a dance to help a struggling cancer support centre. They set the bar at $10,000, hoping to gather 100 friends willing to each buy a $100 ticket. The turnout topped 250 to raise $24,000.

Since then, their grass-roots campaign to boost a different local charity each year has soared. By the end of their signature annual gala this Saturday, they will have raised almost $500,000 since 2005.

But dollars don’t tell the whole story behind the dynamos who juggle charity work around full-time jobs raising children or pursuing a paid profession.

Together, they’ve found a way to reach the hearts of regular folks, business leaders and corporate bigwigs like Ontario Power Generation and Veridian energy company, which have been sponsors from the beginning.

“They appreciate that we’re 100 per cent volunteers,” says nurse Julie Dunn.

“There’s nothing for any of us to benefit from,” adds lawyer Kelli Preston.

Everyone brings a different talent to the table. One’s a marketing whiz, another’s an event-planning expert and still others are cyberspace social butterflies, able to sell four tables at the gala in two hours of tweeting.

Networking is one of their not-so-secret weapons. It was through connections that five business people agreed to each raise $10,000 for the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada,, this year’s beneficiary. And it’s through word of mouth that their raffles, fashion shows and golf tournaments keep topping up charity coffers.

But the Hearts don’t beat their own drum.

“It isn’t about the eight women,” says founding member and professional fundraiser Sian Gibson. “Hearts are a tool the community can use to make a difference.”

Now the women are teaching their combined 19 children how to give back. One youngster collected $700 in pennies while another forfeited a birthday party in favour of philanthropy.

After Saturday’s event at the Deer Creek Golf and Banquet Facility in Ajax, close to a dozen children with life-threatening illnesses will have their wishes fulfilled, including a request for a Yorkshire terrier and a chance to meet Mickey Mouse at Disney World.

“We’re just thrilled to have been selected,” says Sandra Harris, the foundation’s Ontario region director. “What they’re doing is not only raising funds to grant wishes but raising the profile of Children’s Wish in Durham.”

The Hearts deflect credit for the gala’s success to community partners who are donating wine, décor, posters, gift bags, entertainment, deejay services and $13,000 worth of items for the silent auction.

These days the dining table’s still in use as charities take turns making a 45-minute pitch for the Hearts’ services.